Known for his willingness to take his camera into areas where others would prefer not to go, Patrick Dykstra has captured incredible images and videos both above and below the waves. From capturing Yemeni tribes to shooting underwater Antarctic icebergs, Dykstra has carved a career out of picturing the extraordinary. Involved in notable research projects and expeditions, he has famously been at the forefront of the exploration and documentation of the blue whales of Sri Lanka and the killer whale migration to Iceland.

With a trained eye for capturing unique imagery in abnormal locations, the harsh and alien-like environment of underwater photography was something that came naturally to him. We caught up with the man to find out more about his incredible career and work:

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“Leave the camera on the boat some of the time. I know that sounds odd, but the ocean and its inhabitants are so spectacular that you don’t want to always see them through your viewfinder or on your screen.” © Patrick Dykstra

What made you want to become an underwater photographer?
When I was 16 years old I visited the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. As I was walking through the Sea of Life exhibit, I was shocked to see a life-sized replica of a blue whale. It was bigger than anything else that I had seen in the entire museum, including the airplanes at the nearby Air and Space Museum. The display said that blue whales are the largest animal to ever inhabit the planet. 

I could not believe that the world’s largest animal was not some long-extinct dinosaur. It’s an animal that is alive on Earth at the same time as us. It’s the blue whale, and it is swimming in the oceans just off of our shores.

That day is really when my love affair with whales and the oceans began. I made up my mind then and there to seek out blue whales in their natural environment and I subsequently fell in love with all of the oceans’ creatures and the beauty of the sea. Shortly after that I began studying the ocean and its inhabitants and documenting them with my underwater camera.

The story behind your most memorable underwater shot?
I spent nearly 10 years travelling the world looking for that incredible underwater encounter with a blue whale that would truly let me feel their size and power. When dealing with a 30-metre-long animal that is very shy, the conditions all have to come together just right to get that magical encounter.

You need super high visibility, calm seas, a tolerant whale, and a gentle approach to not scare the animal. It really requires a “perfect storm” of factors to make it all work. My quest took me to the Azores, Antarctica, Mexico, California… I travelled the world seeking that life-changing encounter. 

All of the conditions first came together for me back in 2009, 15 miles offshore in Sri Lanka. A calm blue whale surfaced about 300 metres from me and slowly came my way. I was sure that it would dive or veer off before reaching me, but as the distance closed, I put my mask below the surface and the whale came straight on until it was less than five metres from me. 

I just hung in the water in stunned silence. I was so mesmerised that I forgot to snap a single photo. However, the whale then did a small circle around me and came back for a second look. 

Since that day I have spent hundreds of hours in the water with blue whales, and taken thousands of images, but it is that encounter that I will always remember because it was the first real fulfilment of a decade-long quest.

"I was so mesmerised that I forgot to snap a single photo. However, the whale then did a small circle around me and came back for a second look." © Patrick Dykstra

“I was so mesmerised that I forgot to snap a single photo. However, the whale then did a small circle around me and came back for a second look.” © Patrick Dykstra

Where is your favourite dive destination?
I really enjoy diving with sperm whales in Dominica and also killer whales in Norway. Is that cheating that I gave you two destinations? Diving with blue whales in Sri Lanka is also up there! Does giving you three answers make it worse?

Those three species and destinations are so different that I have to rate them all as a tie at the top of my “favourites list”.

The site you’d most like to dive, but never have?
Pond Inlet, Canada. There are so many interesting creatures along the ice floe edge and I’d love to do some more work with narwhals and polar bears. That region offers some great opportunities for both species.

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“I spent nearly 10 years travelling the world looking for that incredible underwater encounter with a blue whale that would truly let me feel their size and power.” © Patrick Dykstra

The weirdest thing you’ve seen underwater?
I saw a fascinating dance between a barracuda and a pod of false killer whales a few years ago. The barracuda sought protection behind me as several false killers circled around. The whales were a bit cautious about my presence and they were not willing to come closer than about two metres from me.  The barracuda sensed this small area of safety and it stayed next to me, often between my fins, for about 30 minutes. The false killers calmly circled around waiting patiently. 

Eventually I had to climb back in the boat, and that is when the whales pounced and ate the barracuda. It was a really interesting display. I actually felt a little bad for the barracuda as it had sought me out to protect it.

What camera equipment are you currently using?
I’m shooting stills with a Canon EOS-1Dx in an Aquatica housing and video on a Sony a7S II in a Nauticam housing. They both have such different capabilities that I generally take both cameras on the shoots that I’m on.

What is the highlight of your career?
I was really excited to capture the world’s first images and video of a blue whale nursing in early 2015. We’d been at sea for several days off the coast of Sri Lanka and one day the water was just glassy calm and we had a blue whale mother and calf near us for most of the day. At one point they relaxed enough to begin to nurse and I photographed it from the surface and filmed it from the aerial camera. We elected to not get into the water with the pair during the nursing because we didn’t want to disturb the delicate situation. It was really incredible to see from the boat and the aerial camera. It was such a tender and delicate moment and to witness it in person was breathtaking.

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“At one point they relaxed enough to begin to nurse and I photographed it from the surface and filmed it from the aerial camera. We elected to not get into the water with the pair during the nursing because we didn’t want to disturb the delicate situation.” © Patrick Dykstra

…And the low point?
My images and video of the blue whale nursing described above were pretty widely distributed and received a lot of nice press internationally. I was very disappointed when a major US based publication wrote an article in 2016 claiming that their photographer had filmed the first footage of a blue whale nursing. My footage had been public and available for over a year at that point. They issued a fairly weak retraction after I directed them to my footage, but the damage had been done as many other outlets had picked up the original version of their story without the later redactions. 

I’m not sure if they made the claim without knowledge of my footage or if the photographer just wanted recognition, even though their claim was false. Either way, it was pretty hurtful to read their story and see them taking credit for something that I had worked so hard to film a year prior.

Have you any advice that you’d like to give aspiring underwater photographers?
Leave the camera on the boat some of the time. I know that sounds odd, but the ocean and its inhabitants are so spectacular that you don’t want to always see them through your viewfinder or on your screen. Enjoy the feelings that come with just watching and taking in their splendour without any distraction.

Some of the most incredible things that I have witnessed underwater have come when I didn’t have a camera. A feeding orca, a dancing sperm whale, a huge pod of pilot whales on the hunt… Do I regret missing those shots because I left my camera on the boat for those dives? Not for one second.

Is there any particular shot that you still want to get?

Oh, there are so many! A blue whale feeding on krill underwater would be nice. I’ve seen a lot of blue whales underwater and a lot of krill underwater, but not at the same time! I’d also like to get an orca predation on a mammal. I’ve shot them feeding on herring, but seeing a mammal predation would be pretty awesome.

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“You need super high visibility, calm seas, a tolerant whale, and a gentle approach to not scare the animal. It really requires a ‘perfect storm’ of factors to make it all work. My quest took me to the Azores, Antarctica, Mexico, California… I travelled the world seeking that life-changing encounter.” © Patrick Dykstra

Love Patrick’s images? Want to join him on a life-changing expedition? You can visit his website at www.PictureAdventure.com for more information.

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