Overcoming Fear to Swim with Humpback Whales

It’s 2019, I’m 80 miles away from land in the Atlantic Ocean, and I just have to laugh. I just got out of the water and noticed that my camera housing is leaking. I couldn’t afford the Nauticam rental this time, so I went cheap and hoped for the best. It’s my third trip to the Silver Bank with Tom Conlin and Aquatic Adventures and once again my photographic luck was left behind on solid ground.

Oddly, I’m ok with this and it’s time to get back in the water. I grab my phone for some snapshots, slide on belly over the side of the boat and swim over to this mama humpback whale and her calf. Yes, that’s right I’m swimming with humpback whales.

Most of my Whale Tail comes from everything around my three one-week trips to the Silver Bank in 2015, 2017, and 2019. I could tell you all about my trips and the cameras I used, some of that will be mixed in, but this story is more about fear and overcoming obstacles.

The location of Silver Bank in the Atlantic Ocean north of the Dominican Republic.

The trips themselves were incredible and beyond words. Moments and experiences and friends that have changed my life forever. Memories and stories that most people can’t imagine and a few photographs that don’t capture the moment.

I don’t know where the idea to do this came from — it wasn’t like I especially loved whales as a kid. Growing up, I was never much into adventures. I do believe in animal rights and support those who stand up for our oceans. I am drawn to underwater photographers and the beauty they capture from a world just below my normal vision of the surface. I often purchase their photographs so I can support their incredible talent.

I heard about these “snorkel with whale” trips in a random conversation and decided to try it myself. I booked it and neglected to do any real preparation. I swam in high school gym class and was a good swimmer 30 years ago. Back in the day, that just meant I could swim from one end of the pool to the other without touching the bottom. So, I figured I was okay.

Of course, I researched the important things like underwater cameras, swim fins, wet suits, because the right equipment makes all the difference.

I decided a week before the trip that I should get my feet wet and try some underwater photography. I booked a trip to the Homosassa River in Florida to swim with manatees and discovered as I tried to descend into a six-foot-deep river that I am absolutely terrified of water.

After 10 minutes of clinging to the boat ladder for dear life, a manatee came by to introduce itself. I let go of the ladder long enough to gather my senses and flailed about the river like an injured human. I made so much noise that the manatees and other humans on the trip kept their distance. But at least I thought that had figured out this water thing and was pretty much ready to go.

My 2015 trip was not a success. A six-foot-deep lazy river is a little different than swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. I was scared and seasick, which is not a good combo. I got in the water once and will spare you the details. I spent the rest of the trip with my eyes fixed on the horizon and photographed surface activity.

2015. Surface fin slap.
2015. Surface tail.

Even with this limited engagement, I found something I loved. The day I got back home; I sent an email for a request for a date in 2017.

So, with two years to prepare, I again waited until a few weeks before the trip to practice. It was back to the Homosassa River for two days this time. I practiced getting into the water and did a little better once I calmed down. I did research better alternatives to the Dramamine that made me sick and with my motion sickness patches and a new set of fins I was ready to go.

2017 had some crazy storms that came through along with some pretty rough seas. Luckily, the swells were a few inches below the unsafe maximum height for small craft, so we were able to search for whales for four days without any success. We couldn’t even see the blow as the whales surfaced because the wind immediately whisked it away. Then, on the last day about 30 minutes before we had to leave for port, we found a mother, calf, and escort in the shallow 30-foot coral reefs.

2017. A mother and calf visit at the last minute.

I had been waiting for this moment for two years, so when they said go, I slipped into the water without hesitation while at the same time trying not to soil my wetsuit. I immediately panicked but somehow recovered my senses, then swam the best I could toward the whales. I just couldn’t keep up with the others and ended up 20-30 feet behind them. It was far, but I was in the water and seeing my first set of whales.

The next part always brings tears to my eyes when I think of it. I heard Tom yell out, “Lorenzo, grab John and bring him to the front” So Lorenzo (our in-water guide) swims back to me and grabs my arm and swims me up to the front, just past the group, up to ten feet from the mother whale. I start to stutter gasp a little as if I’m about to uncontrollably sob and I feel the tears well up in my eyes for a moment. Just a second. And then I just feel pure joy, like I’m a little boy and the world is magnificent.

I’m just in front of her flipper, her eye is closed, and you can tell she is just relaxing while we babysit her calf. She opens her eye, looks at me, looks at her baby, looks at the other snorkelers and goes back to sleep. The calf comes by and like every other bratty child, biffs her mom’s nose with its tail. With three effortless tail swishes the calf does a full breach out of the water then swims off. The mother and escort follow, and we return to the boat.

As soon as I got home, I sent an email requesting a date for a 2019 trip.

After several months of procrastinating, I signed up for a pool membership in April 2018. I have been swimming laps an hour a day ever since. Around July 2018, I had overcome my fear of water, and by December 2018, I quit smoking because it was interfering with my swimming. By 2019 I was ready to go.

There is always a test run at the beginning of the trip to evaluate everyone’s swimming ability. They took me to the side and said that they remember my “swimming abilities” from the previous years so I could skip it if I wanted to. I said no, I need to get in the water. And I did, and I swam like a fish!

With the saltwater and a wet suit, my new leg muscles were twice as effective as the lap pool. The whole trip I would be first to the whales and the last to return to the boat. I just wanted to swim in one of my favorite places on earth as if I found my home.

2019 was an indescribable experience. The goofy whale sleeping vertically, the curious baby that came right up to the boat, the singer, the breaching adult five feet from the back of the boat, and we were in the water with whales at least 5 times a day.

2019. A close-up photo of a calf.

The second day was when I noticed that my camera housing was leaking, and I didn’t even care. I was finally in the moment and enjoying all of it. The daily swimming had helped tremendously but I think I had also entered a different state of mind. I grabbed the photos I could with the equipment I could afford but the best part of the experience was just being there.

2019. A leaking housing photo.
2019. A leaking housing photo.
2019. Me in the water.
2019. Me swimming with humpback whales.
2019. A surface breach.

When I got back this time, I couldn’t afford to book another trip right away but I’m hopeful that I can return in 2022.

After this third trip, I tried to share my journey with others. With a lot of experimenting, I decided to print my images on Hahnemühle Photo Glossy. Glossy paper has never been my first choice or even my last choice for printing photographs however I am always learning something new. A print on Hahnemühle Photo Glossy paper beautifully represents the fantasy world of super slick and contrasty computer screens and phones. Hahnemühle Photo Glossy is excellent if you want to proof your images for aluminum printing.

Most people think that my whale images are screen saver shots and the prints just don’t make sense unless they look like a screen. With a glass-like smooth surface, the printed water looks wet, as if you are looking through a window at this incredible world. I think that an underwater image of a humpback Whale is too fantastic to be believable or completely understood.

A female humpback is the size of a school bus and a newborn calf is about the length of a Honda Civic. Photographing whales is like photographing the moon with your longest telephoto and the moon ends up being a small white dot. When I look at my images, they might not be the best whale photographs, but they are my whale photographs and I will cherish them for my lifetime.

It has been an incredible adventure swimming with whales and the stories are much longer than I care to write about. I would rather share my many misadventures on doing something I love along with the successes. Instead of sharing that one good image on Instagram, I hope my stories prove that I can be a little foolish, clumsy, and unsuccessful, and that I’m okay with that. I just keep trying and enjoy every moment of it.

As a photographer, I am grateful for the teachers who lead photography tours and as a photographer, I focus on creating my own vision but also buy other’s work to support their vision. I hear “I’m jealous” or “I wish I could” too often when it comes to photography or adventures. I hear about photographers quitting before they even start because they don’t have the “right” lens or the “right” camera. I also hear “someday” or “maybe when my skills are better.”

The best photographers I know are out there taking photographs with the best equipment they can afford. If it is a phone or the latest full-frame camera, just use it. My thought behind this story is a message to myself as well to others. The light will never wait for you and the moments you miss will be a lost opportunity.

It doesn’t matter how often you fail — just record your own vision and experience and appreciate how wonderful it is.

About the author: John Granata has a long 28 year storied history with photography and currently teaches printing classes at Richard Strongberg’s Chicago Photography Classes in Chicago, Illinois. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors. He presents a unique argument with an odd mix of technical and emotional reasons why printing is essential to every photographer and has a strong passion to create prints that speak to the viewer. Past projects include photographs taken and processed with that “John” look with several unique alternative printing methods and materials. He has a website that surely needs to be updated and possibly reworked. Currently, he is on hiatus from actively working photographically but is telling stories about past projects in order to rediscover his vision for new ones.

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