Moments with a Humpback Mother & Calf

Story Behind the Shots of two special experiences swimming with humpback whale mothers and calves in Tonga
By Cassie Jensen

I had been dreaming of the day I would see a whale in the wild since I was a child. Something about their massive size, yet gentle nature always intrigued me. Upon arriving in Vava’u, Tonga, I was expecting a great performance from the whales, full of action and fast-paced swimming involved with a heat run (one female whale accompanied by a suitor, followed by several other male whales fighting to challenge him). While we did experience several heat runs on our journey, it was the calm, quiet moments with the mothers and calves that truly touched my soul.

Our skipper Cam received a call on the radio about the location of a mother and calf during our second day swimming with the whales. Traveling through the beautiful islands on the boat to get to their location seemed to take hours instead of the reality of 20 minutes, my pulse a constant reminder of my excitement as the adrenaline coursed through my body. Our boat consisted of six swimmers and our wonderfully talented guide and photographer, Darren Jew. We were separated into 2 groups, men and women for old time’s sake, alternating drops with the whales. Of course, it was the guys’ turn in the water first. Cam brought the boat a few hundred feet away from the whales, as Darren swam out quietly to their location before signaling the guys to get in the water. After an anxious 15 minutes of me sitting precariously on the edge of the boat with my mask, fins, snorkel, and camera at the ready, Darren signaled us to switch groups. 


This was one of my favorite moments. The image was taken just as we were about to leave the whales and I crossed in front of the pair. I sunk just a few more inches below the surface and waited for the calf to settle in this position, straight on like its mom, with its tail down. They both watched me as if to say goodbye. 
Camera Settings: ISO 1600, F11, 1/200


I quietly slipped into the cool water, heart racing out of my chest. I had to force myself to slow down and take a deep breath, knowing that they would still be there even if I took my time. Finally I saw them; appearing out of the milky blue water were two gigantic silhouettes, shadowed by a tiny speck (Darren) as he motioned for me to come to them. There they were, just resting on the surface together. Relaxed, calm, trusting. I was watching them through my viewfinder, taking as many pictures as I could: checking the settings to make sure they looked satisfactory, changing the aperture for a better shot. Was the shutter speed still at at least 1/200? What about the ISO? After a few minutes of taking pictures and checking settings, I realized I wasn’t in the moment with them yet. I put my camera by my side, and just watched them. I looked at Darren, hoping he would understand the emotion behind my mask. Pure admiration. 

My two friends were still making their way over, and I felt alone with the whales and my mentor by my side. Time stopped for once in my life and I just floated weightless, inches from this enormous creature that was so new to this world, yet so trusting of all around it. I turned parallel to the calf, looking deep into its eye; questioning how such beauty exists in the world. As my two buddies joined us, I backed away to let them see the two without my presence. I looked beyond the calf’s tail, trying to figure out how much bigger the mother was. She was so massive, I could barely make out the end of her tail that seemed to stretch on forever. We remained by their sides in awe for about 15 minutes before we switched groups again. The hardest thing for me to do was to swim away from that beautiful moment. Fortunately, we had several drops with the mother and calf, and occasionally they would swim around us, going down a few meters before coming up for air again. Luckily, the pair trusted us to be around them for almost two hours before we made a group decision to let them continue resting without the presence of humans.

Humpbacks Day 2

The excitement of the next day on the boat was even higher in anticipation of what we were going to encounter, but we did mention that even if we didn’t see a whale that day, we would be happy because of the previous day’s encounter with the gentle giants. Skipper Ali dropped us on several thrilling, heart pumping action moments of heat runs before we got wind of another mother and calf in the area. Without any doubt, we decided to introduce ourselves to this new pair, and anxiously sat on the edge of the boat for the ride over to meet them. When Darren signaled my group to enter the water, I embraced the cool hug as I swam quietly out to where he was. This time, I saw the mother and calf floating in blue water, about 3 meters below the surface. The mother was vertical, with her nose facing straight up, and her calf was rested just underneath her pectoral fin, almost in an embrace. Slowly, I approached and watched as the calf began to dance. It moved so elegantly, up to get a breath of air, swimming out and around to meet us. The mother began to move with the calf, and soon I found myself swimming directly parallel to two of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. Time stopped again and I felt one with nature.


This calf was very affectionate towards its mother. Oftentimes, it would rub against the mother and also appear to embrace her in a hug. Such beautiful tenderness displayed!
Camera Settings: ISO 1000, F7.1, 1/200.


We had several drops with this pair, and each time we got to experience the love they had for one another. It was so obvious, as the mother would swim underneath her calf, raise her up to the surface for a breath, and back down again. Every so often the calf would fold itself around the mother’s face, as if to embrace her in a hug. To witness such adoration and gentle affection from such incredibly large animals was unlike anything I have ever experienced, or will experience, until I am reunited again with them next year. 

Being new to underwater photography, I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t get the right shot or really capture the emotion from the moment. I realized that I had to go with my gut, keeping my settings around F8, and my go-to fast shutter speed (I hate any movement in my images!). One thing I realized from photographing them was that I really had to relax my mind and focus on the dance of the whales. Watching their behavior and only then picking up the camera… waiting for a good shot to unfold through my lens.



Inside Cassie's Gear Bag:

Nikon D7200, Nauticam NA-D7200 housing, Tokina 10-17mm fisheye lens.



This calf was resting beneath the mother for ten minutes before waking and coming up for a breath right next to me, making direct eye contact.
Camera Settings: ISO 1600, F11, 1/200


I was able to float within inches of this calf, who was very friendly and trusting. Being so close, I could see that it was covered in whale “lice.” In reality, they are parasites that feed on algae on the whale’s skin and are found in skin lesions, skin folds, nostrils, and eyes.
Camera Settings: ISO 1600, F11, 1/200


This was by far my favorite moment out of my encounters with the whales. The three of us were swimming side by side for several moments. The mother realized it was time for the calf to breathe, and dipped below her young to raise her up to the surface. It was so beautiful to witness the loving touch a mother can bring to her newborn, even in the wild.
Camera Settings: ISO 900, F7.1, 1/200.


The mother and calf were resting several meters below. They went up for a breath of air together and began to swim directly towards me before turning in a beautiful display, as if to ask if I would join them in their dance.
Camera Settings: ISO 900, F7.1, 1/200



Cassie Jensen:  I bought my camera and got it in the water less than a year ago without having any photography experience. It has brought me to many incredible places, and captured countless, priceless encounters. My dream in taking underwater pictures is to raise awareness about the importance of our oceans and saving its inhabitants. Thanks to humans, many species are being destroyed; it is our duty now to preserve what we have left of this beautiful planet. My favorite things to photograph range from the gigantic whales, thrilling sharks, inquisitive turtles, to tiny, beautiful nudibranchs.

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