He’s had a professional freelance photography career going on 28 years now — shooting everything from sports to people to commercial projects — but these days David Jenkins focuses most of his time on whales.
“I’ve always had a great interest in nature and the environment,” says David, who began working with environmental groups in Manly, NSW to help them illustrate their campaigns and concerns.
“Through that I met a scientist, Megan Kessler, who was studying the humpback whale migration past Sydney.”
Wanting to further educate himself on the whale species, David became frustrated and concerned with the lack of correct information available, eventually creating the Whalespotter website himself seven years ago. The website is an information hub that aims to cover whales in the whole of Oceania. David researches each species and speaks with scientists who make sure the information is correct and up-to-date.
“I’m working with the University of Newcastle to create information sheets that people can use to talk about the whales, their environment and all the concerns,” David explains. He says the past decade of his interest in whales and creating the website has been “an amazing journey” and one that has seen him doing things like swimming with humpbacks in Tonga and photographing whales in Antarctica.
“Photographing whales underwater was a revelation for me because I’ve watched whales for years from boats and from shore,” says David. “To actually get in the water with them and see them moving around and see how magnificent and elegant they are is incredible. What you realise is, from above the water you’re only seeing about five per cent of what’s actually going on.”
Working on the Whalespotter website has not only given David some fantastic opportunities to join trips and be a part of the conservation of animals, but importantly, it has also acted as a vehicle for David to share important knowledge and information about the species.
He speaks passionately about all the issues affecting our environment, our oceans, and the flow on effect to animals. “The effects of whaling have been devastating; you can’t take that kind of numbers of animals out of an ecosystem and think it won’t have massive flow and effect.”
With the mantra that “images can change the world”, David has a strong message he hopes to convey through his photography. Indeed photography as a medium is known for its power and this is something that David recognises.
“You can talk about things for as long as you like, but a photograph will cut to the heart of the matter.” David describes how photos can illustrate an issue, they can show the “horror” of a situation, so often caused by human activity. This process of illustrating an issue using his photography and being able to teach people about the environment is a facet of his work that David enjoys.
“Photography is vital in this process of education. I love being a photographer and sharing my images to teach people and educate them. I love talking, particularly, to younger people and to children because they’re like sponges. They really want to know about things and they’re fascinated by things.”
David’s self-funded Whalespotter project takes up the majority of his time, with freelance photography on other days. Documenting the whales of such a vast region is a feat he admits is very challenging. “I think I was crazy when I decided to cover the whole of Oceania!” he says. “That said, I take more of an umbrella overview — my role is to help create educational material that people can share and school children and teachers can use.”
The other challenge of David’s line of work is, of course, the unpredictability of wildlife photography. “There’s a magic about that moment. That luck when you were in the right place at the right time and you managed to actually create an image,” recalling the torment of just missing out on seeing the threatened southern right whales at different destinations, which went on for years.
Up next for this full-time whale watcher is chasing more southern right whales in South Australia, sperm whales in NZ and then Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, too. He’s working hard, unpaid to create a fantastic resource on the majestic whale species.
“You chip away at the iceberg as best you can and it’s just a matter of doing what you can with what you have,” he says. David sums up the significance and the power of photography, and us as humans, by referring to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, the photograph of planet Earth by the Voyager 1 space probe.“The image is almost completely black with this one little blue dot, less that a pixel in size. That’s the earth,” he explains.
“To me, that is what sharing the miracle through photography is; it’s really about helping people in the chaos of their day to stop and consider this little miracle that we’re living on.”
“If humanity is intelligent enough to create the mess that we have, but not intelligent enough to realise that and to do something about it, then really, do we deserve the miracle that we’ve been given, the blessing that we’ve been given?
“The real question for humanity is not whether climate change is real or not, it’s whether humanity wants to be here to see that next sunrise.”
Big glass, big creatures
David says when you’re photographing whales from land, “really big lenses are vital because even when you’re very lucky and a whale comes close to shore, they can still be 500 metres or even a kilometre away.”
Some of the team from Nikon Australia spent a chilly winter’s day with David at North Head, Manly, recently for the annual whale migration census. Among some of the “big glass” used on the day, David used the new Nikon D500 with a NIKKOR 200-500mm f/5.6E ED VR. “An awesome combo!” he says.
To read more about the day, click here.
In David’s bag
Words of wisdom
• The camera gear is really important, but it’s also your vision for creating your images. Have your vision, and then work with whatever you’ve got.
• What I’ve found over time is that if you get passionate about photographing something, that’s when you create amazing images.