It’s been more than a year and a half since my last beach vacation (Dubrovnik, Croatia), so I was looking forward to doing absolutely nothing for a week in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, this January. Of all the activities that the tourist agencies bombarded me with, the only one of any interest to me was the Whale Photo Safari, as it was an opportunity to take photos of wild animals in their natural habitats.

Humpback whales spend most of the year in the cold waters of Alaska, but every winter, they migrate south for breeding; some end up around Hawaii, but most go to Mexico. Seeing all the photos on the brochures, I thought to myself, if I could get just one photo like this, it would be worth it. So, here it is.

Humpback Whale, Banderas Bay, Mexico

Humpback Whale, Banderas Bay, Mexico

Let it be said right away that your chances of getting a good photo at this excursion are minimal and greatly depend on a few key factors, with reaction speed as a common denominator. First, if all you have is an iPhone or a point-and-shoot that takes forever to snap a picture, you better just put it away. Catching a photo of the whales (or dolphins) as they breach the water is an exercise in futility, because you have a window of about a second and have absolutely no warning. Further, even if you have a fairly decent lens on your dSLR, it helps if you also have a fast continuous shooting mode; the photo here is the second in a series of 8 that my Canon 7D fired off in only one second. The others are almost unusable, despite sharp focus and a shutter speed of 1/400 sec. This is because, in addition to all the other challenges, the boat you’re on swings violently on the massive waves of the open ocean.

Whale, 100% crop

In other words, you have to have the camera ready at all times, and scan the waters around you constantly, fighting the motion sickness caused by looking through the mercilessly unsteady viewfinder. And if you’re lucky enough to grab the photo, you won’t care that your horizon isn’t level or that your boat was in a less-than-ideal spot and most of the whale is in shadow and you can’t see well the intricate details on its rugged skin, covered with barnacles and other growth. You’ll be happy that you didn’t puke your guts out and that you enjoyed a truly “Wow!” moment in your life.

As a bonus shot, here’s another whale breaching a little farther away; however, I cropped the photo to about a 100% so it only appears closer. Notice that the angle is a little more fortunate, so the grooves of the underbelly become more visible.