Orcas. An Arctic fairytale of whales (which are actually big dolphins)

By Tommy Simonsen – Northern Norway, January 2017.

The air is crisp and cold, and the light is about to break as we speed through the strait, heading north. We freeze a little in our yellow safety suits; we are after all in an open boat hurtling through the winter darkness at 69”N. The 12 meter long black R.I.B. (rigid inflatable boat) is perfect for these arctic waters, and the feeling of cold doesn’t bother us too much on our way to a great annual adventure: the Arctic Orca Safari!

The dark season is about to come to an end at these latitudes. The region has been engulfed in darkness and passing winter storms since the end of November, when the sun broke above the horizon for the last time. The further north you get, the longer the darkness lasts. Today we got a vague sort of daylight between 11.00 and 13:30.

I have been tracking the weather forecast, and noted that the clouds are supposed to clear around this time. As the sun is about to make a return, that is an extra reward, whether or not we find any orcas. At this time of the year, sky at the top of the world turns a special shade of pastel pink.

Orcas and other whales arrive in the northern coast of Troms county from the end of October to February. They follow the large shoals of herring that come from the open waters into the fjords. Herring is food, so where there is herring, there are whales.


After an hour the R.I.B. suddenly slows down. It lies quietly in the water, with snow covered mountains rising in the distance. The light has turned an intense yellow in the southern sky, and in the north, deep blue has given way to pastel pink.

P-Tchhh!  I look around; it’s close.

 

P-TCHHH!!!

 

It’s really close!

 

An orca pops up right next to our R.I.B., exhaling explosively, filling the air with the smell of digested fish.

There’s nothing like the smell of herring in the morning!

As the light gets stronger, we realize that it is a large family group we have found. A shoal of herring is present, and the family is in hunt mode, ignoring us completely. They work like a wolf pack, confusing the fish by blowing bubbles, working to keep the panicked herring close to the surface and then barrel through them, filling their great mouths with stunned prey. It is clamour and carnage on the surface, with seagulls and sea eagles swooping in to join the feeding frenzy. Pods of orcas zigzag, coming right towards the R.I.B., dorsal fins slicing the water.

P-Tchhh!
Orcas are everywhere. They dive under us, emerging on the other side of the boat. Close by us. Far away from us. Everywhere. It’s intense. I remind myself to breathe, to not forget why I am here.

To get extraordinary pictures.


How I create my orca pictures from a boat

Type of boat

I prefer to work from a small boat, so I can shoot from lower angles. But remember: salt water is certain death to your expensive electronic camera. It is extremely important to pack your gear in a waterproof Ortlieb, Lowepro or similar bag of another brand. And I mean really waterproof! If you’re not used to shooting from a small boat, keep the bag properly closed during transport. Learn to read the waves and how the boat responds to them. The waves might not splash you from the front, but come at you from the sides, or elsewhere unexpected.

When you use your camera, keep the bag closed. And NEVER leave the bag unattended on the boat deck. When I need to, I cover the camera under my arm or in a plastic bag when I wait for something to happen. Don’t put the camera against your body under the jacket. Remember it’s cold outside, and you are warm. When you take your camera out again, the lens and viewfinder will fog up.

Keep your gear cold. Only spare batteries should be kept warm in your inner pockets. On a trip like this, you should bring several batteries.


Position in the boat

Where you sit on an R.I.B. during a tour is important. If you occupy a front seat in the bow, you get a wide, panoramic view with no obstructions. But the bow gets the worst beating from the chop, and is also the one position where you are almost guaranteed to get wet if the sea is anything but calm.

On an R.I.B. during a whale safari, I prefer a seat at the rear, as close to the pilot / guide as possible. It makes communication easier, and is also the place where the boat’s rail is at its lowest, so I can lean over the side in calmer conditions, to get the lowest angle possible. Capturing whales high above the horizon line adds to the drama of my images.


Cameras and settings

I have two FUJIFILM X-T2 camera bodies with two 32 or 64GB SD cards in each. One with the XF50-140mmF2.8 WR on it, and the other with the XF16-55mmF2.8 WR.

Both bodies and lenses are weather sealed, which is necessary because you get a little wet working around waves and whales, and this equipment can take some some sea water without damage. And I always have the ever important, absorbent microfiber lens cloth. I have a couple of them in different pockets, so I can switch when one of them gets too wet.

The X-T2’s tilt screen is one of the reasons it is my preferred field camera. It’s perfect for shots at lower angles, especially with the vertical tilt for portrait oriented images.

Shutter speed and reaction time are vital to shooting whales. I prefer 1/2000 sec. If the sea is rough, shutter speed has to come up. All of these shots were made under lower lighting conditions, so my shutter speed varied from 1/500 to 1/1000 sec at ISO 1600 to 2500 in all of them. Imagine how the colors would have turned out at ISO 200? Fast lenses are certainly critical in these conditions.

Responsive auto focus is also important. I often use “single point” or “Zone” AF mode, normally on Single or Continuous tracking focus. Typically, I use “CL” or “CH” burst modes for whales. The AF point joystick is most important to me for quick composing and shooting.

 


Don’t forget to have fun

Remember to put your camera down once in a while. These Arctic orca safaris have a special place in my heart. I work very hard on these trips, but remind myself to put my cameras away sometimes, to fully enjoy the spectacle of these magnificent creatures in action.

Thanks for coming along on this Arctic journey with me.

Tommy


Arctic Orca facts

  • The Orca is the largest of whales in the dolphin family, and like most other dolphin species, they live in social groups.
  • There are about 3000 orcas in the Norwegian and Barents Seas.
  • Females can be up to 7.7 meters, and weigh 3.8 tons, with an average life expectancy of 50 years, and a maximum of 80-90 years. After being pregnant for 15-18 months, a female gives birth in the late autumn to a 2.3 meter long calf that weights about 200Kg.
  • Males can be up to 9 meters, and weigh 5.5 tons, with an average life expectancy of 30 years, and a maximum of 50-60 years. The dorsal fin is much larger on males.
  • They live in family groups of females and calves, with only one or few adult males.
  • Each group seems to have their own dialect for communicating.
  • Orcas often collaborate to capture prey, which can be small fish like herring, or the large species like other whales. They have been observed herding fish into tight corrals, while other members of the group swim into its midst, stunning the fish with their tails to make feeding more efficient.

Facts source: Norwegian Polar Institute.


 

Chasing the Wind – Les Voiles de St Tropez

by Simon Weir

At the start of a new year I often find myself looking back over the shoots from the preceding 12 months and in 2014 one in particular stands out: Les Voiles de Saint Tropez.

Les Voiles – literally “The Sails” – take place from April to October across the French riviera. Each race brings together some of the most beautiful traditional wooden yachts alongside the most extraordinary modern sailing boats for a week long regatta in beautiful ports such as Antibes and Saint-Tropez.

My good friend and fellow Fuji user Serge Krougikoff who runs Create-Away, a photography workshop company based in the south of France, has been talking about running a trip based around the regattas for some time and when he suggested we get together try it out I didn’t hesitate to say yes! We first teamed up with professional skipper Francois in Antibes in June and the trip was such a success that we agreed to do a second test-trip in Saint-Tropez in October.

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Nestled between Cannes and Marseille the picturesque medieval port of Saint-Tropez would be stunning even without the boats. When you add some of the worlds finest vintage and classic yachts it becomes a feast of varnish and brass.

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On shore there is a party atmosphere throughout the regatta but out on the water is where the action happens and where the photographic excitement begins.  Picture this: The south of France in the autumn sunshine, racing across the bay of Saint-Tropez in the shadow of Elena under full sail – trust me – life doesn’t get much better than this!

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The original Elena, built in 1910 and winner of the Trans-Atlantic Race in 1928, was one of the greatest racing yachts of her time and this stunning replica, built in 2009 is one of the largest yachts in the regatta with a length of 41.6m (136′) and a crew of 30 – some of whom clearly have nerves of steel…

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Under full sail she is quite simply magnificent – a true queen of the seas.

But it is when you are close to her you really feel the power and the majesty of a great racing yacht.

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These black & white images are taken with my infrared modified Fuji X-E1IR and the XF14mm lens – infrared really brings out the drama in some of these shots, especially when the clouds form interesting patterns that compliment the sails.

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All the colour images are taken with Fuji’s brilliant X-T1 and their weather resistant, optically stabilised XF18-135mm lens.  This was the perfect choice for shooting from a RIB where most of the time you are being bounced around and covered in sea spray – it was certainly a good test for the camera’s weather proofing and it didn’t let me down.  The OIS in this lens is staggeringly good allowing sharp shots almost regardless of how fast the RIB was going, and the wide range of focal lengths is perfect for a shooting situation where changing lenses is simply not an option…

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Technically, this kind of shooting is really challenging.  The light changes all the time, depending on whether you are shooting towards or away from the sun, and I found the live histogram in the viewfinder of both cameras invaluable in ensuring that highlight details were properly captured – both in the sails and the sky.  Some of my favourite images place the sun shining through the sails bringing out tremendous detail in the canvas and rigging.

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Most of the time I was shooting in shutter priority mode, keeping the shutter speed at around 1/350sec – fast enough to allow sharp images even with the RIBs motion.  Focus was left to the camera with continuous tracking AF working flawlessly on the X-T1 even at 8 frames per second – no mean feat when the acton was changing so fast.

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Amidst the excitement of this shoot it is all too easy to forget composition and just hit the shutter in the heat of the moment but it is really important to take the time to plan and conceive a shot before it happens. Our skipper Francois is hugely experienced and was able to position the RIB exactly where we asked him to get a specific shot, but always with the skill and safety of a professional captain, mindful of the fact that we were shooting in the middle of a race…

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In calmer moments we were able to capture details and abstract images of the yachts – shape, form, colour and line producing patterns and textures that tell a story of their own.

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And occasionally when the wind just didn’t blow the crews had a chance to rest as well…

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At the end of the day, exhausted and exhilarated we return back to Saint-Tropez as the light faded and the evenings celebrations began…

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For details of the two “Les Voiles” workshops Serge and I are running in 2015 follow these links:

Voiles d’Antibes – 2nd to 6th June 2015

Voiles de Saint-Tropez – 29th September to 3rd October 2015

and for more about the other workshops run by Create-Away visit their website at
www.create-away.com

 


simon weirAbout Simon

Fujifilm X-Photographer Simon Weir specialises in photographing live performance (particularly classical music), contextual portraiture and nature. To see more of his work, check out his website http://www.simonweir.com/

 

Taking the X-T1 into the deep blue

Just to make it clear, I am not an underwater photographer. I have dabbled in it from time to time in locations of incredible marine life, such as snorkelling around coral reefs. The North Sea has a high abundance of marine life and the coast of Penzance is one of two places that you can consistently see blue sharks (the other is Cape Town). So when Danny Copeland, a fellow University of Sheffield Zoology graduate, spoke about his plan to go and see them with Charles Hood, a local charter skipper (http://charleshood.com), I jumped at the chance to join him.

Previously I have used DSLRs for underwater photography in a Ewa-Marine underwater housing. This time though I wanted to continue to push the X-T1 in difficult conditions so I put it in the same housing with the 10-24mm. Despite being dwarfed by the bag, the set up worked really well.

Thanks to Danny Copeland for this photo of me and the camera. Follow Danny on twitter to get the latest on underwater photography and marine conservation.

Ben Cherry XT1 underwater

Once we reached 10 miles out to sea we started chumming using mackerel heads (yum) to attract the sharks. Once they were in the area the four of us that went on the trip were able to slip into the water. Once I had checked the housing was sealed I swam around to find some subjects and came across this large jellyfish surrounded by lots of little fish. This example highlights the benefit of using a zoom lens underwater as I was able to get two very different perspectives using different focal lengths.

24mm

Blue Shark trip-6

10mmBlue Shark trip

Conditions were generally slightly overcast which actually meant there was a lovely soft light, which helped control the highlights that would have been a problem if it was a clear, sunny day. However this did mean that it was slightly dark in the water, even at the surface, so I shot at ISO 1600 to start and pushed this as the sediment levels rose throughout the day. Other settings I made sure I had set up on the boat were: continuous focus with focus priority, continuous high speed shooting (8fps), matrix metering and LCD only display. Generally I was using aperture f5.6 to strike a balance between a fast shutter speed and a good depth of field.

Because I was wearing a mask and the camera was in a housing I couldn’t utilise the wonderful EVF but instead found the LCD screen to be a great alternative. It allowed me to have a clear view of the shark(s) by not having my face to the camera and provided easy viewing of composition through the back of the camera. The advantage of the X-T1 is that I have not noticed any difference in focusing speeds between the EVF and LCD, which isn’t always the case. All of these factors meant that I could really take in this remarkable experience as one shark in particular became more and more inquisitive…

Rising out of the depth

Blue Shark trip-4

Coming in for a closer look

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Closer…

Blue Shark

Moments before bumping the lens!

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The camera only helped to make the experience more memorable, with the shark showing interest in it. With an animal like this it was so interesting to witness its intelligence and curiosity, the term ‘spaniels of the sea’ I feel is very apt. At one stage the shark photo-bombed a picture of Danny!

Shark photo-bomb

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Despite coming very close, it whole situation was very calm and meant that the interaction was an absolute joy. The shark even seemed to show a happy expression.

Playful shark

Blue Shark trip-2

Overall, the X-T1 and 10-24mm set up exceeded my expectations. I knew it would follow subjects well but I thought that shooting through water would probably lower the hit rate. However, the only factor that affected this was human error. With a specifically designed underwater housing, this camera and lens set up would be a brilliant choice for any underwater photographer, with its small size, clear controls and superb image quality.