Spotting marine mammals: an exercise in pointlessness?

The boat rocks gently, engines off as the ten or so passengers stare intently at the surrounding water. Cameras are poised, ready to snap the moment when the prey emerges. Suddenly there’s a shout: “Eleven o’clock! There’s two of them!” For those quick enough, the reward is a fleeting glimpse of a snout or a tail before the calm clear waters return once again. As for the photos? Yet another group of undistinguished water shots will fill another few memory cards.

If you’ve ever been out spotting marine mammals, this scenario probably has a familiar ring to it. In the last twelve months I’ve had two remarkably similar experiences: first attempting to see the elusive Irrawaddy river dolphins in northern Cambodia, and more recently when we went out off the coast of Belize to catch sight of the manatees who make their home in the warm coastal waters.

The  photos I have included here are my best from two futile photographic sessions. The others on the boats didn’t fare much better, and I suspect this is the case in most of these expeditions. I have another such set of pictures in print from a whale sighting off the coast of Peru, but I’ll spare you further pointlessness; you get the idea.

So why are these trips so popular when the sighting of these shy and uncooperative animals is such a difficult task? We certainly were none the wiser about the size, shape or appearance of a manatee or pink river dolphin as a result of these hours spent bobbing hopefully on the water. We came home and researched these creatures to learn far more than our nature spotting tours could have taught us.

I have now resolved that should I find myself on such a boat in the future the camera will stay in its case. It’s much easier to enjoy a momentary sighting of a nose or a tail without having to position a camera at the same time. And the effort of snapping the pictures is, well, you can see its dubious value.

Yet will I go on another such trip? Yes, I probably will. There’s a certain wonder to being so close to such rare creatures and letting them float and circle curiously around you for a moment. That they are so rare makes their sighting, however short, something of a coup. I’m glad I’ve seen these endangered animals with my own eyes, and perhaps the fact that these sightings have encouraged us to learn more about them later is reason enough to have seen them; even if the photographs do little more than remind us that we were there.

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9 Responses to “Spotting marine mammals: an exercise in pointlessness?”

  1. Spot on. The key thing is to forget about the camera. If all you care about is getting snaps of the whale/ dolphin/ leviathan/ bearded merman with a trident, you’re going to have a pretty miserable experience. Far better to observe how the creatures move and interact than take 200 pictures of splashes – you’ll not have a permanent record of it, but it’ll remain a far more vivid memory.

    That said, my Belize manatee experience was somewhat different. I was out snorkelling when one rolled up alongside me. Ended up staring him in the face – an amazing encounter.

    As a side note, I don’t tend to do group press trips any more, but they always seem to include Whale Watching. Once, it’s enjoyable. By the sixth time, you’re thoroughly sick of them.

    January 19, 2011 at 11:26 am
  2. Most of the time, they’re elusive but occasionally you get lucky enough to have them stick around for a while. (I spent two years living on the ocean.) I once had a humpback whale perform a tale show that lasted an hour or longer (time disappeared, so I don’t know exactly) and I got some stunning pictures. See the last pic in my photo gallery, this whale was in Tonga.

    January 19, 2011 at 12:07 pm
  3. I agree with Davids comment… it’s easy to get carried away with the camera. Better to just try and enjoy the experience than fretting about getting a good pic.
    How about diving with whale sharks or similar, getting into the marine environment i.e. wet, will generally give more of an experience than floating on top of it. There’s a lot going on just beneath the surface 😉

    January 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm
  4. Andrea #

    We’re actually going on our first whale watching cruise in February and I was wondering about this. I think it will probably be better to forget about photos. Perhaps video might be better anyway in these instances, though probably difficult to capture as well. Frankly, I’ll be impressed if we don’t take advantage of the “half your money back if you see nothing” guarantee.

    January 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm
  5. Rob #

    Taking good pictures of wildlife is tough. Taking good pictures of marine life is even tougher.

    In my experience, you’ll get through a lot of average / rubbish pictures but ever now and then you’ll get a really good one and you’ll appreciate it even more.

    January 19, 2011 at 10:25 pm
  6. Genie #

    Gary — My son and I were able to get some pretty good shots of porpoises only because the animals loved riding the wake just under the stern of the catamaran. Also, the light was just right for shooting directly downwards. Otherwise, I’ve never been any closer than you were. My mother had a good experience in the Caribbean because a small whale calf was curious, and his mom let him come up to see the funny creatures pointing at him. But when he got tired, she moved between him and the boat and nudged him back to sea! Unfortunately, she didn’t have a camera with her, but it was one of her favorite lifetime memories.

    January 20, 2011 at 5:26 am
  7. I think there’s a magic to actually seeing the elusive creatures appear, and getting close to them, without which the experience would be nothing but a trip to the zoo: elusiveness is integral to the trip, which is why one is sometimes disappointed.

    We’ve seen Irrawaddy dolphins and dugong. But the most magical marine animal experiences I’ve had has been when they’ve appeared by a boat we’re travelling on: entire pods of killer whales, dolphins, turtles…

    More practically, you’re likely to get luckier when you’re further off the beaten track, and the poor creatures aren’t constantly bombarded with boats…

    January 21, 2011 at 8:12 am
  8. Good point. We have gone on whale watching trips and spend so much time with camera poised waiting to take “the shot” and not faring very well. It is much better to enjoy the moment and the time outdoors rather than looking through the camera lens.

    January 21, 2011 at 10:28 am
  9. Thanks for all the good comments. Your face to face with a manatee sounds particularly impressive David.
    Theodora I think you touch on a very relevant point. Some of these trips (I would include our Irrawaddy dolphin spotting trip from Kratie) are really having an impact on the animals’ natural behaviour; so many boats in such a small space.
    Come to think of it, our best experience with marine mammals is still our encounter with dolphins from Kaikoura over 10 years ago. An hour and a half out to sea, no guarantee of seeing anything, and a pod of dolphins came to us when we were snorkelling in the ocean. I forgot about that when I was writing this (probably because we didn’t take any pictures!)

    January 21, 2011 at 11:20 am