INSIDE PASSAGE, Alaska — It was cold and wet as we stood on the bow of the Sea Lion cruise boat. We were idling off the coast of Chichagof Island in southeast Alaska. Earlier, a pod of humpback whales had been sighted by crew members, and we were on the lookout. It didn’t take long. “Breach!” someone shouted, pointing off starboard to a massive humpback rising out of the water. Cameras clicked as the whale disappeared into the gray, frigid water. “Breaching and fluking sometimes signal a change in behavior,” Cindy Manning, our expedition leader and naturalist, said. “Perhaps someone is leaving or joining the pod. Watch carefully. Look around.”
An amazing and rare thing began to happen. The whales, a dozen or so, gathered together, swimming in a tight circle. “This is extremely socialized behavior,” Manning said. “They’re working as a group to create a bubble curtain around the herring.” We watched as the water churned, hundreds of seagulls swarmed, and the whales rose up in unison, mouths gaping, catching pools of fish. The underwater specialist dropped a hydrophone into the bay, and we heard the scream of a whale just before the pod rose from the water. Manning told us there are about 7,000 humpback whales that come to feed in southeast Alaska, and only a few hundred of them participate in this bubble net feeding. “This group is an orchestra,” she said. “Anyone can bang out a tune, but these specialized whales are playing together in unison to pull off this spectacular show.”
Rich Reid, one of the on-board National Geographic photographers, suggested camera settings and film speed, but acknowledged that getting a good photo of this spectacle would take more than proper settings. We needed to watch and listen. “You have to anticipate. Look for signs, like the bubbles, the birds, the trumpeting noise of the whales as they trap the herring,” he said. “You have to connect with the animal and the setting.”
OK, the advice was a bit esoteric: Connect with the animal? But, it worked. We watched the amazing show for more than two hours, and eventually, we learned to read the signs, listen to the sounds, and sense the moment when the whales would rise out of the water in unison. “You need to read behavior to capture the shot,” Reid said. “And hope you catch the moment.” We got some pretty decent photos.
We were on a Lindblad photo expedition cruise in Alaska, with on-board National Geographic photographers and naturalists. For several days, we traveled the watery wilderness of the Inside Passage, attended end-of-day workshops and photo sessions, and photographed side-by-side with the ultra-experienced staff while we were hiking, kayaking, or cruising. The setting and wildlife were stunning, and as an extra bonus, we picked up a few photography tips along the way.
We were aboard expedition Zodiacs, boats with near sea-level views, as we worked our way to the face of South Sawyer glacier. We dodged the floating ice chunks, remnants from the actively calving glacier ahead of us. Harbor seals popped in and out of the water, and floated on nearby icebergs. Ribbons of water flowed down the cliff walls in the narrow ice-filled fjord.
We missed the first calving, a sizable chunk of ice sliding down into the 1,000-foot-deep sea, while we were looking another way. But we could hardly miss the next: a massive slide that splashed and thundered. “Don’t assume you’ve captured the moment. It may be coming,” said Jennifer Davidson, onboard naturalist and photographer, as we slipped our cameras back into protective dry bags. “You could think: This is the shot, but keep looking and keep shooting.” Moments later a towering diamond-shaped, vivid blue shard broke away from glacier, one of the largest calvings the staff has seen in some 20 years. From then on, we kept our cameras out and ready, and clicked away.
The setting in Glacier Bay National Park was almost overwhelming. The sun was brilliant. Hanging, tidewater glaciers flowed from giant ice fields. Snow-capped coastal mountains and spruce and hemlock forests lined the bays and inlets. We spotted mountain goats on craggy cliffs, pigeon guillemots resting on floating ice, and a bald eagle soaring above the trees. We heard the popping of ice.
“It’s difficult to judge size and depth in this grand landscape,” Davidson said as we slowly motored up the inlet to the Johns Hopkins Glacier. Her advice: Use lines to direct views (we shot the bow of the kayak in front of a waterfall). Move compositions and perspectives (shoot low, shoot high, put subjects off center). Use contrast to show the grandeur (we included people and boats next to the giant backdrop).
There were several opportunities to get off the boat for nature walks and mountain hikes. We walked along spawning salmon rivers, squishy bogs, and through colorful fishing villages. “It’s easy to get lost amidst this big landscape, but the little stuff can be stunning too,” Sharon Grainger, naturalist and photography instructor, said as we hiked through a soggy, mysterious muskeg (bog) along Petersburg Creek. The area was teeming with misty ferns, colorful lichen, contorted fungi, gnarly trunks and tree skeletons, and tiny berry bushes. Some of our favorite photos were close-ups of fishing nets, tackle, signs, docks, pilings, bugs, flowers, roots, ice, and more. In such a grand landscape, the details were equally stunning.
“One hundred people will look at the same scene and see and photograph something different,” Grainger said one night as we were sharing and reviewing photographs. We’d spent the day hiking bear trails along Pavlof River and cruising north through Chatham Strait. “A lot of what’s great about photography has nothing to do with settings. It’s about where you point the camera and when you push the button,” she said as we gazed at a remarkable array and diversity of images. “We see with all the experiences we’ve had in life.”
One morning we awoke to calm seas and still air. We were barely moving through the mirror-like water. No one else was around; we had the bay, flanked by mountains and forests, to ourselves. Or so we thought, until a pod of six killer whales surfaced yards from the boat. We heard the whish of breath as they surfaced, moving their massive, sleek bodies rhythmically, in and out of the water. For a few minutes, we kept our cameras silent. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply bask in the beauty and mystery of a place.
LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC 800-397-3348, www.expeditions.com.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.