Monday, 8 September 2014

Tom Langlands - Bottlenose Dolphins of the Moray Firth

A Bottlenose Dolphin in Early Morning Light

There are only two populations of resident bottlenose dolphins to be found in UK waters. One is a pod of some 130 animals at Cardigan Bay in Wales and the other is a pod of around 190 animals in Scotland's inner Moray Firth. This latter group is the only population to be found in the North Sea. How long they have inhabited these waters is uncertain but there are fisherman's tales of 'Louper Dogs' (leaping dogs) going back to the 1800s. It is thought that these stories refer to the amazing bottlenose dolphins.

Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth

Several weeks ago in July, I headed north to Chanonry Point on the Black Isle to spend a full week photographing these highly sentient creatures in their natural habitat. By the lighthouse at Chanonry Point the waters of the Moray Firth narrow and here, close to the shore, lies a deep channel through which salmon run on their way to their breeding grounds. This is one of the best places in the world to see dolphins hunting at close quarters.

Breaching Dolphins through Early Morning Mist

Twice a day, just after low tide I positioned myself on the point of the shingle beach and with camera pointed into the firth I spent several hours awaiting the arrival of the dolphins as the waters rose around me. Sometimes they would approach from far out at sea and other times it would seem that a pod already located in the inner firth would make their way back out to sea. The weather was fantastic and obliged by providing a variety of atmospheric conditions from early morning mist and light rain through to brilliant sunshine. Some of my favourite shots were in the mist and rain shortly after dawn.

Dolphins strike the water with their tails as they hunt for salmon

Fish Supper

I could ramble on about how I got the shots but I won't because the real thing I've learned about wildlife photography over the years is to observe. The right equipment and settings will help but many great wildlife images have been taken on 'average' equipment. The real secret is to 'Look and Learn'.

My best shots came towards the end of the week after I had studied the dolphins twice a day for several hours at a time. By the third day I was beginning to read their behaviour. I saw how they approached the channel, spread out in small groups, splashed the water with their tails to either attract or confuse the fish, chased and stunned their prey and how they ate it. I began to predict when certain things would happen including when they were likely to breach. The result was that when I captured 'The Triple Jump', quite literally during my last hour of photography of the week, I heard so many other photographers around me complain that they missed it because they didn't expect it to happen. Many had just arrived that morning and hadn't had time to study their subject.

The High Jump

Luck and chance play a big part in wildlife photography but you can greatly reduce these factors by studying your subject and learning how it is likely to behave. Do that and your ratio of 'keepers' to 'discarded' images will increase significantly.

The Triple Jump

Tom Langlands

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