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KAP with Dolphins

Posted by Tom Benedict on 15/05/2011

Over the past year and a half I’ve written from time to time about doing KAP with whales and dolphins.  Until today we haven’t been able to do either.  That has changed.

This all started during the 2009/2010 humpback whale season.  I got a call from a fellow photographer and whale researcher who asked if I’d be interested in doing KAP off the back of a boat.  Well yeah!  We tried, but were unsuccessful at photographing a whale using KAP gear.  We started too late in the season, and we had no chance to practice before trying it on the water.  A combination of things kept us from trying this during the 2010/2011 season, though clearly we were both interested in pursuing it.  As World Wide KAP Week approached, we saw an opportunity to try the technique on dolphins, but the storm system that ended WWKW early in Hawaii meant we didn’t have the weather we needed to give it a try.

When the call came that the weather should be good Saturday morning, I was more than ready to give it everything I had.  I threw all the batteries in the chargers, checked to make sure CHDK was loading the right program with each of the cards in my camera bag, and laid out the clothes I wanted to wear.  This was it.  In the morning we headed out and turned north.

Searching For Dolphins

Despite the good weather report, it had just finished raining when we put the boat in.  As we headed out of the harbor we kept an eye on the horizon where gray clouds were dumping rain into the ocean.  If the weather turned, we were calling it done.  But the further north we went, the better the weather got.  It was still overcast, but when I checked the metering on my camera I knew we could do it.

Unfortunately the first two pods of dolphins parked themselves well within the five mile radius of the Kona International Airport, with one of them right across from the runway. We kept going, hoping for another pod.  As we passed Kua Bay we knew the chances were getting pretty slim.

And then there they were.  The biggest of the three pods we’d seen, hugging the coast and heading south.  I set up my kite as he brought the boat around.

There wasn’t enough wind to fly the kite on its own, so we used the boat to generate wind.  This meant we couldn’t park the rig over the dolphins, but had to drive past them and photograph them in snatches.  Even with the overcast light and the intermittent photography, it worked.

Spinner Dolphins 5361

Eventually we settled into a routine of pass / turn / pass.  I reeled in the camera between passes to keep it out of the water, but also so we could start at low altitude and work higher.  It took a steady hand on the wheel to guide us around the rocks that pepper that stretch of coastline, and at times the dolphins were clearly luring us into them.  I didn’t appreciate how complicated the coastline is until I got home and looked at the photos.

Here There Be Rocks

The KAP  technique we used was adapted from the technique I use to photograph sea turtles: Before each pass I’d let out about 30-50′ of line so the rig was parked just behind the boat and up about 45 degrees. As we swung by the pod for each pass, I’d let out line so the rig hovered at that altitude and made a slow pass over the dolphins, photographing them the whole time. At the end of the pass I’d stop letting out line, the rig would fly high into the air, and I’d get some high altitude images as we started the turn for the next pass.

Toward the end the sun came out and we finally got decent light.


Now for the pitfalls:

Sunlight is killer on the water. Because of the overcast sky pointing anywhere east or north resulted in washed out photos with massive highlights on the water. Be aware of your sun angle at all times! If the pass isn’t going to work, come around and try again.

The technique I was using meant I had to have 100% of my attention on the kite and rig at all times. I flipped the switch on the remote to start taking pictures, and from that point on I was flying the kite. I’d occasionally re-orient the camera, but most of my attention was in the air. At one point I had the camera maybe 20′ off the water, maybe 200′ behind the boat. The kite line touched the wake behind the boat and immediately the boat was flying the kite and not me. End of the pass! I took in line fast, got everything high up off the water, and everything stayed high and dry. Barely. The line was in the water for a few seconds at most. The KAPer’s attention has to be on the kite and rig.

I already mentioned the rocks. The boat captain’s attention really needs to be on the boat! (This means no solo KAP for this. It’s new territory for me.)

This also means that it would be really tough to do video feedback without a third person. Ideally we’d have three, with one running the kite, one running the rig, and the third running the boat.  These are details to be worked out in the future.  For now we know it works.

– Tom


2 Responses to “KAP with Dolphins”

  1. Bill Blake said

    A fantastic result that proves the method. Reading the account just makes me realise how scary this got! Congratulations on a well thought-out and executed KAP operation: no easy matter to get photos at all yo-yoing the kite like that; I bet your arms were tired!

    Can you let us know how fast you ran the boat and which kite let you play the taut and slack game like that?

    Bar a balloon I can’t think of another method that would get you the resolution you achieved: it’s terrific!

    • Tom Benedict said

      The boat speed varied depending on the direction. There was a light wind, so going upwind we were able to run a little slower, and downwind we had to speed things up to keep the kite in the air.

      I used my 6′ rokkaku for this, and taking a tip from Kevin Lajoie, I put extra bow in the spreaders to make it more stable when the tension came off the line. This probably cost me a fair bit of the low-wind performance on the kite, but it mean the kite didn’t tend to wander once the line went slack. It just came straight down.

      I’d be afraid to try this with a soft kite. The tension/slack cycle would pose too much of a risk of collapsing one of the cells in a kite like a Flow Form. But I’d be willing to bet the trick would work with other framed kites.

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