Until last year, photographer Reiko Takahashi was working as a semiconductor engineer, escaping the office a few times a year to pursue her longtime passion for marine life, diving, and underwater photography. Then, in early 2018, a last minute trip to snorkel off the coast of Kumejima Island near Okinawa, Japan, brought the photographer face-to-face with humpback whales for the first time, where she unwittingly captured the image that won grand prize in the 2018 National Geographic Travel Photographer of the Year contest.
“I was really longing to see the bond between a humpback whale and her calf,” Takahashi recalls. Fascinated by the close relationship between whales and their young—and the time they spend together at the beginning of life—Takahaski committed herself to researching the animals. Though she photographed many types of marine life—sharks, manta rays, jackfish, and more—she had yet to swim with humpback whales, a species she longed to see in person. “I became crazy about whales,” she admits.
Takahashi planned a brief, two-day snorkeling trip to the waters near Kumejima Island, a birthing grounds for humpbacks. Temperate weather brought fair swimming conditions as she joined a small group of snorkelers at sea. An expert guide carefully instructed them on best practices to ensure the safety of both the whales and swimmers, including tips for entering the water as quietly as possible, keeping movement to a minimum, and staying a safe distance from the animals.
Though Kumejima Island visitors often set out with high hopes to catch a glimpse of a humpbacks and their young, the lucky sighting isn’t guaranteed. The morning Takahashi swam through the warm seawater, a female humpback and her calf came into sight and she lovingly photographed the pair. The playful calf swam towards the snorkelers, tapping its tail and fins, as Takahashi began to imagine the picture she hoped to create of this special moment.
“I was swimming behind the calf. I imagined the back of the calf with a calm water surface above,” she says. “I completely fell in love with the calf and its very energetic, large, and beautiful tail.” The image she envisioned fell into place. “On that day, I felt a deep love between the mother and child. The calf was truly curious and pure, while its mother watched with care. It was a special scene for me, to be able to take a photo of the calf, completely relaxed in gentle waters.”
These moments are what draws Takahashi to underwater photography. “We live on the land, but the view underwater is different—living organisms, plants, minerals—are all slightly different,” she says. “I think being underwater is similar to climbing Everest—it is not a place where we can easily go. For me, it is a special and sacred place. The sea accounts for so much of Earth and is a place of adventure, where we can experience Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Her advice for aspiring underwater photographers: Deeply research the animals you wish to photograph before you go into the field—understand their behavior and nuisances. When the time comes to photograph, wait and observe the animals before you begin photographing. “Draw the photo’s composition in your heart—then shoot.”
Takahashi now travels the globe, visiting new locations monthly—including Thailand, the Galápagos, Mexico, Palau, Tahiti, and more—to continue growing her underwater photography. Japanese winter months bring the opportunity to see whales, but she has other plans. “I cannot not wait that long, so I decided to go to Tonga.” This October she’ll head to the South Pacific with her camera and attempt to again see pairs of humpback mothers and calves.
When Takahashi reflects on her decision to quit her day job and pursue her passion, she remembers two influential events—the loss of a close friend and Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford University commencement speech. Jobs said that he asked himself the following question, “‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Takahashi found clarity during these powerful moments, and eventually drove her decision to photograph full-time. “I felt that life was finite and I wanted to use time for what I really love.”
*Quotes were edited for clarity and length