The Majestic Marine Life of BC’s West Coast
by Steve Williamson
Pacific Whitesided Dolphin
For the summer and fall seasons of the last two years, I have been able to work as a volunteer with conservation charities on the British Columbia coast. One of the first projects I was involved with was as part of a team of 9 working to find, identify and record marine mammals in the coastal inlets and waterways. I learned so much from my colleagues, not only about the surrounding area and wildlife but also my photography reached new heights as I experienced and learnt shooting in the true wild for the first time.
The BC coast is a myriad of spectacular inlets lined with fantastic scenery that will leave you in awe. It is alive with wonderful wildlife that will amaze and enlighten your very soul. It is rich with photographic opportunities on the shore, in the water and in the air. Just when you think it couldn’t get any better, out of the early morning mist another superb scene will materialize or a pod of orca will appear (see top banner photo).
Dundas Sunset this was taken looking across to Dundas Island just before sunset. Nikon D300 with a
Sigma 10-20mm f4-5.6
This is not the easiest environment for a photographer to work in, not by far, but the results of your perseverance and effort are well worth it. Weather wise, you can never plan too far ahead, but one thing you can count on is the rain and lots of it. The surrounding area is not affectionately known as the Great Bear Rainforest for nothing, so you and your camera will need to dress accordingly, wet weather gear and lots of towels.
Feeding Humpback taken off Banks Island. Nikon D70s with a Nikon 70 – 300mm lens f4.5-5.6
Shooting from a boat makes tripod use impossible, not to mention slightly dangerous if there are several of you onboard. Nor is it quick enough. You need to shoot almost ‘from the hip’ so to speak, as the wildlife often appears without warning and disappears just as quick. One way to be prepared for the wildlife is to use a long, fast lens, image stabilization is a bonus but not necessarily essential, always get the best you can afford, or even consider renting for a short period. The light can be fickle on the coast and fades fast. I used a 70 – 200mm f2.8 a lot of the time when the light was fading and was able to continue shooting long after my colleagues had to stop. If using a film camera, fast film and a motordrive are essential, for more options consider a Digital single lens reflex camera (DSLR), as fast as possible with an equally fast and large memory card. You don’t want to be missing shots because your memory card is struggling to keep up with the action.
Mountain Mist a spectacular jewel appears through the early morning mist. Nikon D70s with a
Nikon 70 – 300mm lens f4.5-5.6
A kind word of warning, brief you shipmates if you know them or stand well clear if you don’t. People get very excited when they see wildlife, especially for the first time. For example, one day a humpback whale breached right alongside the boat, I was too slow in picking up my camera, but kept it ready in case of a second breach. No sooner had the first whale hit the water than a second launched itself as high as it’s companion, as I lined up the camera for the shot, in her excitement, a friend grabbed my arm and I was left with a shot of a spectacular splash!
Humpback Fluke taken in Fitzhugh Sound. Nikon D70s with a Nikon 70 – 300mm lens f4.5-5.6
There are many charter companies that work along the coast and what is really good is that the majority of them work with the environment and its wildlife firmly in their minds. That comes first. They will not put you or the wildlife deliberately in danger nor will they take risks that will stress or worry the wildlife or threaten its habitat. They are familiar with working with wildlife photographers and their knowledge of the area is second to none.
Horned Puffin a rare sighting just off Stephen’s Island. Nikon D300 with a Nikon 70 – 200mm VR lens f2.8
As well as humpback whales these waters are rich with other wildlife such as orca, fin and minke whales. Harbour and Dalls porpoise, pacific white sided dolphin, seals and sea lions and if you look very carefully you can sometimes find a sea otter too. Above in the air and on the water, numerous birds can be seen, some are becoming more rare such as the marbled murelet, others such as the occasional horned puffin are totally unexpected, whilst the eagles are common, magnificent and majestic, although they do look a little ungainly when you find one swimming. This was something I felt very honoured to witness and photograph. An eagle had caught himself a salmon, but it was too heavy for him to take off with, so with talons locked on his catch, he swam to shore using his wings in an almost front crawl motion. When he reached the rocks he climbed out, ate his salmon in front of us and flew off to search for his next catch.
All of that is just during the day on the water, when you anchor and/or get ashore another world of spectacular beauty and wonderful wildlife opens up to you, but that’s a story for another day. (Right - Eagle & Salmon this guy swam ashore with his catch. Nikon D70s with a Nikon 28 – 200mm f3.5-5.6).
Conservationist and photographer Steve Williamson works with Pacific Wild (www. Pacificwild.org), a conservation charity based in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. He has been interested in wildlife and nature photography for the last 10 years and lives with his wife, Pauline, on Vancouver Island.
Web site: www.stevewphotography.ca