An article by Philip Thurston
“Bula!” She said, as she warmly greeted me at the check in counter. Little did she know the turmoil of travel times and traffic that I’d just battled through to be standing before her at Fiji Airways check in. I was already semi exhausted from stress and frustration from the mornings adversities. Regardless of how many times I’ve done this travel regime, there always seems to be that ONE thing, one thing that messes with my master plan, regardless of my trusty travel list or how many reminders I set in my phone. Maybe she could tell by the tone of my voice or my unintentional body language that my morning didn’t go quite as I had planned. Yet, her islander smile and sense of understanding went further than she had probably even intended. She didn’t even question my check-in that was a fraction over the 23kg limit. I literally pack as light as possible for these trips and I always do my best to adhere to the fare rules, but sometimes, being a Photographer/Cinematographer, you just have to depend on a little leniency at times..
She slipped me the boarding pass and smiled. I was in Sydney Airport, and this Fijian lady had already made me feel like I had arrived at the island life.
It’s amazing how a little smile and kindness can transform someones day, and in timely cases, even someones life!
It was like someone was watching over me..
2 Fiji Airways flights later and an overnight stay in Nadi, I stepped out of the plane on to Tongan soil. After a year, I had returned to this magical little island archipelago known as Vava’u. A place where the only time that matters, is the boats arriving and dinner time, both in which signify two my favourite things, whales and Tongan food! Darren (Jew) was already at the airport to greet me, which was in every sense of the word, a real honour. Darren is in mind the best whale photographer in the world, and also an incredibly humble and down to earth guy, so it was a privilege to have been there a second time to collaborate on a new project with him and Whales Underwater; the Whale Swim guided tours that his team have been running there for the past 15 years.
Coincidentally, I also bumped into my photographer friends; Marc Gardner, Juan Oliphant, Ocean Ramsey and Clark Little, who had just so happened to be on the same flight to Vava’u. Travelling as a photographer and videographer is a challenge at the best of times, and having this common ground, we all had a good laugh about how much luggage we’d managed to squeeze on the plane! Photography small talk..
This trip was made immensely easier with my new Manfrotto ProLight Rolling Organiser (LW-97). It’s a beauty, offering 95cm of length for my long items like dive fins and tripods, while being short enough to not be deemed oversize. It’s originally designed for lighting gear but it neatly fitted all my video gear, sound gear, housings and other equipment with plenty of room left over. In addition to that, it’s the perfect height to rest on when standing in line for long periods! It’s honestly these small things, that make a big difference in transit. My Phantom 4 Pro drone was snug in my Manfrotto Aviator along with 2 DSLR bodies, 4 lenses and all my batteries, while all my precious items like laptop, hard drives, Osmo and travel documents were wrapped to my chest in my Manfrotto ProLight Messenger bag. I’ve done a lot of travel, but this was doing travel right.
While in Vava’u, we stayed in a little village called Utulei, at a house run by the most beautiful Tongan family. Their culture is rich in hospitality and kindness, which made us feel at home and welcomed every moment of the stay. I would often hear them singing together in a beautiful harmonic melody. I didn’t understand the words, but felt the peaceful energy of their voices. We also had the opportunity to immerse in the culture, drinking kava, and being entertained by dance, stories and music by the locals.
Swimming alongside a humpback whale, emanates this kind of supernatural energy, it’s like nourishment for the soul..
It’s hard to explain, I’ve done it before but would eagerly go to great lengths to do it again, and again. It’s an addictive kind of energy, an aura that seems to satisfy a deep desire within. In nature, there is this perfect balance of necessity and provision, creating an eco-system of vulnerability and dependability amongst species. A lot of the behaviour we observe in the animal kingdom is influenced by survival instinct, a kind of programmed logic in all species to protect their own kind. However, when it comes to Humpback Whales, crediting their characteristics solely on survival instinct would almost be an injustice to their truly beautiful nature that I’ve personally experienced while spending time with them.
During this trip we encountered several mother and calf interactions, and had the opportunity to observe up close the tenderness and affection that is incredibly evident in their relationship. Witnessing the relationship between a nurturing mother humpback and its newborn calf is awe-inspiring, and goes far beyond just a sense of survival instinct. The calves are amazingly dependant on Mum, only venturing very short distances at a time, to feed their curiosity and satisfy the playful nature they have coming into this big new world before returning back to the mother, or 'mother ship' as i affectionally referred to her as.
It’s day 5 and I’m once again back at our Tongan home, sorting through footage and photos on my laptop of what I’ve just experienced. My phone tings. It’s a message from my Mum, just checking in to see how I’m going. The usual thoughtful text you’d expect from Mum, but her text finished by saying, “I’m praying for you everyday.” Just as I read it, I felt an incredible gratitude for the role mothers play in life. Here I am in Tonga photographing the beautiful relationship between a mother humpback whale and its newborn while my own Mum is thinking and praying for me everyday back home in Australia.
A Mothers love, in my experience, is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. An energy that both gives and sustains life.
So I’ve created this series of photographs in light of such a precious revelation.
This entire series came from just a few encounters. The calf in these shots was just so playful and adventurous. I wanted to try and capture the twisting and turning movements that the calf was expressing right in front of us, so, I experimented by slowing down the shutter in an attempt to showcase their playful nature, but also the beauty of this new and enthusiastic life. At the time, what I was doing made absolutely no sense, here I am, on location in Vava’u experiencing this rare and energetic little sanguine humpback dance wildly in front of me and the settings on my camera were going against all logic of what they ‘should’ be set to!! I was firing off shots as the show unfolded, barely even breathing trying to maintain perfect tracking and a steady hand as I tracked the focal point along the Whales twisting body, all the while thinking ‘Will all these shots turn out to be a blurry mess? Am I blowing it!? Am I doing an injustice to this magical moment!?’ Nevertheless, i stayed composed and kept shooting.
The calf then retreats back to Mum, and Mum notions that it’s had enough playtime with a blow of bubbles and a mild grunt and takes the young one off into the distance. Gone. ‘I might not get another opportunity like that’ I think to myself as I’m scrolling back through my shots whiling swimming back to the boat. And I didn’t.
The nature of these encounters is that they are always incredibly unique, and maybe that contributes to it being such an addictive pursuit!
Back in post, sitting on the lounge at our Tongan Home, the breeze whistling though the palms and the harmony of the Utulei people singing away while kindly serving us foreigners, I am scrolling through my shots, and a sense of satisfaction fills my mind. The shots are intrinsically different, a little abstract even, but I like them. I like them a lot. Being an artist at heart, I really like the silky brushstroke effect, especially on the water surface, achieved by using a Manfrotto polariser filter and slower shutter speeds close to half a second on some shots.
Great photography is created by interpreting moments using your own sense of wonder and imagination. It often involves taking risks, losing shots for the chance to gain a different interpretation of what’s happening in front of your lens. You have to learn to make quick decisions and condition yourself to translate those spontaneous changes in the light and environment into a well exposed and creatively composed photograph.
I must add, approaching these animals to photograph them is done in a very respectful manner, the skippers that we have on board with Whales Underwater, are some of the most experienced and knowledgeable in the industry. Giving us insight and direction to get close to them without harassing or intruding on their space. Something that I’m ever so mindful of when photographing wildlife. In my experience, I’ve always had the best encounters in a mutually respectful environment, when the curiosity of both man and mammal meet in the middle.
I hope this series of photographs has inspired you to appreciate the love that watches over, waits for and nurtures the relationships we have in this life, with both people and places. Love is truly a universal language, communicated without words, and understood by all.
And remember, when you’re out in the field shooting photos, don’t be afraid to take risks and experiment with your subject, allow your imagination to direct your creativity..
Thanks to Whales Underwater for the experience, Darren Jew and Jasmine Carey for guiding us, the skippers; Ali and Kava along with their deckhands, Alistair at Dolphin Pacific and Tupou at My Tongan Home, along with all the Tongan Family that so kindly made the trip a memorable and accomodating experience!
A big thanks to Cressi for powering me through the water and Manfrotto for securing and stabilising all my gear! Without support from such great companies, I wouldn't be able to do what I do :)
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