Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

The Original REALLY Big Gulp!

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In the Field

The Original REALLY Big Gulp! Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. 12 September 2019.

If you've never watched Humpback Whales surface feeding you are missing out on one of the most amazing spectacles in nature. Between the roiling and churned up water, the gaping mouth, and the always-shocking gi-normous size of the whale it's a dramatic event that never gets old!

I captured this image on the first day of our 2019 "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Exploratory Photo Adventure. In this shot the whale has its massive mouth wide open and is about to drop and close its upper jaw and then begin forcing and filtering water out of its mouth through its baleen plates (which, in turn, trap the small baitfish in its mouth). The three brown objects on the water surface behind the whale are actually Steller Sea Lions that were feeding on the same school of baitfish that the whale was working.

If there's a downside to photographing whales it's that regardless of the quality of the image invariably you'll hear someone say " what the heck am I actually looking at?". avoid this shot the topmost portion of the whale is its upper jaw. The long pink object along the roof of the mouth is the palette, and it's flanked by hundreds of rows of baleen plates (which in this image look like "hairs" on either side of the palette). The lower jaw here is filled with water and you can see the "pleats" in it that function in helping the mouth and throat expand (to ensure the whale gets a REALLY big gulp of water and - hopefully - fish!). On the front of the lower jaw (below the mouth) there are white "acorn" barnacles (that are usually called Humpback Barnacles) and immediately below those there's an orange patch that's a mix of more acorn barnacles and tubular gooseneck barnacles (which, not surprisingly, are called Humpback Gooseneck Barnacles). These specific barnacles grow ONLY on Humpback Whales (and they grow on other parts of the whale too, including on the large pectoral fins and on the ends of the tail flukes) and do not appear to harm them.

I'm often asked what the "secret" to photographing humpbacks is. It's pretty darned simple: avoid using too long of a lens, ESPECIALLY if it's a prime lens. Why? Well, the thing with humpbacks is that you never know where they're going to pop up after diving. They could pop up 250 meters away or 25 meters away. So having a fairly wide focal range zoom in your hands (and one with a quick AF system) is a real good thing! I captured this image using Nikon's excellent (but very expensive) 180-400mm f4E zoom lens at 320mm.

Here's a considerably larger (2400 pixel) version of this lunging humpback:

The Original REALLY Big Gulp! Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.72 MB)


1. This image was captured during our "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" exploratory photo adventure in September of 2019. Each year we offer photo tours into several different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well trips to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes in locations on Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as Dall Sheep, Bald Eagles, and more. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

2. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

3. Like all wildlife photographs on this website, this image was captured following the strict ethical guidelines described in The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct. I encourage all wildlife photographers to always put the welfare of their subjects above the value of their photographs.

Behind the Camera

The Original REALLY Big Gulp! Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. 12 September 2019.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 2200.

Nikon D5 paired with Nikkor 180-400mm f4E zoom lens at 320mm. Hand-held from sailboat. VR on and in Sport mode. 9-point Dynamic Area AF mode.

1/1600s @ f5.6; -1.3 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

The Original REALLY Big Gulp! Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. 12 September 2019.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit PSD file (and JPEG files for web use), including all global and selective adjustments, using Phase One's Capture One Pro 12. Global adjustments to this shot were limited to highlight and shadow detail adjustments. Selective local adjustments performed using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case adjustments were made on 3 separate layers and included local/selective editing of (or adjustment of) colour saturation, shadows, and noise reduction.

Photoshop modifications were limited to the insertion of the watermark and/or text.


The Original REALLY Big Gulp! Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. 12 September 2019.

Species Status in Canada*: Special Concern - North Pacific population (May 2011).

Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeagnliae) are active, acrobatic whales that can throw themselves completely clear of the water (a behaviour known as breaching) and will swim on their backs with both flippers in the air. Humpbacks are large (up to 14m - or 46 feet - in length and 40 tonnes in weight) and with huge flippers.

Humpbacks are found in tropical, temperate, and sub-polar waters around the world. They are found on both the east and west coasts of North America. The North Pacific population has been estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 individuals, but only a few hundred of these are found in the waters off the coast of British Columbia.

While Humpbacks are recovering from the damage done to their populations by commercial fishing, the are still subject to a variety of threats from human activities, including becoming entangled in fishing nets, noise and chemical pollution and habitat destruction.

*as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada