#7 NASA training might have been helpful...

The great news is that we are beginning to see more and more North Atlantic right whales here on the calving grounds off of Florida and Georgia. More whales mean more challenges for us researchers; we're now able to put our thorough training and reviewing into practice in the plane and on the ground. In a position with such variegated responsibilities as this one, practice truly does make perfect, and two days ago I learned the hard way that no matter how many times I lift the research camera, fuss with the settings, and practice shooting from the ground, there's no way to prepare for photographing right whales from the air other than actually doing it.

As we survey for whales each day, the main responsibilities in the plane are divided between the two team members who are flying that day. The person next to the right window of the Cessna is responsible for photographing the whales in each sighting, while the person in the left is responsible for assessing the area and ensuring there is no potential vessel traffic heading on course for the whales. Vessel and whale data is recorded both by hand on data sheets, by computer, and verbally into a voice recorder.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Kelly Slivka.
Taken under a Scientific Research Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA.

Two days ago I was in the right seat manning the camera when we had our fist Surface Active Group (also known as a SAG) of the season. It was a relatively small group, containing only six individuals. However, the part of the sighting I found truly difficult was not keeping track of the whales, but simply managing to photograph something-- anything-- from 1,000 feet in the air as the plane spins in a circle as if it's winding up to go into orbit, jostled by the blustering, icy winds that shove through the open window, finding the most stable way to prop the 7-pound camera so it faces down toward the water's surface, then fighting the constant centrifugal forces in order to manage 20 seconds of stability so that I can aim, focus, and shoot the whales diving and rolling beneath us in that slight window of time allowed as the plane swings into position over them-- clickclickclick-- before the whales are gone behind the overhanging wing. Though I was, in the end, able to capture identification shots for the individuals in this SAG (one of my shots is above), I certainly left myself a lot of room for personal improvement and have fostered a weighty respect for the more seasoned aerial photographers on the team.




  1. Just to help my visualization, are you in the right front or rear seat? (I assume 4 seats.) Is plane turning to the right so your side is down? Centrifugal force pulling you back in the plane?


  2. Replying to the above comment:

    I am in the right back seat of the plane, behind the copilot. We are circling to the right, so I'm experiencing the "mock" force of being pushed out from the circle, as well as the real force of being pulled in toward the window. As I'm already leaning a bit toward the open, downward facing window with this camera in tow, I have to try to fight gravity and the pull from circling.