For the second year in a row, I took the trip to Stuart Island to photograph Bald Eagles. I was accompanied by several other members of the Victoria Camera Club. My philosophy is at least once a year I want to give myself a photo present. This usually means being in a place where hundreds of great images can be created in a relatively short number of days. Stuart Island is this place.
This past club season I was asked to be the group leader and trip organizer. Last year I got to know the owner of the Nanook Lodge, Sam Anderson, a fairly young man with a passion for the outdoors.
As many of us know, wildlife photography trips can be expensive and therefore not easy to attend despite wishing we could. I would put this trip in the middle of the road for what it cost. So, was it worth it? I suppose that comes down to many things but when I got home I was very pleased with the trip and my photos.
Sunday Day 1: Our starting point was Campbell River, a 3-hour drive from Victoria. Some of the group arrived the night before and others drove that morning. Since our water taxi was not meeting us until 10 am, it made for a generous starting time. In my case, I was in a carpool with another attendee.
Four of the photographers were new to me and the other 4 I knew from last year and other club meetings. We had communicated by email a few times but now we get to really know each other over the next 4 days. Our trip will be from Sunday to Wednesday.
Our water taxi pickup in Campbell River was by John Grin who operates Discovery West (discoverywest.ca)
Three of our group were picked up at a different marina so, lots of room in Campbell River for all of our luggage and camera gear. Our boat set out for a 2-hour cruise stopping at any wildlife along the route. It’s very important to have your camera gear ready to use right away as you are now in an area with many Humpbacks and Orcas.
Before we travel too far, a little description of how I focus on my subject. I have been using my Nikon Z9 for over a year and love it. Although there are several ways to produce an automatic focus image, I have had more hits than misses by using the wide large focus area, continuous focus, and a shutter speed of 1/4000 and my f stop opened at 5.6. I then use Auto ISO. You can always clean up any noise afterward. My lens is a 500mm 5.6 Nikon prime lens. I then select animal eye detection just in case our eagles show up. Over the next 4 days, I am normally at these settings.
At 11:50 we came across a Humpback laying on its side and slapping the water with its heavy flippers. Over the next 4 days, the weather provides very bright sunny days so our ability to see far ahead is perfect.
By 1:00 we met up with the other boat and attendees. Off to the Lodge to unpack and settle in for our lunch and then an afternoon eagle trip. The Lodge is situated only 10 minutes from the eagle action, a huge advantage compared to driving out from Campbell River to catch the action.
By 3:00 we are on the water and surrounded by a large group of Pacific White-sided Dolphins. It was fun to watch them race along our boats in the wake. Several jumped out of the water as they seemed to play with us.
At 4:20 we pass by another Humpback and at 6:40 I had my first Bald Eagle in flight photograph. There were only a few other boats passing by so, we had these eagles all to yourselves.
8:00 pm and our first day is over.
Over the next couple of days, we would follow the same pattern. Sometimes we were looking for bears on the coast and other times we were exploring the tides until they started to push the water in a tornado type of pattern and the bottom feeding hake are pushed to the surface where the eagles are patiently waiting.
Monday Day 2: Hundreds of eagles start to gather around 8 am to feed. By 9:30 the skies were void of any eagles as if by magic all eagles were gone. At 7:20 that evening was the second burst of eagle activity. By this time, you start to have your shooting eye and technique coming into form. Panning with the eagles, you look for them coming in to pick up the fish with their incredibly sharp talons. By 8:20 the night once again becomes calm all around us.
Tuesday Day 3: From 8:00 to 11:30 was the eagle show. More dolphins and humpbacks and we retire back to the Lodge for a steak and crab dinner. All beverages included.
Wednesday Day 4: At 4 am I woke up with the urge to photograph stars but apparently I was two hours too late. (should have used PhotoPills -ed) The early morning sunrise was due shortly, but I did manage a really interesting quarter-moon photograph using my 500mm lens. As the rest of our group got up, we got our luggage organized to leave and have breakfast.
We had one last morning boat ride to see what we could find. This would turn out to be my best shooting day of the week. By 7:54 we came across a beautiful large humpback breaching. That sight sure put a halt in our sails. We got in position and had about an hour of hoping to see a few more breaches from the great fish….mammal….whatever (Seinfeld reference)
At 9:40 we had front row seats to a fantastic eagle show with hundreds of eagles in the air. By far the biggest display I have ever seen. It lasted till 10:30. A quick trip back to the Lodge, have a bite to eat, and begin the ride back to the Campbell River marina.
But not too fast. We saw Orcas, we had found a group of 7 or so and they were hugging the shoreline. We figure this is where they rub themselves on the stones so close to shore. We had to keep our 100-meter distance and by now other whale-watching boats from Campbell River were beside us.
We saw one breach from the group and that became the last photo on my trip. I ended up shooting 11, 556 images knowing that at least half or probably more will be deleted quickly for various reasons. But that still is a long way to finding my favourite 50. I was quite surprised that my in-focus rate was around 85 %. I think that was remarkable considering the movement of the boat and the speed of the eagles. These new cameras are amazing. No matter what your brand.