I went to Cancun to sharpen my photography skills learning from acclaimed shooter Amanda Cotton. I didn’t realize I would also have a whale shark encounter I would never forget. I was sceptical because at the time Holbox was supposed to be the ultimate whale shark spot and I had been there the year before. I could not have been more wrong.
We set out at sunrise with tales from the day before of dozens of whale sharks and visions of “you should have been here yesterday” locked in my future. It didn’t take long before we were surrounded by whale sharks. Dorsal fins, tails and snouts were piercing the surface in all directions. They were feeding at the surface, slowly filtering out water for their precious prey.
I dawned my suit as the captain gave the orders, we enter the water 2 person for every guide and 4 people in the water at a time. We would go out in 15 minute shifts trying to capture the beauty of these animals. I jumped over the side and started swimming at the nearest shark. I snapped a couple of shots as she swam towards me, then started swimming along with her. I was so transfixed that I didn’t notice the other shark coming at me ramming into my side. It totally shocked me and set the tone for the next 4 hours. You really had to have your head on a swivel; the sharks were coming from all directions. It was pretty funny to see some of the other freedivers hanging out in the water, oblivious to the 40 foot shark cruising just feet away.
The next day was more of the same, that is to say it was one of the most amazing days of my life! More whale sharks than we could count in clear, warm, blue water. We saw them as small as 15 feet and as large as 50, we saw both males and females. We saw them crash into each other and into us. Some were curious and would turn towards us, while others would carry on without notice. I am sure there were more that went unnoticed, but I could tell one shark was pregnant. Being a lay person when I saw her poop I thought maybe it wasn’t poop and she was about to give birth. I stuck with her for some time. I sent the pictures to Dr. Jennifer Schmidt of the University of Chicago, a leading whale shark researcher. She confirmed my suspicion that she was probably pregnant, however, given the distension of her belly she probably wasn’t very far along. I would have had to swim for a very long time to witness a birthing event. After many hours we were dragged out of the water, kicking and screaming, and we headed back for civilization, something I had momentarily forgotten existed.
Photographing Whale sharks
When we got back and I looked at my pictures I was overwhelmed. In two days I had taken almost 1000 pictures. It makes you think how people did it back in the film days. Taking massive amounts of pictures is a luxury we have today that we should take advantage of, but I think a lot of shooters just click away and forget to think about each shot. What I mean is, you still need to wait and time your exposure for that magical moment. You need to think about what angle, what position would make for the best composition and lighting. Think about when the tail is turned a certain way or the mouth is open, or a diver is fully visible next to the shark.
In this area (also with Ningaloo and Holbox) strobe use is not permitted. If strobes bother the shark, then I have no problem leaving them at the hotel or on the boat (in this case the sharks are at the surface so in 95% of cases strobe use is not needed anyway, but there are situations, like in Malapascua where the Thresher sharks are deep, that is just a sacrifice we have to make to keep the site and sharks happy). But with no strobes, the position of the sun in relation to the sharks becomes very important, especially in mid-morning and mid afternoon. If the shark is between you and the sun you will see shadows on the shark and maybe even on the tiny eye – the most important feature. Sometimes you have to swim to a certain side of the shark to make sure the sun is on your back.
My settings varied according to sun power, water clarity and the type of shot I was going for, but for most of the time I was close to: f/11, 1/200 sec, ISO-200, 12mm (18mm at 35mm focal length). Of course I was shooting in RAW format as always, and I set my white balance to direct sunlight and then adjusted after in photoshop. You could also do a custom white balance with a white slate, some shooters bolt one to their fin for ease of use. When there is lots of light your automatic focus set to matrix metering should be best.
Experiment. I had some shots in my head that didn’t turn out like I had hoped, but other shots I hadn’t considered until I was in the water came out beautifully. Silhouette shots were meant to be an afterthought, only tried if I was running out of ideas, but they ended up being my favourite shots of the trip. I tried to get those classic shots and then tried to do something different. We were shooting digital and there is no such thing too many pictures.
There are so many sharks off Isla Mujeres! Sometimes it’s great to be wrong.
The whale shark season off Isla Mujeres is spring through fall. I hope to see you out there, amongst the whale sharks.