How to Photograph Wildlife from a Kayak

How to Photograph Wildlife from a Kayak

Tips and Tricks for Catching Bald Eagles and Better Around Channel Islands National Park

By Chuck Graham | June 9, 2022

CAPTURING CAVES AND CREATURES: Nature works on its own schedule, so those who want to take photos from the seat of their kayaks should always be ready for the shot, whether it’s navigating through sea caves from Santa Cruz Island or capturing bald eagles on a cliff. || Credit: Chuck Graham

As two marine bald eagles perched 50 feet above me on Santa Cruz Island, I battled a persistent 15 mph northwesterly wind while trying to hold my position in my kayak. I was looking for a suitable composition against the dimpled cliffs to photograph this majestic keystone species of the Channel Islands National Park.

Using a rudder stroke in a sit-on-top kayak, I glided atop a canopy of giant kelp and made like a sea otter into position. I swung my right leg into the water and wrapped my leg in kelp, this natural anchor giving me the photo opportunity I was looking for beneath the steep, volcanic, wave-battered cliffs. It was a unique backdrop accessible only from the seat of a kayak.

The dense kelp canopy also forced the wind down, preventing any spray from coating my camera and 300mm Image Stabilizer lens. It also allowed me to stabilize my kayak and limit camera shake while I photographed the two raptors before they flew off to catch another fish or antagonize nearby western gulls again.

Credit: Chuck Graham

Photography from a kayak offers a unique perspective on the water that you cannot reach on foot or through the air. However, it’s a constant game of chess to gauge the wind, swell and current while using these natural elements to your advantage and finding subjects in their native habitat.

A good percentage of my photography is from a sit-on-top kayak, which offers more flexibility than a closed-deck boat. In a sit-on-top, I can move freely around the boat, even lying down and facing forward to get that sea level perspective. It also allows me to throw one leg out to either side of my kayak to stabilize it when kelp is not present.

Due to the unpredictable sea conditions and constant movement, whether it’s panes of glass or a scene from The Perfect Storm, shutter speeds are increased from kayaking and ISOs range from 3200 and above . The image of one bald eagle taking off ahead of the other on Santa Cruz Island was taken about a month ago, and was shot at 1/1000 of a second, at F8, and ISO at 3200.

Credit: Chuck Graham

For years I’ve played with camera gear in a kayak, playing Russian roulette while exposing my gear to the elements. There’s always that risk, but over the years the rewards have far outweighed any potential snafus. I usually keep a dry bag on my lap so my camera gear is always ready. I also keep a T-shirt in the dry bag to wipe my hands before using my camera, as well as a leash securing the paddle to the kayak.

The occupants of the ocean kingdom are also unpredictable. You never know when a northern fur seal, a humpback whale or a rare seabird like a rhinoceros puffin might surface while I’m paddling through the Santa Barbara Channel or, say, around the island of San Miguel. So the camera is still on, the lens cap is off, and my longest lens is still attached.

After all, I can always set up a seascape and quickly switch to a wide-angle lens. Wildlife has always had its own schedule, especially in the water, so it’s best to be prepared and wait to be surprised from the seat of a kayak.

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