Essays / s /

DF Photography Update: 4/28/14

Big changes to the site have been made in the past week with the addition of the online store and the facebook page (cringing as we speak writing that) along with a few other Google+ things I plan on largely ignoring seeing as how Google+ is useless and obnoxious. So I guess it's like me in a way...

As for the photos in the gallery and the online store I apologize for the need to use watermarks, unfortunately image theft runs rampant and in order to protect the good pictures I take I have to do it, I can assure you that prints purchased from the store won't have the watermark, and that I will continue to add smaller watermarks to the galleries on the main page so that the image can be protected without being too egregious.

Thank you to both of the people who look at this section of the site for your support and understanding.

Finding Whales Requires Nothing Fancy

As a whale watcher, be it as an experienced passenger or as a crew member, you get the question frequently from people as to what type of machine is used to detect the wild animals. It's an innocent enough question, but one that can reveal the expectations of the person posing the question once they learn that whale watching tours do not generally use any sort of special machine to track and find whales. Most people are pretty accepting of the truth (that there's nothing better than a good pair of binoculars) but some people instantly become nervous and/or shocked when they find out that they are out there on the ocean with no assurance of seeing anything!

One of the more experienced boat captains I have ever met related to me a tale of a person who wanted a high-end sonar that could potentially detect dolphins and whales that I find very effective to paraphrase in order to relate to people most effectively. I try to word it something like this:

"If you wanted to buy a sonar that could track the location of animals, your first obstacle is an approximately $250,000 price tag at minimum. If you have that kind of cash available and want to proceed you then get a nice call from the FBI wondering why you are interested in anti-submarine warfare. After all that, if you are still interested and can pass a very thorough background check, you run into the problem that high powered sonars will at the very least annoy dolphins and whales and at worst, injure or kill them."

Obviously you have to do your best to avoid sounding rude, because not everyone knows of the detrimental effects high powered sonar has on these animals. But it gets the message across very effectively. I'll also field questions about fish-finders and the truth is that those machines will only tell you what was under your boat a second or two ago and aren't useful for tracking animals unless they are staying right directly under the boat.

There are a couple of things that a boat can do with higher technology. If you know that a whale is following a certain ocean contour a depth sounder would help you track that animal's movements, and a fish finder could help you locate whatever it is the animals are feeding on. If you know what you are exactly listening for, and you have animals that are singing, a hydrophone (underwater microphone) could be useful, but it's limited.  The truth however is that a good pair of binoculars and some training on what to look for are your best assets.  Maybe a tripod mounted sighting scope if you are spotting from shore but I wouldn't recommend those on a boat.  Just as important, if not more important, is training and experience.  As you gain more experience, you will learn to recognize species of whales by the shape of their spout, their dive profile, and coloration.  You may even find that you don't use binoculars much because of how they affect your peripheral vision, though they are an important tool.

Visibility is obviously a factor, but you are relying on other senses as well.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to be able to hear your surroundings, especially in fog, because the powerful spout of a whale can sometimes be enough to track animals.  The spout, in the right conditions, will also reveal the scent of the whale's breath and reveal even more clues.  Blue Whales, which only eat Krill, have a very distinctive breath that I can only describe as a plate of peeled shrimp that has been lying out in the sun for a few hours.  Fish eating whales, such as the Minke Whale, will give off a smell similar to that of whatever fish they have been eating, especially if its anchovies.  Yes, it is possible for a human being to "sniff out" a whale in the fog!

There is one thing that I haven't yet mentioned, and that is patience.  The reason many people on whale watching trips ask about sonar and other equipment is because of excitement and anticipation.  It is hard to hear that, even on a beautiful day with no wind, there are no animals in sight.  I think the key is to channel the worrisome energy of impatience and focus it instead on searching, it eases the nerves and makes the overall search more productive.  Most boats will only have a captain and one or two crew, which means every additional pair of eyes is an asset regardless of experience.  Passengers play a key role because even an animal jumping out of the water can be missed if nobody is looking that direction.  

The important thing to remember is that the ocean is constantly changing in ways we cannot always readily perceive.  Whale watching is not simply about seeing the dolphins and whales, but also about seeing all the animals in the ecosystem, the weather, and the conditions of the sea.  Everything comes together to make each encounter as unique as it can possibly be.  I personally believe that nature gives greater rewards to those who do not let expectations overshadow the experience.