The Fourth of July brought with it, not only fireworks and celebration, but also a very flat, mellow ocean. The north wind and a lack of swell made for smooth lake-like conditions.
I love these conditions for running the boat out there because the surface is relatively smooth in shape and texture. No whitecaps to distract the eye. It essentially becomes a backdrop from which your eyes can pick out anomalies – small disturbances emerging out of the overall pattern.
All too often, these visual stand-outs turn out to be helium balloons. (Please, folks, think about curbing the balloon use, or at least don’t let them go fly away. They land on the ocean, and I can fill garbage bag picking them up. They kill.)
The next common thing you will see are seagulls. Kind of boring, but worth a second glance. I have found sea turtles that I initially thought were birds.
Now if you keep your eyes scanning, there is a good chance that you will see some wonderful things – dolphin, shark, turtle, an occasional humpback or fin whale. Keep looking for the anomaly in the pattern. Your eyes will learn to see what you are looking for.
On the Fourth, I spotted a few pods of migratory, bottlenose dolphin, Tursiops truncatus. They were actively corralling and feeding on atlantic menhaden, also known as bunker. (See video of a bunker school below.) Many babies were in the mix. There seemed to be two separate pods of 15 to 30 individuals. I was between 1/2 mile and 2 miles off, between Robert Moses and Kismet.
I often see dolphin very close to shore. On these calm days, consider bring binoculars to the beach with you. You might get a nice surprise!
Photo tips: You really need a telephoto lens with some reach. You cannot get too close to these guys. Its not safe, legal, or effective. If you get too close, they dive deep and split. I try to maneuver to within no more than 50 yards, and then stay parallel to the direction they are heading and get a bit ahead of them. Turn off engine, and let them swim towards you, on a line that still maintains your distance.
I’m shooting with a relatively cheap Tamron 150-600mm zoom lens. At 600mm, I really want some wide depth of field, so I keep my F-stop at 8 or higher. Shutter speed needs to be fast – subject is moving at a distance, so I try not to go below 1/1000th of a second. For me, this works well in aperture priority mode. If I can’t keep the shutter speed up at F8, I raise the ISO just enough to get that fast shutter. I use back button focus, because its faster for me, and you need to be fast for when a dolphin pops up. It also allows me to pre-focus on where I think they will be, and then just snap the shutter.
I can’t really say enough about keeping your eyes on the water, and observing the surface. On the way in, at a slow cruising speed, I saw a small disturbance that I though might be a turtle. Turns out it was the dorsal fin of a triggerfish. I stopped and he swam under the cover of the shadow of the boat!
Enjoy, and keep those eyes open! Here are a few shots from the Fourth of July, as well as a few from previous trips!