10th September 2012
We have just returned from a 5 day trip out to Madeira to photograph Whales and Dolphins. The trip consisted of 4 days afloat and a day into the interior to photograph the Island's wildlife.

The full portfolio for the trip can be found in the Gallery

Before anyone asks the sea is that colour.

The species list for the week was as follows.

The species list included a fair slice of luck with the first day including a Sperm Whale. Not known for hanging around in that part of the world the Sperm Whales are generally passing through but are attracted to the deep water around the Island.

Marine life.

Sperm Whale (seen once)
Atlantic spotted dolplhins (encountered on 3 occasions)
Short finned pilot whales (encountered on 3 occasions)
Bottlenosed dolphins (1 very brief encounter no photos)
Flying fish (seen briefly no photos)


Zino's petrel, seen out at sea, (confirmed by Dr Zino at evening lecture)
Bulwer's petrel
Cory's Shearwater
Berthelot's pipet
Madeira trocaz pigeon


Monarch butterfly
Clouded yellow butterfly
Long tailed Blue butterfly

Misc wildlife

Madeiran wall lizards

The trip

Flying from Gatwick we arrived early on the Friday in advance of the main party giving us time to photograph the wall lizards in the town and fit in an extra boat trip on the Saturday. The Island has only one type of of lizard, The Madeiran wall lizard and although the Island has a population of Gecko’s they do not appear until the evening.
The lizards are about 2-3 inches long and are not the easiest creatures to photograph but some are braver than others and if you persevere it is possible to get some decent images with a Macro lens.

Photgraphing dolphins 8 nautical miles south of Funchal (Madeira) on the vessel "Ventura do mar"

The boat that we sailed on is called the Ventura do mar which is a 50ft (16m) Sailing ketch with 2 masts. The operator has 2 crew with a skipper and a Marine Biologist who are all very knowledgeable about the local wildlife. The engine is a 96hp motor so do not expect to get anywhere quick with this boat which does not seem to be a disadvantage in the local environment.

The first day afloat resulted in a Sperm Whale sighting which is not a common experience in these waters. The water is very deep which suits the Sperm whale but they only seem to pass through and feed on route. One of the marine biologists on board had been there 18 months and had only had 5 sightings of this magnificent animal. The whale went down a couple of times and eventually gave us the chance to get within about 100 metres. After blowing for about half a dozen times the whale (Male approx 15 metres and maybe 40 tonnes) dived for the deep showing its fluke as it submerged.

The next 3 days afloat gave us magnificent views of more cetaceans with the 2 main species being the Atlantic spotted dolphins and the Short finned pilot whales. The dolphins were in a pod of 80-100 animals and quite often the females had calves of varying ages with them coming to the boat. Depending on whether they have been fed or not will depend on how long they will stay with the boat. On the first encounter the dolphins were bow riding for about 25 mins and after the that the other encounters were more brief with one static 10 mins whilst they swam around the boat.
The Short finned pilot whales are a pod of approx 30 resident whales which are encountered quite frequently by the local boats. We saw them 3 times and the first occasion saw them travelling fast along the coastline. After that we saw them “logging” which is an expression for cetaceans where they lie motionless on the surface resting. This gives good photographic opportunities but rarely gives you the chance to photograph them higher out of the water except when they start “spy hopping “.

Notes on equipment

The weight limit of 8 kg for the carry on luggage does present big problems for the individual photographer and with the total weigh of 18kg for the complete kit this had to be spread over 2 people with the tripod in the suitcase in the checked luggage.

The equipment list was as follows
2 camera bodies
500mm lens, 70-300mm lens, 17-40mm lens and a 100mm Macro lens. 17 inch Lap top and tripod.

With experience I would say that the opportunities to use the 500mm are fairly limited on a boat (bloody heavy anyway) and carrying the Canon 70-300mm L lens gave the ideal focal length to shoot the close in stuff with the 300mm end giving you the chance to get the occasional longer shot.

Most shots are taken at the 70-150 end and the 17-40 on a full frame is handy to keep around your neck in case something big turns up close.
Dolphin photography is fast and furious and you have to be prepared to hang off the bow to get some decent images. I have 2 cameras around my neck and keep spare batteries and cards in a top pocket. You do not want to give up your position on a moving boat to go and find a battery or card when the dolphins will only be with you for a limited period of time.

As tempting as it is to point and shoot at every splash around the boat the only way to catch a dolphin coming out of the water to breath is to follow individual dolphins. While they are bow riding to the side of a boat dolphins will come to the surface on a regular basis and while other dolphins are jumping around you have to keep patient and wait for them to raise to the surface and fire off a sequence when they rise out of the water.

Personally I would recommend wearing a climbing harness and clipping on to something solid to keep your hands free whilst hanging over the bow.


Madeira is a wonderful location to photograph and on this occasion was very hot with the temperatures on the boat exceeding 30 deg for most of the trip. Always essential to cover up on this occasion we drank volumes of water with no shade on the boat.

The Ventura do mar has its own web-site and the tour company Naturetrek which ran this trip has an excellent guide (Catherine Strong) for which nothing was too much trouble.

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