There’s something about humpback whales that makes them seem so peaceful. Just elegant, wonderful creatures that wouldn’t hurt a soul, unless that soul happens to be contained by a small fish or a delicious crustacean. But there comes a time in every male humpback’s life when he has to step up and fight.

Imagine nine or so 15-metre-long, 40,000 kg creatures battling each other with all their might, motivated by the strongest force in nature - the need to reproduce. Known as heat runs, these are, by far, the biggest courtship battles in the world.

Most humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) will keep to the polar regions during summer, before migrating thousands of kilometres past the equator to spend the winter months in the tropics. Here they won’t find as much food, but the water is warmer, so a much better place to birth and raise their young. Here the male humpbacks will sing long, complex songs, probably to attract nearby females, but maybe also to sort out a social ranking between themselves. They'll also aggressively compete with each other for the privilege of claiming a female. This means ramming, head-butts, and vigorous tail-slashing - all of which can often last for several hours at a time and across more than 30 kilometres.

Needless to say, this is not an easy behaviour to see, let alone capture. It took the might of the BBC to get the first footage of it, and that was just five years ago. Meanwhile, Australian photographer, Darren Jew, has managed to capture his own incredible images of the phenomenon. Having spent eight years as a photographer with the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service, he now spends his time photographing wildlife across Australia, Africa, Alaska, Patagonia and Antarctica. For just over a month during winter, he heads out to Tonga, a Polynesian archipelago about 5,000 km from Australia, where the humpbacks court, mate and calve.

Full-grown humpbacks will often be between 12 and 15 metres long and will weigh around 40,000 kg each. So about the size of a public bus. Several bus-sized animals violently battling each other around one small human with a camera? I had a chat to Darren about how he does it.

Bec Crew: Can you describe what do the whales do during the heat runs?

Darren Jew: A heat run is a battle between males for the right to accompany a female. It can start when a male or a group of males start to chase a female - other males will join in the chase and battle each other to be the "last whale standing". The conflicts can be quite brutal, with whales ramming each other, pounding each other with their tail flukes, even breaching out of the water and landing on top of each other.

It’s not unusual for us to be travelling amongst a heat run pod at 10-12 knots. The most animals I've been in the water with at once is nine, but I've heard of larger groups heat-running. The longest time I've spent with one group is around four hours, and the whales zigged and zagged over 20 nautical miles.

BC: How do you go about actually getting photographs of the behaviour?

DJ: Over the winter in Tonga, I spend about 45 days on the water looking for humpbacks to swim with and photograph. We encounter all kinds of behaviours over that time, and see whales doing many different things on any given day - an individual whale travelling alone; maybe a mum and her calf resting in a quiet bay; a single male "singing" his haunting whale song to announce his arrival in the area; or maybe a courting couple getting to know each other.

To find these animals we go out to sea and scour the horizon for signs of whales. This can be the arch of their back above the surface, maybe a pectoral fin or tail slap, a breach above the surface, or most commonly, the whale's misty blow. You can estimate the number of whales in a pod by the number of blows, and you can get a feel for their activity and their direction of travel by the height and strength of the blow. When we see a lot of powerful blows together moving quickly on the horizon, it can be the sign of a heat run.

Once we get close enough to see the make-up of the pod and get a feel for its general direction and pace, my skipper manoeuvres our boat in amongst the pod, as if we become part of the action. Under way, perched on the swim platform at the stern of the boat, it's a matter patience and anticipation that combine to make the perfect moment to enter the water and swim through the screen of bubbles created by the boat's wake to emerge where the whales are likely to be. Then it’s camera at the ready…

BC: How did it feel the first time you encountered a heat run?

DJ: I remember the first heat run I experienced, and how I dropped into the water ahead of the pod and just watched in awe as six humpbacks emerged out of the blue, swum past underneath me - some of them rolling to gaze up at me - then disappeared again, all in what seemed like a matter of seconds. Still clear in my mind is how the whales came very close, were conscious of my presence, and were careful not to run into me.

BC: Do you ever get scared about being around these huge animals deliberately bashing into one another?

DJ: I have a great respect for the sea and for wild animals. I think the most dangerous aspect of swimming with whales is rocking boats and the potential of falling over on the deck, not the whales themselves.

BC: Do you work with researchers while you’re in the field?

DJ: I've done some work with Libby Eyre from Macquarie University. Libby's doing research on the 'songs' sung by usually lone male humpbacks. She's been on my boat a number of times, and when she's not on board I often record whale song and send her the details of when and where it's recorded, and notes on behaviour and activity observed at the time.

BC: What's one of your favourite encounters you've had with the whales?

DJ: I have two favourite encounters: heat runs for the sheer challenge of getting in amongst the pod and anticipating the action, then capturing such a chaotic scene filled with of so many big animals. Keeping up with a heat run is physically demanding too, which adds to the satisfaction of capturing the action.

A second and very different experience is when you find a settled mother and calf that are relaxed in your presence. Calves can be very curious, and a combination of a curious calf and a relaxed mum can make for close and intimate encounters… and a lot of fun! I always get excited when the ocean conditions are calm, when under-surface reflections introduce an extra visual element for me to include in my images.


Darren will be co-hosting a photography seminar and workshop in Sydney and Melbourne tomorrow night as part of the Canon Masters program. You can find how to attend here.

And here's a video of Darren at work:

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