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Humpback Whales, Orcas, and the Unpredictable Magic of Wildlife Photography | Guest Post by Paul Nicklen

Orca Photograph | Copyright Paul Nicklen Photography
December 6, 2023

This is a guest post by WWSG thought leader, Paul Nicklen. All images are copyrighted. To purchase Paul’s work, visit his website.

Most of my shoots are planned months, sometimes even years in advance. I spend that time consulting local experts, checking the weather, anticipating lighting conditions, and plotting the logistics of reaching often remote and inaccessible regions. After forming a vision of the kind of photographs and compositions that would tell a compelling story, I finally set out to fulfill that vision. Most of the time, I fail. Occasionally, I succeed. Then there are the shoots in which all of the forces of nature align in a split second to create an entirely unforeseen moment of pure serendipity. During an assignment in which I was charged with photographing and filming orcas, I had an unexpected brush of luck that resulted in one of my all-time favourite images. The January sun never fully crested the horizon, even by midday. Instead, its feeble rays basked northern Norway’s fjords in golds and reds before reverting back to twilight in the span of a few hours. Working through the polar dark, my team and I set out in a small Zodiac, bobbing like a cork in the freezing Arctic waters. We squinted at the giant swells around us and tried to keep steady as the wind roared over the surf. At first, I could barely discern the distant shapes rising and vanishing off in the distance. Finally, as we drew farther away from the coast, the first clear dorsal sliced through the water like a sail, followed by the clearing of a blowhole. Several fins appeared in its wake, towering over the waves before disappearing again. At the heart of the commotion, a sudden mass of flashing scales formed against the surface. The orcas were packing a bait ball of herring by cornering the fish against the sea air, coordinating with one another in a highly strategic hunt. Every move the hunters made was perfectly calculated and communicated, spurring their quarry into a tightly wound cluster.

Humpback Whale | Copyright Paul Nicklen Photography
Megaptera | Tonga, 2019 | Once driven to near-extinction, humpback whale populations have been making a comeback across the world in both the northern and southern hemispheres. © Paul Nicklen Photography


© Paul Nicklen Photography


© Paul Nicklen Photography

I kept my camera trained on the surface, ready to press the shutter and catch the moment the orcas finally feasted on the fruits of their labour. There was a sudden surge as a giant silhouette crashed through the water, prompting all the cameras on board to turn towards the splash – only it was not an orca. Instead, a very large and very clever humpback whale swept through the panicked fish with its mouth wide open. It moved so fast that I barely had time to react. I held the shutter on my camera as I raised it to my eye, shooting blindly and hoping to catch its vanishing tail. Then, the moment was over before I could even register that it had begun. It was not until later when I finally had a chance to review my card, that I saw the image. Not only had I managed to catch the humpback whale’s tail by some sheer miracle, but it was in sharp focus. A crisp cascade of seawater, sharp as glass, peeled away from the fluke just as it turned to slice the inky surface. It was well-composed, well-timed, and, above all, born from a moment of pure spontaneity.

Whale | Copyright Paul Nicklen Photography
Antarctic Veil | Antarctica, 2017 | The wide fluke of a humpback whale flags high above the inky waters against the fiery orange hues of the Antarctic sky. © Paul Nicklen Photography

I have met countless photographers over the course of my life, many of them novices striking out for the first time with their cameras in hand and bags full of new gear. Most of them give up after a couple of failed trips, returning home feeling defeated. When your job is to essentially fail 95% of the time, it can be difficult to stay positive. But that 95% is never a wasted effort. If anything, it is a mark of success. The forces of nature rarely converge in the right place at the right time, but if you give up and go home, then you are guaranteed to miss your window. Luck is a lightning strike that can only find you when you are already hard at work doing what you love. So keep at it until your moment arrives. Wishing you the very best of luck, Paul Nicklen

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