A southern right whale looking at the camera underwater

A juvenile southern right whale sizes up photojournalist Richard Robinson. The Right Look © Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year: The southern right whales' song of hope

In the subantarctic Auckland Islands, Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Richard Robinson captures a bright new future for the whales almost hunted to extinction.

Richard Robinson was being eyeballed by a giant. The juvenile southern right whale balanced on one fin and rolled towards the photojournalist from only feet away. Then the 11 metre male disappeared into the churned up sea. This was an area known for great white sharks, and the terrible visibility created an eerie feel. Within moments, a colossal shadow crept towards Richard across the ocean floor. The curious whale had returned for another inspection, flashing the love heart pattern on his belly. This game continued for half an hour.

As the whale rolled around and the light bounced off the sand, Richard snapped one of his commended images. He had to back-fin so that he could fit the whale in the frame, even with a fisheye lens.

'I've done a lot of stuff with whales,' he says, describing often fleeting moments, 'But this was just something else. The curiosity of this whale was phenomenal.'

The whale research expedition

It had been a lifelong goal of Richard's to photograph southern right whales, but photographers can't turn up to this remote area unannounced. There are strict controls to protect the whales, which are now in recovery after the end of whaling.

In 2020, his wish was granted. Richard boarded an expedition yacht with a small team of scientists, led by the University of Auckland's Dr Emma Carroll. The photojournalist had his camera poised on two separate expeditions across two years. Even with a drysuit and gloves, the water would be freezing. They sailed for roughly three days from the bottom of New Zealand's South Island, arriving at the subantarctic Auckland Islands. This is where the whales breed and give birth — where they go to feed, nobody knew.

A birds eye view of a research boat floating next to a whale

© Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

This team had come together to explore the southern right whales' recovery. They gathered data with satellite tags, biopsies and photogrammetry, the art of extracting 3D information from photographs, using drones to measure the whales' sizes and population. The scientists could then sex the whales, track their movements and see what they were eating.

Richard is a photojournalist, but he was embedded in the science of the trip too. Alongside capturing photographs to tell the whales' story, he supported the photogrammetry. The pieces of the puzzle give valuable insight into feeding grounds and migration routes. The scientists can look at new threats the whales might face.

The award-winning photo

'We'd been absolutely smashed for a few days by bad weather,' Richard remembers of one memorable day. He recounts the strongest wind he's felt on a boat, the coldest day of the trip and to top it off — snow. 'But it's a really safe anchorage. That's why the whales are there, it's a really sheltered harbour.'

The small rubber dinghy they were sitting on was slicked in slurry, the water stirred up. Even in a sheltered cove within the harbour the visibility was no more than a couple of metres, making it pointless for Richard to dive. They'd seen nothing all day.

'Then we saw this social group in the distance and it just started getting closer and closer,' Richard says. Eventually the huge creatures came out from underneath the tiny boat. They were roughly 16 metres long.

'I knew what was going on, I knew they were mating,' Richard says. Muscle memory kicked in, and he seized the opportunity to snap a rare moment. Controlling the underwater camera with a trigger from the surface, he used a fish-eye lens on a pole-cam.

An underwater photo of two whales mating just below the surface of the ocean

© Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

'I knew I had something really special at the time,' he says, although the murky water meant he had to wait and see if the image would be good enough. 'Then they just moved on, so it was a one-frame kind of thing.'

That night, as the photo came to life on the computer, he knew his work had paid off. He says he's never seen such a clear photo of mating southern right whales.

Whales under persecution

These whales are an important part of Māori tradition, and are known as Tohorā. But the sea has not always been a safe place for them. In the last century, they came close to extinction after years of whaling. As few as 40 remained in the 1920s. They were given legal protection by the League of Nations in 1935, but for the following three decades were rarely seen around the New Zealand mainland. Illegal whaling from the Soviet Union dealt their population a further blow. But their numbers have now grown into the thousands and 1986 saw a moratorium (or temporary ban) on commercial whaling. Richard likes to think that this species of baleen whale could include matriarchs who have seen the end of whaling with their own eyes. Some think they can live for up to 100 years.

Richard Sabin is the principal curator in the mammal group at the Natural History Museum. He explains that Port Ross is an important nursery area for the southern right whales, following the devastating slaughter of the animals during whaling.

'The threats now are far more abundant and pervasive than they were at the peak of commercial whaling,' he says. Those threats include chemical pollution, ocean plastics, overfishing, and noise pollution from shipping, dredging and ocean mining.

A birds eye view of a whale swimming with its calf

© Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

'The southern right whale has become a sentinel for the effects of climate change. The health of these individual animals, they reflect the health of the individual ecosystems that they live in.'

He explains that material held in places like the Museum is invaluable for helping scientists understand long term trends.

'But the thing to remember is that with coordination and cooperation between nations across the globe, there can be successes and there can be recoveries,' he says.

That's what Richard's photos illustrate and they help paint a broader picture around the status of the species.

Dr Rochelle Constantine was one of the scientists on board the expedition with Richard Robinson. She says that the remote feeding and breeding grounds of these particular whales seems to be working to their advantage. The population is steadily growing.

Photography in the climate crisis

The mating whale photo, titled New Life for the Tohorā, won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in the Oceans: The Bigger Picture category. Richard says this particular image was the most unique of his collection.

'Collectively, the images are about hope,' he says, glad that the whales' success story is being celebrated.

'I think photography is going to play a key part in the next 10 years in bringing a social shift in how we perceive nature,' he says. 'As fragile as things are at the moment, nature is incredibly resourceful and strong. If we treat it with just a little more respect, there can be big changes.'

Richard Sabin adds how valuable photography is. Scientists have always relied on images of animals and their ecosystems.

A birds eye view of a coastline showing a group of whales swimming off shore

© Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

'One of the things that photographers do brilliantly, is capture these really incredibly important behaviours, which we don't see very often or, in fact, we don't see at all sometimes,' he says.

For Rochelle, it's important to work with flexible and patient photojournalists like Richard. He understands that you can't simply recreate a moment (like tagging a whale) for the benefit of the camera.

'By working closely with the researchers, photojournalists can learn a lot about how the animals move and how to get the best photos,' she says. 'In turn, researchers get wide coverage where an image draws people in to ask questions about the world that perhaps they wouldn't have thought about until they saw the photo.'

Richard followed in the footsteps of his British-born grandfather, who became a press photographer on his move to New Zealand. He also had a talent for underwater photography. Starting his own career at newspapers before taking his camera to the underwater world, Richard says he feels lucky to spend his days telling stories with a camera.

An underwater photo of a grey and white spotted whale looking at the camera

© Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.

For budding photojournalists, he has wise words: 'Photography is a really hard industry. But if you just stick it out, there's amazing opportunities out there. Follow your internal compass.'

Photography doesn't need to be expensive, he says. Second-hand gear or a smartphone can be a route into capturing important images in a unique way.

For those keen to help southern right whales, Rochelle says: 'If you are lucky enough to see a whale when on the ocean, always give them space and keep your distance. They are often curious and will approach vessels or come very near shore in shallow water so people can be tempted to get too close to them.'

Both she and Richard Sabin share another important way to help whales, and it involves slowing the rate of climate change. 

'The ocean is changing rapidly and the southern waters where the whales are feeding are changing,' Rochelle says. As prey shifts, whales may need to migrate to different regions.

The way to help these giant mammals could be small actions. Collectively, they stack up to make big changes.

An underwater photo of a whale swimming just below the surface

© Richard Robinson. Images taken under permit from the New Zealand Department of Conservation.