How to Catch a Whale

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Story by Tom Stevens | Photography by Douglas J. Hoffman

whales photographyThis being whale season, our thoughts turned to Maui photographer Douglas Hoffman, one of the few people anywhere who has swum with humpbacks and sperm whales.

“Sperm whales ping you,” says Hoffman, who photographed the mighty toothed whales off the Azores Islands. “You feel this pressure wave going through your whole body.”

Are sperm whales difficult to photograph?

“I went out fourteen days and came back with three useable images.”

As his vivid, widely published photos attest, Hoffman has a higher success rate with humpbacks. Just not at home. Humpbacks are protected in Hawaiian waters; you need a research license to approach within 100 yards of the creatures. Since Maui’s research licenses have all been allocated, Hoffman has traveled to Tonga since 2005 to photograph the South Pacific population.

Free diving with fins, mask, trunks and rash guard, he spends up to six hours a day getting to know the whales and establishing a peaceful rapport.

“Humpback whales are like puppy dogs if you find the right ones,” he says. “The babies will blow bubbles for you, the teenagers will show off, and the moms are just grateful to have a break in their day.”

His secret? “It’s really about working to make sure the environment is stress-free for the whales,” he says. “I’ve learned to understand their behavior and to judge which whales might produce a mutual encounter.”

So, how long is the learning curve?

“It takes years,” he says.


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