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What Is ‘Behind The Shot’?

To me, photographs are strengthened by having a good story to support them. At its core, photography is the art of capturing memories and those memories deserve to be told & shared. With this new concept I want to tell people that story. I want to share what effort, struggle and sometimes luck is behind the publishing of that single image you might see in your social media feed. Every month I will be sharing one photograph which has a good story, a deeper meaning or a struggle behind it.

Obsessed With Whales

Ever since I was a kid, I have been fascinated by whales. On the various travels we did with our family, there was always a moment to go whale watching. Sometimes we even went on multiple whale watching trips. By the time I turned 13, I had seen many different species such as fin whales, sperm whales, humpbacks, minke whales and even belugas. I felt very fortunate and these gentle creatures left a big impression on me.

One whale watching tour in 2000 I remember very vividly. I remember we were in a small zodiac off the coast of Newfoundland in Canada. It had been foggy the whole day but in the late afternoon we finally had a chance to head out. Our first encounter was with a fin whale, the second largest creature on the planet. The whale surfaced only a few metres away from the zodiac. I remember well how awestruck I was. I was thinking how amazing it was that these are such massive creatures and yet so harmless. Later on that trip we found a group of humpback whales which were feeding and playing around. While they were feeding, we too had some sandwiches, looking at this incredible event.

Behind the Shot - Whales in Greenland

This is a scanned photograph which I took as a child from the zodiac as we approach the fin whale. In this image you can see the head of the fin whale with it’s distinct white right jaw.

Behind the Shot - Whales in Greenland

This is a scanned photograph which I took as a child from the zodiac while we were having some sandwiches. In this image you can see the tale of a humpback whale as it was splashing back and forth.

The Dream

Around the same time I began taking up photography more seriously, I moved to Iceland. It wasn’t long after that when I purchased my first drone and started thinking about capturing these beautiful giants in a different way. After seeing a few aerial shots of whales I began dreaming of photographing them in a similar way. In Iceland, there aren’t many places where whales come close enough to the shores for you to be able to reach them with a drone. Especially if you consider that at the time, most drones didn’t have the greatest battery life. However, I kept on dreaming and this idea remained in the back of my head. Because I was based in Iceland, I knew that at some point the opportunity would present itself.

Arctic Foxes in Hornstrandir 2024

A humpback whale swimming near our boat in a remote area of West Greenland. The pectoral fins are glowing in the harsh sunlight we had that day.

Greenlandic Whales

Over the years, I began looking into what would be the best place to capture the shots I had envisioned. I very quickly realised that some locations in Greenland, particularly on the west coast, had much better opportunities. The area around Disko Bay is very favourable as the depth is sufficient close to the shore, while also having a lot of whales around that feed on the krill inside the bay. Therefore, in 2020 I decided to make a short 5-day trip to Ilulissat to spend time only on that. Unfortunately, as we all know, those plans got cancelled as Greenland was closed off for almost two years.

Fast-forward to 2023 when at last a very real opportunity presented itself: a photography workshop which I hosted together with Nigel Danson. During this workshop, which I will report on at a later date, we travelled to the area around Disko Bay. With that approaching workshop in mind, I began dreaming again. I started researching how other people had captured these creatures to fully prepare myself. Was this finally going to happen?

Behind the Shot - Whales in Greenland

The workshop in West Greenland together with Nigel Danson was incredible. I look forward to sharing more about it with you soon.

After finally arriving in Greenland, we were told that the whales had not yet arrived in their usual numbers due to the prolonged cold spell over Greenland. However, I remained hopeful. They were due to arrive at any moment so our odds would increase each day. On the third day of the workshop, we finally got lucky. As we headed for the small settlement of Oqaatsut, in two small speedboats, the captain of the first boat spotted a humpback feeding in-between the icebergs. Finally, the time had come!

I quickly rushed inside the boat to grab my drone and took off from the small backside of the boat. It was hard! I mean, it was much harder than I had dared to image. I could see the humpback whale very clearly on my screen but the second it went a bit deeper, it vanished into the blue beyond. I tried following it but it’s unpredictable movements, made it much more challenging than I had dared to imagine. Fortunately, I did manage to get some shots I was happy with at the end.

This first encounter with a humpback whale was quite challenging as it would often disappear in the depths. Floating icebergs made it difficult to find it again.

Even though conditions were challenging, I managed to capture a few photographs I am happy with.

After this exciting encounter, we headed over to the settlement. Because we spotted the humpback whale so close to the shore, I immediately headed over to the shoreline to fly my drone again. We were in luck! Out of the blue, a fin whale swam by a few hundred metres from the shore. As I positioned my drone above, I noticed something else was in the water there too. “A calf! She has a calf with her!” I shouted in all my excitement. This was so much more than I had dared to hope for.

Behind the Shot - Whales in Greenland

An adult fin whale together with a calf swam by Oqaatsut. They were only a few hundred metres from the shore.

The next day, the whale party continued. In the morning we set out to visit the Eqi glacier. This glacier front is the fastest calving glacier front in the world. After watching a few calving events, we headed back towards Ilulissat. About mid-way through the trip, we again spotted a humpback whale. This one was feeding in the middle of a narrow passage. We stopped the boat and spent about an hour with this animal as it was gently feeding around and even under the boat. I still can’t believe this happened.

A boat sailing through ice near the Eqi glacier in West Greenland.

Sailing through the ice covered fjord near the Eqi glacier is quite the experience.

After the first two whale encounters, I was already feeling fulfilled but seeing a massive humpback feed in the way it did now was something I did not dare hope to capture. Below you can see a small selection of the shots I managed to capture of this feeding giant. The conditions while shooting were great. The sun was high in the sky, which meant you could see sun rays in the water. And because of that same sunlight, the pectoral fins almost looked as if they were glowing. In some of the images, you can also clearly see the krill as it was being pushed to the surface by the whale. The conditions were magical.

It was such an incredible moment. Even weeks after, I am still smiling when reminiscing of the experience. It feels so rewarding to fulfill this dream I’ve had for such a long time.

Support Jeroen’s Work

As an independent photographer, Jeroen partially relies on your support to keep producing worthwhile content such as blogs, photographs, books and much more. If you want to support his work, it is possible to do so by buying his e-books & books, prints or calendars.

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Thank you for considering!

Jeroen Van Nieuwenhove

Jeroen is an award-winning Belgian photographer based in Iceland. The past years, he dedicated his photography to the Central Highlands & volcanic eruptions. Most recently, he received international attention for his work at the Fagradalsfjall volcano.

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