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Orca at sunset, a snapshot of wildlife photography decision making.

Orca at sunset, a snapshot of wildlife photography decision making.
A large male orca glides through the water at sunset.  Photograph by Colin Munro, available as a fine art print or wall art at Colin Munro Images https://www.colinmunroimages.com/Prints-for-Sale/i-2Bp3WgP
Male Orca at sunset, New Zealand South Island, East of Stewart Island.

Orca are hugely impressive animals. They have come to symbolise power, intelligence, grace and – sometimes – ferocity. Often known as killer whales, largely due to the way they would attack harpooned baleen whales, or harry and gradually wear down larger whales in a similar fashion to wolves on land, they are in fact large dolphins. Few of us will not have seen the BBC footage of orca powering on to beaches in Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia to grab unwary elephant seals. The power of these animals is quite awe-inspiring. Large individuals may weigh up to 11 tonnes, and females may life to be at least 80 years old. We now think of orca as a highly variable species, or species complex, with up to nine different types recognised. Advances in science may eventually split these into sub-species, or possibly separate species.

I took this photograph a few miles off the coast neat the southern tip of New Zealand South Island. We were sailing from Stewart Island, the small, rugged island to the south of South Island, heading towards the city of Dunedin. It was a perfect evening in mid-November, summer in the southern hemisphere, around 8.30pm. The sun was already almost touching the horizon, creating deep shadows in the troughs of the ripples pushed along by the light breeze. The orcas approached our bow from the northeast, then passed close by on our port side. This was going to be the best shot I would get, before he disappeared towards our stern. However the low sun was directly behind him, casting his curved back and giant dorsal fin almost in silhouette. I had a couple of seconds to decide. I could ramp up the camera ISO and expose my shot to bring out the details on the orca’s back, but doing so – shooting straight in to the sun – would blow out all detail in the water around him, or… I could do the opposite. I could aim for silhouettes and shapes, patterns and texture on the water. If this were a studio shot it would be termed ‘low key’; but of course this was not a studio, there would be no posing, no running around with a hand held light meter, no test shots. I dialled down the ISO, ramped up the shutter speed, quick check of the viewfinder light meter …. focus… and click, click, click. And that was it. I watched as the dorsal fin slipped beneath the water, to reappear several minutes later, far behind us. The sun was dipping beneath the horizon, and the light was gone.

I find wildlife photography is often like this. Animals don’t appear on que, they don’t appear when you’re standing waiting with your camera gear all set correctly, they don’t appear in the right place or the right conditions and often they don’t allow you time to think through your choices and your settings. This is where practice and experience comes in. After years of taking shots in all sorts of conditions, you learn to instantly recognise situations, and dial in settings almost with muscle memory. Not that you can ever become complacent. Camera technology is constantly improving; that means that the rules that you automatically followed three years ago may no longer be the best way. Advances in technology may mean that the settings you used last year may now be improved upon by turning them on their head. So successful wildlife is a continual process of learning, practice, relearning, practice..repeat.

Art prints and downloads

The orca picture shown here is one of my images I have selected to make available as fine art prints. These are available as stretched canvas, canvas wraps, flat canvas, dye-infused aluminium prints and acrylic on alumimium in a range of sizes and crops. They can be ordered directly from my website colinmunroimages.com. Default printing is my Bay Photos professional fine art printers in California. For orders from the UK, contact me directly and these can be supplied by Loxley professional printers in the UK. It can also be downloaded as a digital file, for private or commercial use, in a range of file sizes.

Shortfin makos, the fastest shark of all.

Shortfin makos, the fastest shark of all.

A Mako shark make a half-hearted attempt to grab a cape petrel. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

A Mako shark make a half-hearted attempt to grab a cape petrel.

When one thinks of sharks one thinks of sleek, powerful predators that appear to cruise effortlessly but are capable of dazzling bursts of speed when they attack prey.  This image of the shark is exemplified by the shortfin mako.  We know makos are fast, but how fast?  Many sources will tell you it is capable of speeds of 74kmph or greater.  The truth is a little less dramatic.  We now know that around 35kmph is probably the maximum speed of any fish through water, and that makos are probably capable of speeds around 30kmph, which still puts them right up there among the ranks of the elite fish speed merchants, and around four times faster than any human (for a more detailed, scientific account you read my marine-bio-images.com blog XXX).  Makos are generally accepted as being the fastest of all sharks, and with that powerful, missile-like shape, they are definately built for speed.  I have yet to get in the water with a mako – it is one of my goals for this year.  In the meantime I have an unexpected surface encounter off Kaikoura to savour. Kaikoura, as many of you will know, is a small town on the north east coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  It is famous as one of the best places in the World for whale watching, especially sperm whales.  It also came the wider world’s attention in November 2016, when the region was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, cutting off road and rail links to the town, uplifting areas of seabed and causing a localised tsunami up to 7 metres in height. When we visited in February 2017, road connections were still disrupted and whale watching boats had difficulty operating due to sea level changes affecting there berthing alongside.  The town, highly dependent on tourism, was suffering markedly.  We were not there to look for whales though, we were looking for dolphin and albatross. Kaikoura may be most famous for whales, but it is also a fantastic place to see many species of albatross up close, and it was albatross and dolphin we were there to see.

Albatross squabble over food. Kaikoura, New Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Albatross squabble over food. Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Whilst the big whales grab most of the international headlines, the sheer drama of seeing several species of albatross up close – really close – soaring, wheeling and plunging down to feed, is pretty hard to beat.  Nor was it just the albatrosses and giant petrels that noticed the food  in the water.  The scent of chum in the water attracted in predators from below also.  A dark triangular fin broke the surface and began weaving through the wary seabirds.  The shark was a juvenile mako, approximately 5-6ft (1.5-1.8m) long. Whilst clearly drawn towards us by the fish scraps in the water, it then became interested in the birds splashing around.

An albatross warily eyes the mako shark, whilst a westland petrel flaps away from the sharks path. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

An albatross warily eyes the mako shark, whilst a westland petrel flaps away from the sharks path.

The great albatrosses eyed the shark with a mixture of wariness and belligerence; with a wingspan probably exceeding the length of the shark they may have seemed a little large to tackle.  The smaller petrels were more anxious.  It made a grab for one cape petrel that did not move out of its path fast enough, but the attack seemed have hearted and the petrel skittered away easily enough.  There was probably enough fish remains floating in the water to keep the shark happy. Makos will occasionally take seabirds, but mostly feed on pelagic fish species such as mackerel, herring and anchovies.  Larger individuals have been found to have young seals and even common dolphins in their stomachs, as well as billfish such as marlin.  Common dolphins and marlin are both renowned for their speed, so whilst it is possible that these were injured individuals snapped up by the mako, it is also these fell prey to the makos lightening speed.

Graham, J. B., DeWar, H., Lai, N. C., Lowell, W. R., & Arce, S. M. (1990). Aspects of shark swimming performance determined using a large water tunnel. Journal of Experimental Biology, 151(1), 175-192.