A step-by-step account of a CWR orca encounter
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to spend time on the water with orcas? Where it’s your job to take photographs of as many whales as possible, right and left sides? Well, I’m going to tell you about the process from start to finish.
Photographs © Copyright 2022 Center for Whale Research.
Notification and weather
CWR’s photo-ID encounters usually start with us being notified in one way or the other about a group of whales in the area that we would be interested in going out on. In years past, we would often go out to look for and find our own whales or see them from shore before going out. In more recent times, we rely more often on sightings coming in through various sighting networks or listening to the radio. We have a number of friends and colleagues who will call or contact us if they hear or see anything they think we might be interested in.
Weather is often a factor in whether we go out or not. Unless we have extremely rare whales in the area (like Northern Resident orcas or Offshore orcas), there is really no reason to go out on the boat in a steady rain—it will only kill the cameras, and everybody will risk getting pneumonia. There is not much point in going out in rough weather either since you just get beat up and bounce the whales out of the frame. Once we make a decision to go out, we will collect our gear and head down to the boat at Snug Harbor.
Center for Whale Research’s Dave Ellifrit taking right-side orca-ID photographs (note the yellow permit flag on the vessel’s starboard side near the stern).
As we are approaching the area where the whales are, we’ll slow to a stop to get ready for the encounter while still a ways away. The permit flag goes up, and we write down a start time, lat. and long., and a verbal description of where we are and what the whales appear to be doing.
On the water with whales
As we are approaching the area where the whales are, we’ll slow to a stop to get ready for the encounter while still a ways away. The permit flag goes up, and we write down a start time, lat. and long., and a verbal description of where we are and what the whales appear to be doing. When everyone in the boat is ready with their cameras, we then look for our first opportunities to approach a whale or group.
We do our best to approach whales slowly from the side and rear at about a 30-degree angle and then get parallel to them. The idea is to pace the whales and stay parallel with them long enough to get a perpendicular, high arch shot of the dorsal fin and as much of the saddle patch as possible when the whale arches for its long dive. Photo-identification encounters are relatively straightforward.
These orca-ID photographs of Southern Resident orca L25 demonstrate why recording left-side and right-side images of the whales is important.
The goal is to get a usable (ID-able) left and/or right ID shot of every whale present during the encounter. If it is a large, spread-out group of residents, sometimes getting a photo of every whale is impossible, and we just try to get pictures of as many different whales as possible. Also, when whales are spread out, we’ll often take a “dot shot” of a distant whale for proof of presence just in case that whale disappears for the rest of the encounter. We then, as systematically as possible, continue approaching groups and individuals.
Often we will start with a larger group, if there is one, for “more bang for the buck” in terms of figuring out who is present and for getting as many whales on film as possible. If whales are very spread out, we will work inshore to offshore or vice versa until we run out of potential new whales, and then we will work our way back and repeat this until we are finding no one but whales we had already seen that day. Whales move around a lot over the course of a day, and sometimes we can find a whale that we haven’t seen yet back with whales we had already encountered earlier in the day.
When we decide that we are happy with what we have or feel we won’t get anything better than what we already have for that day, we end the encounter by writing down an end time and an end lat. and long., along with a verbal description of where we are. We then start putting our gear away and, when the whales have moved on, drop the permit flag and start heading home. If the boat needs fuel, we will stop at the Roche Harbor fuel dock on the way back to Snug Harbor.
Also, when whales are spread out, we’ll often take a “dot shot” of a distant whale for proof of presence just in case that whale disappears for the rest of the encounter.
Dave Ellifrit in the Centre for Whale Research office adding new photo-identification images to the ORCA SURVEY ID database.
Back in the CWR office
Once we get back to the office, we have a few things we need to do right away. The radio and camera batteries have to go on their chargers. We will also write down the encounter number and details both on a list and a wall calendar so we can keep track of what encounter number we are on. We then make photo folders for each of the people who took ID photos and begin downloading our pictures into each photographer’s folders.
Once the photos are in their proper folders, we can begin our initial photo analysis. Every individual Southern Resident and any Bigg’s Transients we see within the current year get their own folder every year. After each encounter, the best photos (either side) of each whale go in their respective individual folders. The best of the best of the photos of each individual get used for both our yearly unpublished and published catalogues. We will replace the best ID photo of a whale if we keep getting photos that are better than what we already have of that individual as the year progresses.
Ultimately, it is the whale’s behavior, amount of daylight, and the weather that usually dictate how well we do on any given day. Somedays, the whales are being cooperative, and the lighting is just right, and we come home with a bunch of catalogue quality ID shots we can be proud of. Other days, the whales won’t be arching, they will be heading in a horrible direction for lighting (lots of glare and dorsal fin shadow), the sun will sink behind a cloud, or a bunch of other reasons why we can’t get what we want, and we will have to settle for what the whales will give us.
Somedays, the whales are being cooperative, and the lighting is just right, and we come home with a bunch of catalogue quality ID shots we can be proud of.
Dave Ellifrit has been conducting photo-identification work for the Center for Whale Research (CWR) for the last three decades. He is widely considered one of the foremost experts in identifying northeastern Pacific killer whales. As the head of CWR’s ORCA SURVEY project, Dave leads our annual census of the endangered Southern Resident orca population and works to document the occurrence and behavior of Salish Sea Bigg’s (Transient) killer whales.
Dave Ellifrit captured this photograph of Southern Resident orca L121 beginning a back dive while simultaneously taking a right-side ID shot of L110.
How do we shoot orca pics?
In the March 2022 the WHALE Report (CWR’s Member newsletter), we asked four members of our highly-skilled team—Dave Ellifrit, Dr. Michael Weiss, Mark Malleson, and Katie Jones—a series of questions about orca photography equipment and techniques, and orca behaviors.
Here are a few of Dave Ellifrit's Q&A answers:
Q. What camera (brand, model, and year) and lens (or lenses) do you use these days to take such fantastic orca photographs? Do you use a different system to shoot video?
A. Currently, I am using my Nikon D500 camera body usually with a Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens while driving the research boat. I sometimes use a larger 80-400mm lens when shooting from shore or non-research boats.
Q. Do you employ “secret“ camera settings to record in-focus orca behaviors like breaches, syphops, tail lobs, cartwheels, etc.? Can you tell us what your usual camera settings are? Do you ever manually focus your lens?
A. Nothing secret. I personally shoot the camera in shutter priority mode and my usual settings on a sunny day in the San Juan Islands are an ISO of 800 and a shutter speed of 2500th of a second. I’ll then adjust accordingly due to changing lighting conditions. I have not had the ability to manually focus a camera since the mid-1990s. Auto-focus on current cameras is very good. A good camera set-up is an investment and you get what you pay for. If you enjoy taking photos and looking at your own photos, then save your money and buy a camera and lens that will take the kind of photos that make you happy.
Q. How do you anticipate where the whale will surface? If it breached or tail slapped once, do you expect and prepare for it to do the same behavior in the same place a second or third time?
A. Some behaviors are more likely to happen in a row than others. Unless you have a very active and roll-y group of whales, spyhops are most likely to be a one-and-done behavior. Breaches, on the other hand, often come in multiples so keep your camera up. If the whale was moving in a particular direction, move your camera from the wake of the first breach in the direction the whale was traveling to where the whale ought to surface again. Often there will be a second or even third breach. If a traveling whale does a cartwheel, it will often do a breach right afterwards. If you missed a breach, don’t complain or look at your photos on the back of your camera—keep your camera up in case there is another breach!
CWR’s Katie Jones’ camera gear—packed and ready for her next on-the-water encounter with orcas. Her video camera is in her pocket (Google Pixel smartphone).
FOCUSING ON THEIR FUTURE
FOR GENERATIONS TO COME
The Center for Whale Research needs your financial support to do our work! RESEARCH / EDUCATION / CONSERVATION / ADVOCACY
Please donate to our FOCUSING ON THEIR FUTURE fundraising campaign during this season of giving. The Center for Whale Research (CWR) team has set its sights on a challenging financial goal: raise $100,000 by the end of 2022 (thru December 31)!
Please help us raise $100,000 to benefit the Southern Resident orca community’s seventy-three (73) family members and keep ORCA SURVEY research going for 100 years! Every dollar raised goes to:
Sharing our orca expertise and increasing public awareness through the Orca Survey Outreach & Education Center in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Advocating best practices for recovering regional Chinook salmon and the Southern Resident orcas.
“The Center for Whale Research has been conducting ORCA SURVEY for nearly five decades, but that isn’t quite the lifespan of a Southern Resident killer whale. To truly understand their ecology, life history, and society, we must monitor and observe these whales for at least a lifetime, and ideally for multiple generations. That’s why continuing our research is so crucial.”
Dr. Michael Weiss, Research Director, Center for Whale Research
The Center for Whale Research is a 501c3 non-profit organization registered in Washington State. CWR is a 501(c)3 - ID #91-1334319