The Friendlies: Baja’s Gray Whales

The Friendlies: Baja’s Gray Whales

February 2017

So many people have no clue about an amazing phenomenon that takes place every winter in Baja Mexico.

Gray whales migrate south every year in the fall, swimming some 12,500 miles down the Pacific Coast from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic to their calving and breeding grounds in the warm protected waters of shallow lagoons in Mexico. Beginning in the 1970s or so, the whales of their own volition began to interact with humans.

Imagine the reaction of that first Mexican fisherman, Pachico Mayoral, who was fishing in his small open boat on the lagoon waters when he was approached by a huge gray whale that explored the small craft, going from side to side, until Mayoral was brave enough to reach down and touch it. And nothing happened. The whale stayed calm.

An entire ecotourism industry has sprung up devoted to introducing humans to whales – touching, petting, even kissing these wild whales! Let me know if you’d like an referral for the awesome tour group that hosted us in San Ignacio Lagoon. Peak season for whale watching is February and March. Our group camped in tents beside the lagoon, watched the whales cruise by our vantage point overlooking the water while the setting sun lit up the sky, voyaged out on the water in pangas (traditional Mexican small open fishing boats) to interact with the whales, and on the last day when a massive storm flooded the entire camp and washed out the local airport, we enjoyed a well-orchestrated impromptu adventure through remote Baja countryside in search of transportation home.

When we visited in February the juveniles were the ones that interacted most with the boats: five, six and seven year old young whales that delighted in gliding along the hull while excited whale watchers leaned over to touch them as they passed by. They opened their mouths, inviting us to touch their tongues. They rolled on their sides to peer up at us with a large intelligent eye. They would sink below the hull and pop up on the other side, teasing us. Then with the flick of a tail the young whales would race over to another nearby boat to flirt with those whale watchers in turn. Later in the season the protective mothers of the current crop of newborns would relax their guard and bring the babies to the boats, introducing their offspring to the interesting phenomenon of humans floating on top of the water in tiny floating shells.

What intrigues me the most is how their behavior has evolved through history. In the 19th century, the whaling industry discovered these nursery lagoons. The whalers cut off the entrances, trapping and slaughtering their quarry literally to the point of extinction. In self defense the whales became fiercely aggressive, earning the designation of ‘devil fish’ as they attacked their tormentors, smashing the boats with their tails or breaching out of the water on top of them. How, as the decades passed, did they revert from aggression to the charming playfulness they now display?

Since whaling days, gray whales have rebounded from the precarious edge of extinction. From a population decimated down to only 100 animals, in today’s world they number some 26,000.


Posted by Carol in Landscapes, Mexico, Seascapes, Sunrise/Sunset, Whales, 0 comments
A Photographer’s Story – Revisited

A Photographer’s Story – Revisited

I wanted to repost a story I wrote a couple of years ago as the cover feature for Berthon Lifestyle, a yachting lifestyle magazine published in the U.K. It was one of those times when the words came together extraordinarily well to help me express what photography means to me, how I approach it, and why I share my images.

I have to admit I’ve been mildly depressed these past months as we put AVATAR up for sale and our cruising days have come to an end. AVATAR was my main photo platform for many a year and it’s been hard to come to terms with the loss of a lifestyle. But summer sunshine always gives my spirits a lift, so with this blog post I’m renewing my commitment to share my photography with you.

I hope you will take the time to read and enjoy A Photographer’s’ Story. I’ll be back in a week or two with another story, this time from Hawaii. It’s time to dust off the keyboard and get back to my storytelling.

Image: Fringing Reef #4 Wavelet | Suwarrow Atoll, Cook Islands, South Pacific

Equipment: Nikon D700, 1/45 sec at f/4.8, ISO 200, 14mm (14.0-24.0mm f2.8)


A dozen years ago, my husband and I surprised ourselves by making an impulsive, pre-retirement decision to purchase a bluewater sailboat located in New Zealand, ideally situated for exploring the prime cruising grounds of the South Pacific. My first (as it turned out, naive) impulse was to cultivate an artistic hobby to fill the leisure time generated by our idyllic new lifestyle. Many options – oil paints, watercolors, pastels – were discarded as too messy for a vessel’s tight quarters. Finally I settled on photography and embarked on not one, but two new adventures.The best camera, as they say, is the one you have with you. Photography on a boat can be pursued with a smartphone or a pro DSLR. It is neat and clean and portable, whether on deck or ashore or even underwater. Add a computer and appropriate software for organizing and editing the images, and the onboard studio is complete.

From the deck of a cruising yacht there is a wealth of inspiration and source material that ranges from scenic vistas to wildlife to foreign cultures. These days my photo platform is a rugged aluminum FPB64 motor yacht, supplemented by an aging much-loved inflatable kayak.

All it takes is one simple click to ‘take a picture’, a rectangle, destined to hang on the wall as a print or glow on a screen as a digital image or join a collection in a book. But as a photographer/artist I don’t want to just record a photograph. I want to create art, to meld technical material with creative insight, elevating that rectangle to a higher plane.

The equipment and software available today are sophisticated and powerful, but to transform photography into an art form requires more than just good tools. Is a great novel the product of a good typewriter? It takes more than a good camera to produce an artistic photograph.

My finished photo-based artwork results from multiple technical choices made prior to pressing the shutter button – lens selection, exposure, depth of field, shutter speed, ISO, white balance, dynamic range and more. On the creative side I incorporate composition, light, shadow, color, texture, gesture and motion, all to play their part in capturing the raw image, the first step.

Step two is the selection process that takes place in the digital darkroom (my computer) reviewing and culling to find those select images that resonate with my imagination. The third phase is post-processing, the judicious application of a variety of digital darkroom tools – software and filters, layered and retouched by hand to manipulate the image into its final form.

In the beginning I took a cyberclass that taught me how to get the most out of my Nikon’s buttons, dials and menus. Early on I learned the important camera techniques necessary to achieve the best results. But on a boat, many of those best practices are impractical. Focusing on a cavorting dolphin or a diving pelican while striving for balance on a boat navigating ocean swells is not an ideal scenario for keeping the camera steady. A shore expedition in the company of non-photographers is a source of irritation for those who don’t appreciate a 20 minute pause for setting up and composing the perfectly executed shot.

As a result I’ve learned compromises. On a moving deck I compensate by shooting at higher shutter speeds or raising the ISO setting. To keep my balance I bend my knees and widen my stance to absorb the shock. I jam my elbows into my ribs and mash the camera viewfinder into my eye socket for additional stability. Often I fire off a burst of photos knowing that one of the bunch will by sheer luck be more crisp and clear than the others. There will be a lot of throwaways, but a few will be keepers.

I do a lot of shooting from my kayak. It’s a soothing, soul-satisfying experience to rise just before dawn and glide silently in quest of a sunrise, or a seabird, or a village just starting the day. Again, the gently rocking boat and the low light of early morning limit my choices, demanding compromise.

A good image should relate a story to the viewer, not simply recreate a scene but instead share an insight into the very essence of what first captured the photographer’s imagination. It may be about how the interplay of light and shadow illuminates a seascape for a brief magical moment. It may be about reflections on glassy water, or how a bird’s feathers flare in flight. Perhaps it’s a story of village life, a new friend, a beautiful scene, or the devastation of a storm.

But there’s a second story that accompanies each image, and that is the story that belongs solely to the photographer. The travel, the gear, the camaraderie, the solitude, the discomforts, the challenges, the accomplishments – all are embedded into the making of that simple rectangle. Not just sight but also sound, touch, smell, even taste, are part of the experience. Whenever I review my work the memories come flooding back to let me relive the adventure once again.

To illustrate, this particular image tells the viewer the story of a mother whale helping her new calf breathe in clear blue tropical water. But for me it contains the hidden short story of how she first swam away from me, then changed her mind and returned to within touching distance of her own volition, lingering passively in the water next to me, eye to eye, observing me as I observed her, while her baby slept.

An even lengthier version of that narrative begins with a 6,000 mile journey to the tropical kingdom where the humpbacks congregate. It includes my history of previous whale-watching expeditions led by professionals, where I learned whale behavior and how to observe them in the water safely and respectfully. It is colored by a Sunday morning sail in search of a cooperative whale, and the frisson of excitement as I donned snorkel gear, grabbed the underwater camera, and slid into the water from off the stern of the boat.

Each photo, that deceptively simple click, is embedded with two stories, one for the viewing public and one for the photographer alone. To produce them with forethought, investing time and energy into making them the best they can be, is to embed that memory even more deeply into my being.

All photos are copyrighted and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Enjoy but please respect.

Posted by Carol in Seascapes, Whales, 0 comments
See You Later

See You Later



The summer of 2014 we spent cruising the chilly waters near Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Especially at the north end of the Johnstone Straits, near Blackfish Sound and Echo Bay, marine wildlife was abundant. We enjoyed multiple sightings of humpback whales, orcas, dolphins and more. I spent hours on AVATAR’s foredeck, wearing cold wet socks on my feet, trying to capture photos of these impressive creatures. Sometimes I scarcely knew which way to point my camera as the whales surfaced on all sides of us, announcing their presence with the whoosh of their exhaled blows. This humpback whale swam past our small open boat in Echo Bay, then showed his tail as he dove down deep. I was also captivated by the beautiful scenery, especially the way the mountains were silhouetted in the moisture laden atmosphere into multiple shaded layers. I count 15 layers in this photo – how many do you see?

Composite of two images:
Whale: Nikon D4S, 1/2000 sec at f/11.0, ISO 800, 180mm (80.0-400.0 mm f/4.5-5.6) hand held
Mountains: Nikon D4S, 1/1000 sec at f/11.0, ISO 200, 160mm (80.0-400.0 mm f/4.5-5.6) hand held


Photo is copyrighted and registered with the US Copyright Office. Please respect.

Posted by Carol in British Columbia, Canada, Landscapes, Marine Life, Scenic, Seascapes, Underwater, Whales, 0 comments
Eye To Eye

Eye To Eye


This is the wildlife image that holds the most meaning for me of all the photographs I have taken over the past ten years. I have it hanging in my kitchen where I see and marvel at it each and every day.

My husband and I are fortunate to have had access to a cruising yacht based in the South Pacific over the past several years. One of my favorite destinations is the small Kingdom of Tonga, where humpback whales migrate each year from the Antarctic to give birth and mate. We have visited several times during whale season and each time I took the opportunity to go out with whale watching professionals, over time learning the basic elements of locating and interacting with the whales in the water.

On our last visit in 2013, we were out for a cruise and scouting for whales on the way. The ocean was empty, no whales or whale watching boats in sight. Then suddenly we spotted a blow quite nearby.
Luck was entirely on our side. We had found a mother and very young calf that were floating quietly near the surface. They showed no signs of avoiding us or moving on, and no licensed whale boat operators were in the vicinity to ‘appropriate’ our find. I couldn’t resist such a golden opportunity. I quickly peeled off my clothes down to the swimsuit underneath and grabbed my underwater camera, fortunately already assembled and leak-tested and ready to go. There was a mad scramble gathering the bare necessities – fins, mask and snorkel – and then I eased into the water off the boat’s stern.

The two whales were maybe 150 feet away and I located them instantly through my camera’s viewfinder. I swam slowly and carefully towards them, minimizing any splashing or sudden movement, and they allowed me to approach without showing any skittishness. After a few minutes, mom turned and started swimming slowly away, giving me a rear view of her tail. But as I watched her go, snapping my last few photographs, I realized that her path was curving back in my direction. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the pair drifted back towards me until I found myself so close that I started backpedaling to avoid making accidental physical contact with mama’s long pectoral fin.

I spent nearly twenty minutes eye to eye with this calm and generous whale, while her baby slept and breathed above her, as we silently communicated with each other. I finally cut the session short when a third whale, probably her escort, arrived on the scene.

In itself the opportunity to swim alone and close to a cooperative whale is a rare and awe-inspiring experience. For the whale herself to voluntarily initiate that interaction was such an amazing, incredible privilege, never to be forgotten.

CBPP_20130831_Whale2-103-MI don’t often post photos of myself (especially in a swimsuit!), but my husband took this photo of the three of us from the deck of the boat.

Nikon D4, 1/180 sec at f/2.8, ISO 400, 35mm (17.0-35mm f/2.8)

Photo is copyrighted and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Please respect.

Eye To Eye is available for purchase HERE.

Posted by Carol in South Pacific, Tonga, Underwater, Whales, 2 comments