Last Monday night at the annual Canon/AIPP Australian Professional Photography Awards Dinner, I was very excited to be recognised as the 2012 Canon/AIPP Australian Science, Environment and Nature Photographer of the Year.

This is the fourth time (previously in 2007, 2009, 2010) that I’ve won the category, which was this year sponsored by Nik Software. In it’s 36th year, the 2012 awards attracted over 3000 entries from all sectors of Australia’s professional photographic community.

The four images that make my portfolio this year were captured on trips in Tonga and South Australia and on last December’s Expedition to the the Coral Sea. The image of the great white shark was awarded a Silver with Distinction and my other three images received Gold Awards. The total points scored gave me the highest aggregate of points in the category, hence the category win.

Congratulations go to Adam Pretty whose fabulous portfolio of sporting images earned him the overall title of 2012 Australian Professional Photographer of the Year. A gallery of winners from the various categories, covering all aspects of professional photographic endeavour, can be found here. See Canon’s Press Release announcing the winners.

Monday 12 September 2011 – Tonga’s no-work Sunday laws have left everyone refreshed and ready to get back on the water and see whales today! The enforced day off is a lovely way to experience a bit of island life, with just a few eateries open, but nothing else. So for some it’s a visit to church for a taste of the amazing harmonies of the local congregation; for others a lazy brunch and a kayak paddle across to the island of Lotuma for a spot of snorkeling.

As Dreamcatcher heads south from the Mystic Sands jetty, the group’s fresh eyes spot the blows of two whales ahead in the sheltered channel between Hunga and Nuapapu. We catch up with them and they become interested in the boat, swimming with us as we continue southward. We make our first drop, and as expected we get no more than a cursory glance as they swim by. We make a second drop – again a brief encounter – but the whale’s curiosity is building and they turn toward us they pass. On drop three we’re rewarded as one of the animals, a male, decides to show off his underside, rolling through 360 degrees just below the surface, pecs outstretched amongst the morning’s shafts of sunlight. We get a few more drops as they head into the clearer water beyond Foeata, before we leave them to continue their journey without distraction.

It’s lunchtime now and we’re close to the coral gardens between Nuapapa and Vaka’eitu, so a hearty meal and a chance for some reef snorkelling is in order. The colour palette at Coral Gardens is a subtle mix of greens and lilacs, painting a rich scene of marine diversity in a crystal sea.

As we head around the bottom end of Foeata for a northward run on the outside of Hunga, things get a little lumpy but it isn’t long before we are in shelter of the high seacliffs. Blows are spotted well out to sea, so we head westward into the open to investigate. The blows are from a resting mum and cautious calf who’s interested in us from a distance only. Mum will let us swim above her… and the calf sneaks a peek from beneath mum from time-to-time. The afternoon light shafts are making their way down into the blue, and so I position the group to take best advantage of them.

From 2013………

Humpback calf, Vava'u Kingdom of Tonga (Darren Jew)

Saturday 10 September 2011 – It’s very still this morning, with a glassy sea surface- but the showers are back. We’ve got both skipper Al along with Ali working together to help make the most of the day. We encounter whales early- what turns out to be 3 pods on the move in the sheltered water between the main island and Hunga.

We choose to work with a juvenile, possibly a yearling that’s made the return journey to Tonga with mum after being born here last season and spending summer in the Antarctic. Mum’s now left him to the independant life. He’s lying around on the surface, lolling about, with what seems to be no particular agenda for the morning. Our first encounter is a lengthy one, he allows us a close look for a few minutes while he plays on the surface. Then he’s dives and we loose him in the dark water. He’s easy to spot from the boat as he’s spending lots of time just hanging out, doing the occasional pec slap and even a little breach now and again, but he’s in no hurry. We try for a few more drops, but one as successful as the first- he’s decided he doesn’t want to play any more, and he gives us the slip. Still playing around, he’s in his own blue world.

He’s led us out into the open, and Al and Ali decide to head back into the area we had seen the other pods. They spot a whale surfacing and diving in a regular pattern off Tu’ungasika. It’s probably a singer- a mature male whale announcing his presence to the rest of the humpbacks in Vava’u and beyond. I’ve encounter singers in the area before, it’s a natural amphithatre from where the whale’s signature song will be heard all around the islands. The crew pinpoint the place they think the whale will be hanging head down, fluke up 15-20 metres below the surface. I slip into the water to confirm, and sure enough, from the moment I enter the water I can hear the song and feel the low frequency vibrations of the whale song continue through my body. Away from the sound of the boat, I can even hear whale song with my head above the surface- he is very close. Although I can’t get a visual on him, I call the group into the water for there first experience of feeling the sound of a whale, and nobody is disappointed. The whale sound is reverberating through our bodies and we are now part of the sea.

By now Ali has found the source of the sound and beckons us over. Peering down into the depths, we can just make out the faint white outline of the whales pec fins. His countershading (dark pigment on top white underneath) is a perfect disguise. As we hang on the surface right above him, we feel all his range – from deep gutteral growls to bird-like chirps… and many in-between.

With whale song still filling the senses, we motor to the island Nuku for a quiet lunch and a snorkel on the seagrass beds, with their colourful anemones and resident damsels and anemonefish. Nuku is also home to a plot of garden eels, shy fingerlike eels that “grow” from holes in the sand.

The rain is coming in again- heavy now- as we head back to town for an early afternoon.

© Darren Jew /

Friday 9 September – Last night Vava’u was inundated- the streets thoroughly awash and the kids making the most of flooded footy fields. But by Friday morrning, Thursday’s strong SE tradewind has swung around to the north and the sky is clear.

We head on our favourite morning course out into the open sea and southward around the island of Hunga. We sight a few pods, but all are set on travelling. With the northerly quite fresh, the morning is a little frustrating.

By lunchtime we found ourselves sheltering amongst the turquoise reefs and palm-studded coral islands to the south, where we encounter a beautiful mum and her calf. The light and visibility is a vast improvement on the previous day but at first we have a little trouble picking her up underwater. On our second drop, again thwarted by the visibility, we’re about to return to the boat when a huge fluke begins rising vertically through the surface of the sea around 30 metres from our group. As we fin over toward her she begins to materialise from the blue, and we can see her floating prone in the water column, fluke up/head down and her calf sheltering below and rising to the surface for a regular breath. We hang quitely by mum’s side as the calf repeats its routine. This mum is possibly afluke -up feeder positioning herself in this way to facilitate nursing her young.

Eyre and Kiat have their first encounter with a humpback calf

Thursday 8 Sepember -Today I headed out with the first of my Whaleswim Photo groups for 2011, here amongst the beautiful Vava’u island group, in the Kingdom of Tonga.

While the weather may not have been our best friend today, close-by E’uiki Island we were introduced to a friendly calf, her mum and escort… Kiat and Eyre got their first close-encounter of the baby whale kind.

Oh, and that’s my first use of the Canon EF 8-15mm f4L Fisheye on the 7D. I think I’m going to love it!

Lord Howe Island – photographer’s paradise

20 July 2011

This coming October, photographer Michael Snedic from Trekabout Photography Workshops is hosting their Lord Howe Island Experience. In this short video you can enjoy some of my Lord Howe images, set to “By Water’s Edge”, a piece by my friend David Pickvance from his album “Tempest” (available on iTunes).

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The 2011 AIPP Event draws near

4 July 2011

The 2011 AIPP Event is shaping up as a the year’s premier weekend of photography education and inspiration (and 50cpd points to boot). Hear from 20 experts covering all genre from Advertising to Video in the beautiful city of Adelaide, South Australia 23-26 October.

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Back in port after Southern Wonders

10 June 2011

The sea off South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula really turned it on for the photographers who joined me on this year’s Southern Wonders tour with Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions. We came together in the steel town of Whyalla at the head of Spencer Gulf to capture the annual aggregation of Australian Giant Cuttlefish off Point Lowly. […]

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leaving Torres Strait

16 April 2011

My Torres Strait adventure ends this morning, when I start my flights southward. The time I had on Mabuiag Island was amazing, I was made to feel very welcome by both the 200 (or so) residents of this remote community, and the research team I was there working with. Yesterday I took the ferry from […]

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Mabuiag Island, Torres Strait

11 April 2011

I’ll be out of range this week, visiting the remote Torres Strait Island community of Mabuiag Island on a magazine assignment. This is only my second trip up to the Torres Strait, and I’m looking forward to visiting this little-known part of Australia.

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