There are many places in the world where you can see whales up close and take amazing photos but very few have a dense, wild rainforest as a backdrop. We are in Nuquí, in the region of El Chocó, on the Pacific coast of Colombia. When we found out this place existed we were over the moon. On the Lonely Planet, we read that August was the best month to see the whales. Perfect! After days spent figuring out how to reach this remote, wild place we were finally there, in one of the rainiest places on Earth with one goal in mind: photographing whales. If you want to know how to get there, where to stay and more travel info, read our Guide to El Chocó.
Once there we found out that all you need to do to see the whales is to sit on the beach! Amazing, right? For a closer encounter, we asked the locals – no booking – and a few minutes later we were on a boat (max. 10 people). A three-hour whale watching trip costs 100.000 COP (20 euro) per person. The scenery was so inspiring. A strip of coffee-coloured sand marks the transition between the rainforest and the calm waters of the Pacific. The vegetation, cut by thick banks of fog, extends as far as the eye can see becoming one with the horizon.
Despite the light being flat and grey, I couldn’t help myself and every time a fin poked out of the water I snapped a sequence of shots. With me, for the day, I had the Sony α9 (incredibly fast when talking about continuous shooting, up to 20fps). The Sony lenses 24-70mm and 70-200mm were also in my bag to make sure all distances were covered, along with the 2x teleconverter to extend the focal length to an impressive 400mm. What I didn’t know is that the whales are so close to the boat that the 24-70mm was in most cases enough. Every year hundreds of humpback whales leave Antarctica to reach the warm waters of the Colombian Pacific. A journey of eight thousand kilometres to reach shallow, safe bays to give birth. Here they spend their time playing undisturbed with the newborns and their curious nature bringing them very close to the boats.
Keep reading to find out the best tips for photographing whales, but first I want to share my favourite images of this adventure!
Read more about EL CHOCÓ: THE LOST PARADISE OF COLOMBIA
Here are some tips to photographing whales on the Pacific coast of Colombia:
Focus. Choose continuous autofocus and lock it on your subject. In this way, the camera will track and follow every movement of the whale. The most challenging part is to centre the focus point as soon as the whale starts moving.
Shutter speed. If you want to freeze a whale jumping out of the water don’t forget to set your shutter speed to 1/400 or even 1/500.
Polarizing filter. It will avoid the reflection or glare of light reflecting off the water and will allow you to ‘partially’ see the whale underneath the water as well. Beware that a polarizing filter will underexpose the image of one-stop forcing you to either increase the ISO or reduce the shutter speed.
Rain. This is one of the rainiest places on Earth. Going on a whale watching trip early in the morning you will most likely find better weather however don’t forget to bring something to cover the camera while you shoot. The weather changes quickly and 3 hours on a boat are a long time. We also had a waterproof bag with us.
Bonus tip. After the boat ride clean the camera with a humid cloth to get rid of any salt, sand, dust etc. The sea salt can damage your camera!