Saving the whale: how Audun Rikardsen's photography helped rescue a trapped humpback

Below the water is a whale, caught in a yellow plastic cable, with cuts to its skin. Above the water, under a night sky filled with falling snowflakes, is an orange coastguard boat with rescuers on board.
Audun Rikardsen's shot shows the Norwegian coastguard working to release a humpback whale tangled in a line in November 2016. This photo helped them to identify exactly how it was caught, and enabled a diver to rescue the whale. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X (now succeeded by the EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens at 11mm, 1/100 sec, f/5.6 and ISO3200. © Audun Rikardsen

When photographer and Canon Ambassador Audun Rikardsen answered the phone, the caller told him a humpback whale near his home in Tromsø, Norway, was tangled up in fishing rope and desperately fighting to get free. Audun, who is also a scientist, had saved whales before. So he and a friend took his rigid inflatable boat out to sea on a rescue mission.

The wind was up, carrying the snow through the air in a blizzard, and the winter sun wasn't anywhere to be seen – night lasted all day. After an hour or so, they found the whale. It was still fighting – and it was so big, it threatened to capsize their boat.

The boat frightened the whale at first. "Then," Audun says, "it came all the way up to my boat, asking for help. It was so close that I could touch it and even give it a hug." The whale appeared to change position to give the men a better shot at freeing it.

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Audun works as a full-time biology professor at the University of Tromsø and takes most of his pictures locally, during his scientific fieldwork. He used his camera flashes to light up the whale beneath the surface of the waves, in order to work out where the fishing rope was caught on its body. His photographs revealed that the rope was in fact a reinforced internet cable. He tried to cut the cable, but couldn't.

The coastguard arrived to help, which is when Audun took this shot, using his Canon EOS-1D X with a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens, and two Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT flashes – one above and one below the water, in housing that he designed himself. Audun put the whole rig on a long pole so he could avoid having to get into the water.

"The Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM was the perfect lens for the job because of its extreme wide-angle view and great optical quality," Audun says. "The Canon EOS-1D X also has fantastic high ISO and dynamic performances."

Wildlife photographer Audun Rikardsen smiles, holding a Canon camera.
Audun lives in a small village at the coast outside Tromsø, also known as the 'Gateway to the Arctic'. His work as a scientist and photographer gives him unique access to spectacular Arctic wildlife. © Audun Rikardsen
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After five long hours of trying to free the whale, they were forced to give up. They decided they'd try again the next day, if the whale was still alive.

Audun returned the next day with the coastguard and the fire department. The whale was still alive. A diver managed to finally release it from the cable, and the whale was free. Audun hopes it made a full recovery, but it wasn't spotted again.

Several villages around Tromsø lost their internet and mobile phone connection for several weeks as a result of the rescue. The internet company blamed Audun and the fire department for the disruption and asked them to pay the repair bill of 1.5m Krone (about €145,000).

"Of course," Audun says, "we never paid it."

The picture is one of his personal favourite shots. It's not a nice image, he admits, but it is an important one. "The panic and desperation you can see in the whale's eye makes the picture," he says. "From its scars, you can see how it has been desperately fighting for a long time. You can almost feel its pain.

"You can also see that the picture was taken under hostile conditions. The snowflakes in the air look like stars, and create an atmosphere. This is what I am looking for in a good picture: a story, and that little extra."

Written by Gary Evans

Audun Rikardsen's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Wildlife photographer Audun Rikardsen's photography kit on the snow.


Canon EOS-1D X Mark III

The successor to the Canon's flagship pro DSLR respected by sports and wildlife photographers the world over. Audun used the older Canon EOS-1D X to take the photo that helped free this trapped whale. "The Canon EOS-1D X has fantastic high ISO and dynamic performances," he says.


Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM

The complete range of ultra wide-angle focal lengths in a single high-quality zoom lens, perfect for shooting landscapes, architecture and interiors on location. "The Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM was the perfect lens for the job because of its extreme wide-angle view and great optical quality," Audun says.


Canon Speedlite 600EX II-RT

Engineered for fast frame-rate shooting and usable off-camera or in the hotshoe, allowing you to take complete control over lighting. "Very flexible and strong flash that gives many possibilities for light settings," says Audun.

Canon 10x32 IS binoculars

Enjoy beautiful handheld views of birds, nature and spectator sports with these premium binoculars with Powered Image Stabilizer. "These are extremely good binoculars that I have used for 15 years," says Audun.

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