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Photographing Captive Whales and Dolphins

I spend a lot of time at zoos and aquariums, sometimes as a volunteer and mostly as an observant visitor (I am currently studying to work in a zoo or rescue facility, as well). As a photographer, this means I have invested a lot of time learning to photograph the animal ambassadors that call these facilities home, and thought I would share some of the techniques I have learned with all of you!

Beluga Whale Breaching


Whether it be where to sit or where to aim your camera, studying YouTube videos goes a long way – the animals are often trained to perform certain behaviours in specific locations, and there is usually a general format to the show itself. That said, no show is ever the same twice as the trainers change things up to keep the animals stimulated, so stay alert!

Kyuquot - orca at SeaWorld San Antonio


Some animals have signature moves, and others are more likely to be teamed up together (such as Kasatka and Orkid below), so knowing who is performing might increase the likelihood of getting that “wow”-shot.

SeaWorld San Diego - Orcas Kasatka and Orkid front flip


I know, it can be difficult to take your eyes off those gorgeous cetaceans, but at some facilities, trainers indicate where to look after a behaviour has been requested. And becoming familiar with those hand signals used to communicate with the animals can take time, but pays off as you will know what to expect and (possibly) where to watch for it. A few seconds warning can go a long way in snapping the perfect shot!

Orca Spin Bow - SeaWorld San Diego


These animals are FAST (Hana, below, could swim faster than the speed limit of Stanley Park where she lived), so use a lens with fast and reliable autofocus. Don’t be afraid to increase the ISO (within reason for your camera) in favour of a faster shutter speed -- it pays off in the end. I personally find having the camera set to continual autofocus helps ensure the animal stays clear throughout all stages of the behaviour, but it is far from foolproof. But hey, isn’t the challenge half the fun?

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin

Tweak your aperture to your personal tastes, being mindful of the points above. My preferred setting is around F7 or F8 (give or take) to help compensate for those moments autofocus zeroes in on splashing water rather than the animal. It helps if you end up with more than one animal in your shot, too!

Takara and Kamea - SeaWorld San Antonio


Watch for these special moments that highlight the human-animal bond. These are social, curious creatures who forge very close bonds with their trainers. They often enjoy interacting with guests as well, so be sure to check out those underwater observation windows!

Kiska the Killer Whale with Trainer - Marineland Canada

Training and enrichment sessions can also be rewarding. Below is a very young beluga whale at Marineland Canada who was watching the adults participate in a training session and decided it wanted to play too, so the trainer held the target out for it. The young whale looked most pleased with itself afterwards!

Baby Beluga Training at Marineland Canada


At your own risk! Make sure you have fast reflexes and never let your attention waver! I carry a towel and water-resistent jacket, having them ready on my lap case I need to suddenly cover my gear. Early on I sat where it was theoretically safe, but after noticing patterns, I began to take bigger risks. Although this has paid off, I was putting several thousands of dollars worth of gear at risk that I couldn’t afford to replace.

Kyuquot - Killer Whale at SeaWorld Texas with black backdrop

The most important thing to remember, of course, is to have fun! Humans learn best when having a good time, and zoological facilities are a great resource for being inspired to care for the natural world, whether you are a child or an adult.

Dolphin Touch

Photo credits: Beth Baisch.

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August 16, 2016


Amycrandall, long ago yes, they were caught in the wild. Obviously. But the vast majority of cetaceans in North American facilities -- INCLUDING the orcas -- are CAPTIVE BORN. And most are of Icelandic descent, for the record. As for the lifespans, recent peer-reviewed research has shown that the animals are currently living as long as their wild counterparts. Guess who the oldest Northern Resident is? Corky, at SeaWorld San Diego. And Blackfish was full of falsified and/or outdated misinformation.

August 15, 2016


Actually Tuftedpuffin, the Orca in North American Sea World establishments have been stolen from the Salish Sea. Watch Blackfish. And, regardless of the fact that you think they are getting top notch care, check their lifespan compared to what it would be in the wild. And...... It's NEVER OK to touch these animals.

August 15, 2016


Beautiful! I've only been to Vancouver once, and was lucky enough to get to spend the better part of a day at the Stanley Park Zoo. Took tons of photos. Ended up with a handful of good shots, but none as wonderful as yours.

August 11, 2016


All images are amazing you captured...

August 10, 2016


Thank you Inyrdreams!

August 10, 2016


I love your images and how you captured these beautiful animals. captive or not, photography lets us get a close up view of majestic animals we might not other wise see. You have done a beautiful job in portraying amazing images of sea life. good luck with school too!

August 09, 2016


Elianehaykal I was referring to drive hunts, which you implied the animals in these photos came from. None did.

Further, this is a stock image site, not an animal rights activist site. How about keeping things on topic? If you don't like my blog post about photographing these animals, move on instead of bringing your agenda to it.

August 09, 2016


Seaworld is not in North America? Do they provide their orcas an ocean to swim in? Anything short of that is the equivalent of living in a bathtub for humans, hence the heightened death rate for creatures made to swim thousands of miles daily.
Here's a top ten worst tanks for dolphins and whales in North America and something to look into when doing your independent research.
Photographing dolphins, orcas, and whales in nature is what I respect.
Not trying to convince you of anything, it's for the benefit of the readers of your blog and comments on it, they should be aware of the complete picture. Thank you.

August 08, 2016


Incorrect @Elianehaykal. No facility in North America has animals from Taiji -- look at facilities in Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia for that. These days nearly all cetaceans in accredited facilities were born and raised in captivity, or are rescued animals who government deemed non-releaseable. Also, people can't swim in a bathtub. The animals in these photos receive top-notch care. Part of my independent research involves paying close attention to captive animals and how they seem to be doing, including habitats and relationships with trainers. Indeed, much of what I'm studying in school relates directly to this. Not all facilities are created equal, but it's the good ones people are going after as it is more convenient and trendy.

August 08, 2016


It would be also useful to tell us how the animals are captured. A few words to Google: Taiji drive hunt, The Cove, and Man spending whole life in 1*1 meter bathtub.

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