Looking back at 2012, my "white whale" search was for a humpback whale breach photo. I was determined that I would capture a breach photo last year and I certainly had some opportunities along the way. Of course, 2012 wound up being a year of wildlife shots, from start to finish, so my Best of 2012 ultimately will be my top 10 wildlife captures of the year.
In March, I made my first trip of the year to Maui with the goal of capturing a whale breach from the deck of a whale watching vessel off Lahaina. While whales can be seen from all of the Hawaiian islands during whale season, and we'd already seen them in January from Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai, Maui is the best place to go whale watching. I had a few long distance breach shots from the shores of Kauai from January, as well as Maui and Big Island, and even took a whale watch out of Kona in 2011 where we spotted a few whales, but no breach.
This year, I really wanted the up close and personal version. Our whale watch in March provided my first opportunity. We found ourselves in the middle of a competition pod, "mugging" the boat. Hawaii has a number of state laws to protect these endangered animals, and require boats to stay a safe distance away. However, the whales are unpredictable and often approach the boat much closer than that distance, known locally as a "Maui mugging," and state law requires the captain to keep the boat in idle until the whales move away. As a whale watch goes, this is a great opportunity to observe them up close and personal.
With the competition pod circling the boat, we were treated to tail slaps, head pops, pectoral fins waving and even an eye to eye look at the humpback whales as they swam within a few feet of the boat. And, yes, there was a whale breach within this 100 yard distance, and it was an amazing sight to see. Unfortunately, I was caught completely by surprise and missed getting the photo I was searching for. I did, however, manage to capture this close up shot of the whale coming up a second time with a head slap, and it was one of my early favorites.
In April, I went back to give it another try. This time, we managed to find another competition pod swimming in close to the shore, and once again were able to watch a variety of activity. However, the whales were swimming in fairly shallow water and the tail slapping was the most activity we were able to witness, and no breaching was observed. It wasn't a total loss, however, as I managed to capture a beautiful fluke as a whale dove for deeper water.
That would be my last opportunity of the spring whale season, and I would be left to wait for the winter for the whale's to return to try again. Not to say there weren't plenty of other opportunities to capture pictures of Hawaii's wildlife. Our last day of this trip kicked off what was my best year ever for finding and photographing the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal. As we were checking out of our hotel, we took a few minutes to visit this beautiful (and massive) female monk seal napping on the sand of Ka'anapali Beach, mostly ignoring the crowd of spectators that had gathered to see her.
Of course, I couldn't do a blog of my favorite photos of 2012 without including the gecko. While not originally native to Hawaii, these colorful geckos can be found throughout the islands, and are sometimes hidden in plain view. Other times, they stand out in the sun, like this "Climbing Mo'o" taken at Waimea Valley on Oahu last June.
I barely managed a single photo before the gecko disappeared over the backside of the plant, and I started to walk away. However, movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and I found the gecko was peeking out to see whether it was safe to return. Not sure if he thought he was camouflaged among the flower petals, but his attempt to hide among them made it an instant favorite for me.
In August, I needed a very specific Honu shot, so I went to Laniakea Beach on Oahu's North Shore, also known as "Turtle Beach," in the hopes that I'd find what I was looking for. I definitely did. This beautiful female endangered Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle was perched on the reef, but facing away from the sun, so I needed to wait for her to turn. It seemed every time she would get partway turned into the light, she'd end up spun away again. As the waves rolled over the reef, I sat photographing her for several hours and finally got the image I was looking for, and I even got a little more than I hoped for. This image, currently a Finalist in Digital Photo magazine's "Your Best Shot" contest, is my favorite of 2012.
On a drive around the east shore in October, I saw Irma napping on the beach she's named for, so I thought I'd stop and take a few photos of her. It was early afternoon light, with the waves breaking on the reef in the distance, and lapping the sand several feet from where she slept, nice and dry. It was pretty obvious that she was safely above the wave line on the sand, until... she wasn't.
Having discovered that Irma is a regular along this shoreline, I spent a few afternoons shooting more photos of her, and caught the attention of one of the many volunteers that help keep these endangered animals safe by roping them off while they nap, so they won't be disturbed. While talking with Kimo, he showed me the photos he'd taken of a baby seal hanging out on a North Shore beach and provided me the directions on the group of spots she'd been frequenting since being born up there this past summer.
When I arrived at the spot, two volunteers were standing guard, with the small cove where she was napping carefully roped off. At first, I couldn't distinguish her light gray fur from the rocks she was hiding among. However, I did finally spot her and realized she was perfectly placed to prevent me from getting a great photo of her sleeping. All that was left to do was wait, and when a wave splashed over the rocks around her and woke her up, she looked around to find me aiming my lens for this photo.
So, we get back to my original quest... the breach shot of the Humpback whale. Well, it was November and with my family visiting Maui from the mainland, it seemed like a good opportunity to take another whale watch. Unfortunately, it was a little too early in the season and while there was some activity already, there wasn't enough to be confident that a whale watch would bring the photo I was looking for. However, there are plenty of other opportunities on Maui, like yet another gecko photo. A few years ago, I captured almost by accident, a gecko within the leaves of a plant on Oahu's North Shore. My favorite photo of the group, however, wasn't focused quite right, and I've been looking for an opportunity to try again. Geckos rarely sit still for extended photo sessions, but this one was very cooperative.
So, does that mean I missed my 2012 goal? Does my "white whale" quest carry over into 2013? Well, I certainly will continue to try to capture more whale shots this year, but I did make one last attempt in 2012 to get the breach shot I've been looking for. I went over for the first day of whale season, December 15th, and signed up for multiple whale watches. My first whale watch had some great activity, but... no breach to photograph. When we got back to port, I joked with the staff about whether they needed me to disembark and stand in line again so they could include me in their count, and they were surprised to find me boarding again just a few minutes later. Like I said, I was determined to get this photo.
Early on in the whale watch, we found a juvenile female Humpback whale that was very active, with tail slaps that allowed me to take my time capturing her beautiful, and very rare from what the naturalists told us, all black fluke. She lingered at the surface performing for nearly an hour, and when she slipped beneath the surface with just a bit of the telltale hump that gets these whale their names, there was no fluke to indicate that she'd gone for a deeper dive.
When she breached shortly later, it was a surprise to everyone on board. However, I had learned my lesson in March and I had my camera in my hands, and watched as she came out of the water. My first photograph, in my excitement, was of the ocean itself as I brought the lens up to focus on the beautiful whale leaping into the air.
Such an amazing sight to witness in person, and I cannot wait to go on my next whale watch soon.