Dawn Patrol

‘Dawn Patrol’
We had spent weeks looking for orcas, but it was worth every minute once we found them.

There are few things more humbling in this world than to witness a 12,000-pound dolphin explode out of the water.

There are moments so exquisite that it is near impossible not to become immersed in them. You appreciate these moments, because you never quite know when they might happen.

On this occasion, we had spent weeks following orcas in Norway, and we were coming up short more often than not.

The days were dark. The sun rarely, if ever, climbed above the horizon, and that was on a good day. We would see a pink glow in the evening — and by evening, I mean high noon.

The rest of the time, it was dark. It was cold. It was moody. And when we would see the black fin of an orca against the dark sky, slicing through the water, the conditions were almost always rough.

Then, one morning, as we were following a pod of orcas, something wonderful happened.

The group was away from us, in the distance. At first, it seemed as if nothing was happening. We could see there were a few big males in the group, but aside from that everything appeared to be quiet.

Orcas found in Norway are not like orcas found in British Columbian waters. BC orcas are aerobatic; they breach all the time. Orcas of Norway are rarely, if ever, seen leaping out of the water.

And yet, without warning, something suddenly triggered them. They were still distant, but it was clear that something was happening — had happened. Something that excited them. They were in a feeding frenzy. We came alive, our senses suddenly alert and active, as if flicked on by a switch. We accelerated the boat, careful to keep the same distance between our boat and the pod. We were pacing along at about 20 knots because we were trying to match the speed of this unrivalled athletic spectacle. Things were coming together. The conditions were calm — for once — and the water was cooperating. We kept our cameras steady. Then this one huge male started to porpoise with furious speed and power. It seemed as if explosions of water were streaming off his body with each leap.

Norweigan orcas are far less likely to breach the surface than those in British Columbia, but they are often seen spyhopping.

The light is almost always low in these kinds of situations. You have to make a tricky calculation, and do it quickly. You want a shutter speed that is fast enough to freeze a snapshot in time, otherwise the action will be blurred. Luckily, on this occasion, there was just enough light. The sky had turned pink, with hints of orange against a pink hue, with towering mountains forming a natural backdrop on the horizon.

And this enormous male orca — 12,000 pounds, 25 feet long, with a six-foot-tall dorsal fin and pectoral fins the size of a car hood — was porpoising along with such force that it was hard to put the camera to my eye without losing sight of the whole image.

With single-lens reflex cameras, it was always hard to tell I was getting the shot or not. I was shooting at ten frames a second, which means that ten times every second I was blind because the mirror has to lift, the shutter has to rise, and the image is exposed. Essentially, I had no clue if I had captured the shot or not.

It was one of those occasions when, after it is over — a split second that passes by in the blink of an eye — I was able to sit down quietly in the back of the boat, safe in the knowledge that I likely did get the shot.

In the past, I would have worried that this shot was not going to be sharp, with all this low, moody light and such an explosion of speed.

Somehow my friend Goran, who was driving the boat that day, had paced us perfectly. Everything came together. Sitting in the back of the boat, I held up my camera so I could see the back, with the picture on my LCD screen, and I immediately saw that the whole package was there. It was beautiful. The water splashing off the eye of the orca, running down its body — the light, the mood, the color . . . perfect.

At the time, I thought there was no way I would be able to zoom in on the eye of the orca. There was no way it would be sharp. And yet, when I tapped that button, I saw that the eye was sharp. The whole image was sharp. I scrolled down and up, up and down, just waiting for that mistake that told me I had failed somehow. It never came.

These are the gifts of nature that transform the beauty of the natural world into your camera. You realize, in that moment of clarity and epiphany, that you have captured this perfect little bottle of light and time that will live on forever.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,