Author: Chris Parsons
When something unexpected happens, the best camera in the world is the one close by that is ready to shoot. I've learned that lesson several times while cruising in the Bahamas on our small sailboat. This is the story (and pics, of course) of one of those occasions.
Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, Bimini, Bahamas.
Early in our trip, we had the boat safely tucked into an anchorage in North Bimini. The wind had been howling for a week, and we were ready to get out of the boat and into the beautiful azure water. Finally, a weak cold front stalled out just in the right spot, and the wind stopped for a day. We headed out to the west side of the island, intent on doing some snorkeling and maybe finding a couple of conch for dinner.
As we exited the channel, the ocean we saw was vastly different than what we saw a week earlier. There was not a ripple on the water, save for our very small bow wave. We made a turn to starboard and headed north. After motoring for about 20 minutes, I saw some different ripples on the water. Seeing the dorsal plus the curved back, I knew immediately that it was dolphins. Rima was down in the salon; I yelled down for her to grab her mask and snorkel, now. She'd never been in the water with wild dolphins, and it was high on her list of things she wanted to do.
Dolphins chasing the boat in the morning sun rays.
Two considerations popped into my brain at that point. First, I wanted to make sure I gave the dolphins some space. I did not want to drop right on them. They are curious animals, and if they want to approach us while we're in the water, it is their choice. I'm not going to chase them, and if they have better things to do (feeding, fighting, or, um, reproduction), so be it.
Second, I wanted to make sure that these were the smaller Atlantic Spotted dolphins, not the bigger bottlenose. I might have been more hesitant to get in the water with bottlenose. Ok, well, probably only a slight hesitation. Of course, we do not touch or otherwise harass these beautiful creatures.
Atlantic Spotted Dolphins following our sailboat. Note the little baby at the lower right. He wanted to play, but mom kept him close at hand.
There were about 20 dolphins in the pod, including a baby that was maybe 20 inches long. It was a joy to see them in the water.
Rima found that when she clapped her hands, the dolphins, especially the younger ones, reacted as it she were a friend to play with. That lasted for several minutes, but they eventually decided that game was getting boring. So we switched, and I got in with my camera, a Canon 7D Mark II in a Nauticam housing, with a Canon 8-15mm behind a Zen DP-100. Fortunately, it was both close by and ready to go. I had strobes attached but was able to very quickly get them off, thanks to the fiber optic cables.
We switched one more time, and I shot a little video from the deck of the boat. In this case, the camera that was close by and ready to go (with the added requirement of being able to easily shoot one handed while the other hand was on the steering wheel) was my iPhone.
The pod of dolphins following along with the boat. Note the one just aft of the rudder who popped up to say hello.
Shooting tip: I'd suggest not using (or bringing) strobes for an encounter like this for a few reasons. First, it's better for the dolphins, and I think they will be less likely to scatter when you start shooting. Second, your strobes will have a hard time reaching out far enough, and then you are left with a lot of color imbalance. If you need to do a lot of swimming, you will also appreciate not pushing as much gear through the water.
Shooting ambient like this has its advantages, too. Without being tied to a strobe sync, you are now free to use whatever shutter speed you want. The results usually look more natural than with the strobes. Plus, if you are using a mirrorless camera, for example, you are seeing the actual exposure through the LCD; truly WYSIWYG.
I like to take a quick custom white balance when shooting ambient. If shooting raw you can always fix the color, but with some cameras and some post processing software you might not have enough range to fix it if starting too far off. Besides, it is nice to see good color on the camera LCD.
The pros at Reef Photo & Video can make some recommendations for best lens/camera combinations for dolphins based on your system.
This was my third time over the past 20 years that I was fortunate to be in the water with dolphins. I remember each of the 3 times with great fondness.
Chris Parsons and his partner Rima live on their sailboat, enjoying the 70% of the planet not covered up by land. The boat is currently in the Turks and Caicos. Chris leads about 4 trips a year to great destinations; check them out at http://chrisparsons.net/trips.