Photographing Seals

Genevieve Leaper discovered that the Optio W20 would be ideal for use when kayaking to photograph seals. Here’s her adventure...

15/02/2011 - 14:45

A young seal nudges the front of the Kayak.

When I started sea kayaking a few years ago, I discovered that it’s a great way to get close to the wildlife, as well as giving a whole new perspective of the local coastline. I do take my SLR camera, but most of the time it stays in its drybag. It’s frustrating to miss loads of great photos, because I can’t get the camera out quick enough – or I simply dare not risk it.

So when I saw the Optio W20 – a camera that’s not afraid of water and small enough to always keep to hand – I just had to have one. I take it dinghy sailing and powerboating too, but it really comes into its own in the kayak and my favourite subjects are the grey seals.

Just two miles south of Stonehaven, Wine Cove is a deep inlet in the cliffs with a waterfall cascading down in front of a big cave. This is where the young seals hang out in summer.

Seals are always curious, but the older animals have learned caution and generally just stare from a safe distance. On the other hand, the youngsters are bold and playful as well as inquisitive.

At times it feels like they’re playing a game of dare – with me as the scary monster they challenge each other to approach. It starts with a gentle nuzzle of the bow of the kayak, then the next touches the hull a little closer, another nudges the paddle, until finally the bravest swims right up to me.

The first time I failed to get any photos because my SLR couldn’t focus close enough. Even now I could wish the Optio had a widerangle lens! Most of my best seal photos were taken at maximum wide-angle.

I find I need to be ready with my finger on the shutter – too much time fiddling with the camera settings and I’m likely to miss the moment. And one time, when I was looking down at the camera, I was startled by a nudge on my elbow and looked round into a big-eyed, whiskery face. The seal was stretching his neck out of the water as if to get a better look at the LCD screen!

So I’ve worked out some basic settings. In a kayak, or any small boat, a fast shutter speed is essential to avoid camera shake. I tend to use Sports Mode even when I’m shooting landscapes. I always control the ISO manually and have Sensitivity as the first function assigned to the Green button so I can change it quickly. I prefer to use ISO200 whenever possible, but ISO400 is the usual setting for the seals.

I bought the waterproof camera so it would survive accidental immersion. I wasn’t planning on underwater photography, but, as I watched the seals swimming below the kayak, it occurred to me that I didn’t need to go swimming to try.

Composition is a hit and miss affair with the camera at arm’s length underwater and I have lots of shots of empty sea and fuzzy bits of seal disappearing out of the frame. Nor are the waters of the North Sea clear enough very often but, just occasionally, I get lucky and it’s amazing to come home and see the streamlined form of a seal in its element when all I could see at the time was a distorted blur.

The star of many of my seal photos is a youngster (about eight months old) I first met at the beginning of August. Scarbelly, as I call him (or her) is even bolder than the others and spends a lot of time swimming on his back, showing a distinctive six-inch scar.

He swims the length of the kayak, caressing it with his flippers, plays with the paddle and tugs at ropes with his teeth. He shows no fear whatsoever, in fact, I think he would like to join me in the boat. Several times I have had to dissuade him from hauling out across the spraydeck as I fear it would most likely end with me joining him in the water.

In October there were more of the adult seals around as they gathered to breed, but as the Winter weather became wilder most of the whitecoated pups were born in the safety of caves. By summer, there will be a new generation of young seals hanging around in Wine Cove.

 
I use the Optio W20’s sports mode to be sure of a quick shot.  
 
With the camera underwater at arms length it’s hit & miss to get decent shots like these.   Being able to use the camera underwater is a bonus.
The North sea water is murky so it’s tricky to get a decent shot like this.

The latest underwater camera from Pentax is the Optio WG-1 GPS.
 


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