Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

The Great Bear Ballet

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In the Field

The Great Bear Ballet. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. September 23, 2016.

There's no disputing the fact that the rare white Spirit Bear is the most emblematic inhabitant of the Great Bear Rainforest. But, as one who has been leading photo tours there for a decade, I can say that in many years the abundant Humpback Whales do their best to steal the show. In 2016 we had a particularly strong Humpback season - with the number AND quality of sightings way up. And, fortunately for us, that included a lot of great breaches.

Breaches (where the whale spectacularly jumps out of the water and returns to the water surface with a huge splash!) tend to come in 3 patterns. The first is the "random breach" where a whale suddenly breaches once and then goes back to doing normal whale things. Given their total unpredictability and the fact that they can occur almost ANYWHERE in your field of view, it is incredibly hard to get a good shot of a random breach.

At the other end of the spectrum is what I call a "serial breacher". These are whales that breach repeatedly and often along a very predictable course of movement. Sometimes a serial breacher will jump 10-20 times over a relatively short time span. These are, by far, the easiest breaches to capture on film (or...uhhh...with pixels). But...finding a whale serial breaching is super tough - it tends to be very rare thing (I've seen 3 serial breachers over a decade of watching a lot of whales).

The third type of breaching pattern is what I captured here - a whale that breaches two or three times before quitting (I guess you'd call it a "repeat breacher"). In this case we saw the whale breach once when it was a LONG ways off and, as we approached it, it breached twice more. I captured this shot when it breached for the third time and as when it was in the sunlight next to the shaded shore of an island. Even with these "repeat breachers" it can be tough to frame up the shot.

What struck me the most about this particular breach was how darned graceful it was. I know "grace" can be hard to apply to a 40-ton animal, but nothing else seems to describe it as well. Just another moment in the Great Bear Ballet! ;-)

Here's a larger (2400 pixel) version of this graceful Humpback for your perusal:

The Great Bear Ballet: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.5 MB)


1. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

2. This image was captured during one of my autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tours in 2016. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to additional locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as various boreal owl species, fishing grizzlies, and more. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

3. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my/our presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

Behind the Camera

The Great Bear Ballet. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. September 23, 2016.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 1250.

Nikon D5 paired with Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom @ 390mm. Hand-held from sailboat. OS on and in "Mode 1". 9-point Dynamic Area focusing.

1/1250s @ f4.5; -0.33 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

The Great Bear Ballet. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. September 23, 2016.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 9.3. Three raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in exposure settings (1.3 stop total difference between the variants).

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2015 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the three output files from the raw converter, minor exposure tweaks, and final selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


The Great Bear Ballet. Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), Canada. September 23, 2016.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to Raincoast*.

Species Status in Canada**: Threatened - North Pacific population (May 2003).

Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeagnliae) are active, acrobatic whales that can throw themselves completely clear of the water (a behaviour known as breaching) and will swim on their backs with both flippers in the air. Humpbacks are large (up to 14m - or 46 feet - in length and 40 tonnes in weight) and with huge flippers.

Humpbacks are found in tropical, temperate, and sub-polar waters around the world. They are found on both the east and west coasts of North America. The North Pacific population has been estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 individuals, but only a few hundred of these are found in the waters off the coast of British Columbia.

While Humpbacks are recovering from the damage done to their populations by commercial fishing, the are still subject to a variety of threats from human activities, including becoming entangled in fishing nets, noise and chemical pollution and habitat destruction.

*The Raincoast Conservation Society (and Foundation) is an effective and efficient organization that has been fighting for protection of this unique habitat. If you are looking for a meaningful way to contribute to the conservation of this amazing ecosystem, Raincoast will provide maximal "bang" for your conservation dollars.

**as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada