Seasoned professional wildlife photographer Franco Banfi took this rare photograph of sperm whales. It was captured in January this year, just off the coast of Dominica, an island in the Caribbean.
Originally from Cadro in Switzerland, Banfi makes the trip to swim with (and photograph) the whales annually.
He told us: “I make this trip every year in January, because it’s the right time to photograph the sperm whales for the weather and the sea conditions. During the latest trip, I also wanted to increase my photo library of whales. Every year I prepare myself, and my partner Sabrina does the same – she trains by swimming and free diving to become better accustomed to these encounters.”
Not necessarily setting out with a particular type of picture in mind, Banfi has become used to being ready to grab a variety of different shots as they happen in front of him over the years. He has been diving since 1981, near his hometown in Switzerland, which is where he first learned to hone his craft.
On the day he took this picture, Banfi and his diving crew followed several whales in the hope of a picture opportunity.
He explained: “The sea was calm and we were snorkelling following a sperm whale at distance. The whale joined what is called a ‘pod,’ which is a family of sperm whales. Other whales joined the group from below us and we found ourselves among them. The calves were in the middle of the group for protection and suddenly they all stopped swimming and started to sleep vertically in the water. We gently freedived, keeping a certain distance with the aim of not disturbing the group.”
In the image, you can see Sabrina and another diver swimming close to the whale pod, giving you an idea of just how large these majestic creatures are. Banfi says he’d not previously tried to get an image like this before, simply due to the fact that every shooting experience can be completely different from the last.
“Sometimes you don’t even have time to slide into the water before the whales have already dived,” he said.
“Sometimes the whales don’t like your presence and swim faster. I have had other situations with worse conditions, or worse light – I think this occasion was probably the best I’ve encountered so far.”
To capture this image, and others from the same set, Banfi used a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II coupled with an 8-15mm fisheye lens at 15mm. The whole set-up is contained within a self-built waterproof housing. He said he was lucky not to face any particular challenges when capturing the whale images, because everything just happened to be on his side.
“The main thing is to have a cooperative whale,” he joked. “The only challenge I can really think of is to make sure I’m synchronised with my partner.”
Banfi knew almost straight away that he’d managed to capture a special image. “When I saw the image on my camera, I was very happy with it, and when I saw it on my computer I was able to enjoy it in its entirety,” he said. The reaction around the world to this set of images has been special too, having been featured in several publications.
If you fancy yourself as an underwater photographer and want to take something as striking as Banfi’s image, the most important advice he can give you is nothing photographic, but rather to be in-tune with the wildlife.
“Be constant in trying to find the right conditions, and the right whale, without disturbing it,” he said. “The whale will make the final decisions, and if it wishes, it’ll give you the chance. I have learned that you have to build a certain feeling with these animals, and when the feeling is good, they will give you more opportunities.”
Banfi is continuing to work on photographing sperm whales, as well as blue whales in Sri Lanka, right whales in Patagonia, humpback whales in the Indian Ocean, plus walruses in Svalbard. Banfi also regularly leads photo tours across the world, teaching enthusiasts the best techniques for capturing beautiful wildlife shots.
Franco’s favourite kit
Franco Banfi almost always uses the same camera and lens set-up for his oceanic images – the full-frame professional camera, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II,with a 8-15mm f/4L fisheye USM lens. For underwater shoots, he has a housing unit that he built himself.
Sometimes he also uses the super-high-resolution Canon EOS 5DS, while the 16-35mm f/4L IS USM is another favourite lens of his. For this kind of work, he never uses flash or artificial light, preferring to work with natural light.
Franco Banfi is a professional wildlife photographer, with a particular specialisation in underwater subjects. He has previously been named Travel Photographer of the Year, has received top honours from Wildlife Photographer of the Year and has written three books about the sea. For more, see his website at www.banfi.ch.