Madagascar is a great location to sight humpback whales, providing a great opportunity to watch their spectacular displays of strength and behaviour. It was one of the highlights of my first trip to Madagascar in August, 2015.
The rain that has been falling consistently all morning begins to lighten as a patch of blue sky tries to break through the clouds. A local fisherman wades through waist high water, whilst two others try their luck from a wooden boat further out to sea. A woman carrying a basket of local crafts returns to the beach, hoping the impending sunshine will bring potential customers back outside. And in the distance, a small motorboat heads out to sea, carrying a handful of tourists hoping to meet a humpback whale.
I arrived on the island of Sainte Marie three days ago, ready to start a month of travel in Madagascar, a country I’ve been longing to visit for a number of years. I was treating myself to a villa at the beachfront Princess Bora Lodge, hoping to combine some relaxation with the main purpose of my visit: to photograph a breaching humpback whale.
My first opportunity to photograph humpback whales presented itself three years ago at Wilhelmina Bay, as a large group welcomed me to Antarctica with a spectacular display of diving amidst the fairy-tale like landscape of blue and white hues. These same whales migrate north during the Antarctic winter to mate and give birth in locations that include the channel between Ile Sainte Marie and the mainland of Madagascar. This provides wildlife lovers and photographers a great opportunity to see them in action, including what I craved to see in person – a breach.
I’d planned to join three half-day boat trips with Cetamada, a local NGO that performs scientific research and leads whale watching tours and community projects in their efforts to collect date, raise awareness and contribute to the protection of these great mammals.
My disappointment at not seeing a major river crossing in the Masai Mara the week before had reminded me that wildlife is unpredictable and great sightings require patience and an element of luck. But I was hoping nine hours in the sea would reward me with one breach – just one.
I was wrong.
I didn’t see one breach – I saw many. I lost count of how many whales raised gracefully out of the water before crashing back down in a spectacular display of strength. And I was just as excited by the last one I saw as the first.
No one knows exactly why whales breach, but our eco-guide explained there are three theories: to flirt or exert dominance, to cleanse themselves from parasites or purely for fun. Whatever the reason, one thing remains un-debatable: it is an incredible sight.
I was fortunate to not only have great weather, but to see breaching on each of my three trips. And whilst these awesome jumps out of the water were undoubtedly the highlight, it didn’t stop there. I watched water fall from their tails as they gracefully dived into the water; I was entertained by tail and pectoral fin slapping; I encountered solitary whales, pairs and groups of six and seven; I came across a whale that appeared to be sleeping as it floated motionless in the water; and my last trip ended with the incredibly humbling sight of two whales curiously swimming around the back of our boat, lifting their bodies within metres of us before a heart-stopping dive beneath our vessel.
It was simply awesome!
Each boat trip begins with a short briefing by a specialist, explaining why the humpback whales habitat the waters of Madagascar and what we hope to see. They also explain their approach to whale watching: navigating to the side of the whale (never in front or behind), staying within 100m (or 200m if there is a calf), staying a maximum of one hour (or 30 minutes with a calf) and not approaching a whale if there are more than three vessels already there.
(Of course, no one tells the whales these rules and if they dive into the water 100m away from your boat and resurface closer – you may enjoy an unexpected close encounter!)
The trip takes place on a small motorboat that holds up to 10 passengers, although you may find yourself one of three, as I did on my second day. You will be given a waterproof jacket, a life-vest, and a dry-bag if you don’t have one – you will need it, you will get wet.
The size of the boat is perfect for whale watching, with enough room to move around, yet remaining at eye level with the animals. I found the back of the boat best for photography, being a little more stable and remember to increase your shutter speed to combat the moving whale, the rocking boat and the swell of the sea. Most of my shots were taken with a shutter speed of 1,500 or higher, with a Canon 5D III and 100-400mm lens.