Burrill Lake photographer, Phil Thurston has returned from a boat trip around Tonga photographing the whale migration.
He spent three and a half weeks swimming with whales and says it was “the most beautiful experience you could ever have”.
After an unplanned meeting with Darren Jew, an Australian photographer authorised to operate whale photography tours in Tonga, Phil was invited to help host a boat of photographers on the trip.
The group would get up before sunrise and set sail, waiting to see the mist from the whale’s blowholes. Their skip would then position the boat and they would slide in for a swim with the gentle giants.
“At first I felt a bit intrusive,” Phil said.
“Then I realised how playful, welcoming and energetic they are.
“When you are swimming with a creature that’s 15 metres long and 30-40 tonnes, it is a really special experience.”
Phil has been an ocean photographer since he was a teenager and his experience in the water meant he did not feel as nervous as some of the other photographers on the boats.
Part of his job was to help them in and out of the boat and calm their nerves.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the ocean and seen a lot of animals,” he said.
“We were told how peaceful and gentle they were and if they didn’t want to hang around they would leave. One flick of the tail and they were gone.”
The tour company policy is to always put the whales first. Phil says this is the best way to operate as it results in better interactions and pictures.
He said his favourite experience on the trip was with a mum and her calf. The calf was only a week or two old and could barely swim still. He watched the mum teaching it how to swim.
“It swam up to me less than a metre away and looked at me right in the eye. It was curious to see what I was,” Phil said.
“It had an inborn nature to be accommodating and kind.
“It was a beautiful thing to experience.”
During his time in Tonga, Phil worked with Canon who shared his photos on social media. He will also be releasing a short documentary about his experiences. His goal is to inspire people to break their routine and find a meaningful purpose in life.
“Photography is not just a job for me. It is bigger than making money. It is about making beautiful moments,” he said.