Photographing the ‘Serengeti of the Sea’

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Douglas Croft uses his Tamron 18-400mm VC HLD zoom lens to capture the diverse marine life in Monterey Bay.

For the first 15 years that Douglas Croft lived in San Jose, he had no idea that Monterey Bay existed. Then, about eight years ago, he went on a whale-watching tour, and he was hooked. Since then, he’s served as a volunteer on the Whale Entanglement Team with the Marine Life Studies group, working to rescue large marine mammals that get caught in fishing gear and marine debris. He also works several times a week with Blue Ocean Whale Watch, which leaves out of Moss Landing Harbor to take spectators to see whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine life.

Douglas says his experiences in these local waters have been eye-opening. “Monterey Bay is such a vibrant ecosystem that it really boggles the mind,” he says. “I went to Africa twice, and then I came home and discovered the Serengeti of the sea was right there in my backyard. The first time I saw a whale breach from a boat, I didn’t even remember I had a camera in my hand until it had splashed down; I was in such awe. It still awes me like that. I’ve since seen hundreds of whale breaches, but it never gets old, and it’s almost always surprising, because you never know where or when it’s going to happen.”

That surprise factor is what’s drawn Douglas to the Tamron 18-400mm lens for his adventures on the water. “That’s what makes this lens outstanding,” he says. “Because you often can’t anticipate where or when photo-worthy moments are going to happen, if a breach starts happening 200 yards from the boat, I can zoom out to 400mm and be right on it. Then, if something takes place right next to the boat, I can pull back in. It’s such a versatile lens. Plus the autofocus is awesome, and it’s a light-enough lens that I can shoot all day with it. The moisture-resistant construction is handy as well, since we go out on the boat even if it’s raining—the whales are out no matter what.”

Although participants on his whale-watching tours are able to see whales 365 days a year on Monterey Bay, some species are seasonal. “Humpback whales, for example, are migratory,” Douglas explains. “We usually have them up here from early April through November. Then most of them head down to Mexico to the breeding and birthing waters.”

Gray whales, like the mother and calf Douglas captured playing in the kelp by Big Sur, are seen in the fall and in the spring. “These two were doing their migration past Monterey,” he says. “When they’re not here, they’re either down in Baja in the birthing lagoons or they’re up toward Alaska feeding. The gray whales swim very close to the cliffs along Big Sur, because they want to avoid killer whales—swimming close to the cliffs reduces their acoustic signature so the killer whales can’t hear them. So if you’re on the cliffs, you can look straight down on them. On the day I captured this photo, the water was really clear, and there was a lot of kelp hanging around in the kelp forest because there hadn’t been any storms in some time. These whales got right in there.”

400mm, F/6.3, 1/400th sec., ISO 1250

Although Douglas doesn’t consider himself an expert on animal behavior, he’s learned some tricks to anticipate better what’s going to happen on the water. “There are always clues on what the animals are going to do,” he says. “Sometimes a whale will breach completely out of the blue, but a lot of times, if they do it once, they’ll do it again. And so you watch that area. On the humpback whale you see breaching here, that whale easily breached 50 times over the hour we were watching. I had plenty of opportunity to try and grab a photo.”

300mm, F/11, 1/1000th sec., ISO 400

The lunge-feeding humpback whales Douglas often photographs have their own particular “tell.” “If we see congregations of diving birds, we know that schooling fish are near the surface,” he says. “And if whales are in the area, the likelihood is that they’re going to feed close to the surface. So if you see where the birds are diving, you can anticipate the whales will come up right where those birds are.”

240mm, F/11, 1/800th sec., ISO 400

Even if you know what the marine animals may do, you still don’t know when it’s going to happen. “It always takes your breath away,” Douglas says. “You can only somewhat anticipate it and be zoomed in to where you think you’ll see some action, with your finger on the trigger. My hands get so sore after a day on the water, because they’re clenched on the camera all day.” 

If he at least knows what side of the boat most of the action is happening on, Douglas will seek out other vantage points. “During the lunge feeding, I actually took one of my shots here from down below, out the bathroom window,” he says. “It reduced my field of view a bit, but it put me nearly at water level, giving me a low perspective that almost makes it appear I’m shooting up at them.”

400mm, F/11, 1/640th sec., ISO 400

Each of the species Douglas photographs boasts its own personality. Risso’s dolphins, for example, are quite businesslike. “They don’t come up to the boat like the other dolphin species,” Douglas says. “If they’re going somewhere, they’re going somewhere, and you have to keep up. On the day I took this atypical photo, they were leaping out of the water and surfing on the swell—it was so out of character, so this remains one of my favorite pictures.”

400mm, F/11, 1/1000th sec., ISO 400

Pacific white-sided dolphins, on the other hand, are always extremely playful. “They’ll stop eating to rush over to the boat,” Douglas says. “They’re very agile, acrobatic dolphins. I’ve got pictures of them doing backflips over and over.”

62mm, F/11, 1/640th sec., ISO 400

The humpback whales, meanwhile, are the most active of all the animals Douglas photographs. “They have so much personality,” he says. “If you’re watching the National Geographic channel and see a whale breaching, 99 times out of 100 it’s a humpback. They have a charisma about them, like the humpback I photographed from the bathroom window.”

Douglas usually keeps his camera in continuous burst mode and uses 25-point focus. “I keep the focus locked in the center, because with my face right up to the viewfinder, a lot of times my nose or some other part of my face keeps hitting the button, and I’ll end up with my focus points off to the side or on the bottom,” he says. “I also use back-button focus most of the time. Because of the 18-400’s super-fast focusing, I rarely miss shots. It’s really the perfect lens for being out on the boat.”

Because there’s constant movement on the water, Douglas takes advantage of the Vibration Compensation on the 18-400 and tries to stabilize himself by leaning against the cabin, or kneeling and keeping his arms in tight, bracing against his body. “It’s a little difficult at times,” he says. “Lately the whales have been out past the edge of the bay, so we have to go out 14 miles or so, and then we’re in the open ocean, which is choppy. I have a lot of pictures of just the top of a whale or bottom of a whale, because I can’t always compensate for the motion. That’s why I like to use a high-enough shutter speed so that the movement won’t be as much of an issue.”

Other times, Douglas is gifted with still waters. “In the photo you see here of the stampeding common dolphins, we call that ‘dolphin water,’ because it’s like a smooth mirror,” he says. “On this day, when we spotted a super pod, the water was so calm it was like being in a bathtub. These dolphins started moving away from us, so I just shot on continuous burst and kept trying to capture as many of them out of the water as I could at any given time.”

116mm, F/11, 1/1250th sec., ISO 400

There are ethical parameters Douglas and his shipmates abide by, both under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and by their own standards. “For example, the law says we have to stay 100 yards away from the whales, though that’s on us—the whales don’t follow those regulations,” he says. “When we get to where the whales are, we’ll position the boat a distance from them and put it in neutral. But then sometimes they’ll approach the boat and completely surround us. We call those ‘the friendlys.’ It’s the coolest thing you’ve ever seen. At that point, we can’t start the props up and motor away. We also never cut their path off if we can, and we don’t approach from behind them. We want them to be comfortable with us.”

Douglas notes that, although he loves capturing these marine creatures with his camera, sometimes the experience of witnessing them up close transcends the picture-taking. “The other day we had a mom come by the boat with her calf,” he says. “At first the calf breached, completely out of the blue. Then, not even a full second later, as he was splashing down, the mom breached. I missed that whole thing with my camera, but I didn’t miss it. It’s in my brain, and that’s where it belongs.”

Check out the full Tamron lineup here.

See more of Douglas Croft’s work on his website. Images Copyright Douglas Croft. Written by Jenn Gidman.

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