Videotape Whales Like A Professional

By A. Daniel Knaub

So you have decided to go whale watching and plan to record it all on videotape in order to share your experience with friends and family at home. Here are some useful tips for recording whale behaviors and other sights out on the water.

  • Take a fully charged battery and a spare if you have one. Take an extra tape too.

  • Your camcorder does not like water, much less salt water. Stay on the upper deck to record your trip if there is any chance of water spraying onto the boat.

  • If you like scenery of the harbor, get a little on the way out, but save your tape and battery for the whales. You don't want to make a tape or battery change when a whale comes up to the boat to take a look at you! You'll see the same harbor on the way back to the pier.

  • There is a symbol in your monitor that shows you are recording or not recording. Check this every time you press the record button, both on and off. Nothing is more upsetting than finding out that you put your camcorder in the bag and it was still recording. Then you take it out, point it at a whale and press the record button. Guess what, you just stopped recording. Keep this cycle up and you will have a great memory of the inside of your camera bag.

  • If a whale is close to the boat and exhales and the wind direction moves the blow towards you, don't let it hit your lens. Put the camera under your arm, in your coat or at least point it down towards the deck. If this water and mucus gets on your lens, you will spend the rest of the trip trying to clean it off.

  • The most pressing problem is using the zoom. The rule of thumb is to use as much as you can while easily keeping the horizon at the same place in your monitor. [During the shooting of a professional whale watch video, the company's] best videographer limited the zoom to four times. The amount of zoom usually shows as 1X, 2X….3X in the monitor. When showing your "Great Whale Expedition" at home you and your guests will appreciate a steady picture rather than seeing the sky, a whale, your feet and something else you can't quite make out.

  • When more than one large whale is close to the boat, move the camera slowly from whale to whale. If you are lucky enough to have an active whale, keep recording it. The other whale isn't going to quickly disappear.

  • Feeding whales are a special treat, especially the humpbacks on Stellwagen Bank. They blow bubbles; they hit their tails on the water and sometimes come up with their mouths wide open. Start recording when you see the bubble cloud forming and make sure you can see both sides of the cloud in the monitor. Keep recording the cloud (it may take a full minute) until the whale comes up through the cloud with a mouthful of fish. If you wait to record the scene when you see the open mouth, you will miss a lot.

  • Some say that a breaching humpback whale is the most exciting event in the animal kingdom. Marine biologists say that one in 15-20 trips witness this truly outstanding event. If you see a whale breach, it is likely to breach more than once. If you want to capture the next breach, do the following: go to the widest angle possible, start recording and keep recording in the direction of the first breach. Some whales may breach 15 to 20 times (more than a hundred is the record). You have to keep recording to capture them, as the whale is only up in the air for a second or two.

My best advice however is to put the camera down for a little while (or give it to another member of your party) during each behavior and witness these amazing animals through your eyes and heart, not a lens.

Dan Knaub is the owner/president of The Whale Video Company ( He and his staff have recorded more than 17,000 whale watching trips on Stellwagen Bank, including more than 5,000 breaches


Revised September 06, 2006 by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Web Group
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