How I Made It: The Story Behind Eric Smith’s Surprising Whale Photo

Photo of whale by Eric Smith

Talk about a whale of a photo! Eric Smith captured the surprising image above about a year ago in Mexico just before the pandemic shut the world down. Smith’s shot surfaced again on social media this past week as a reminder of the way things were before group photo shoots like this became risky business. We caught up with Smith to find out the story behind this wonderful image and to learn what’s he’s been up to since he shot it.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in our new “How I Made It” series where we interview photographers on the story behind one of their images.

Q: Can you give us a little background on you as a photographer?

Eric Smith: I work at the intersection of commerce and social impact. I have been documenting social good initiatives for brands like Lexus, First Republic Bank, United Healthcare and Dell. I have also been traveling the world in the last five years documenting the work of nonprofits for a vast digital content library. In addition, I love photographing the natural world. Whether it be in a helicopter over Yellowstone, trekking Rwanda’s Mount Bisoke to see the critically endangered mountain gorillas, making underwater images of migrating gray whales in Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon or simply photographing the backyard ground squirrel, capturing amazing moments is in my blood. My mother was a photojournalist for newspapers in the Philadelphia suburbs when I was a kid and watching her work had a profound impact on me.

Q: What’s the story behind the photo?

Eric Smith: In March of 2020, the week before the world shut down, I returned to Baja’s San Ignacio Lagoon to photograph the migratory gray whales. I had been there in 2017 and it changed my life. The ability to have such close contact with those amazingly intelligent and friendly creatures was like nothing I had ever experienced. Every morning, small groups of visitors board small motorboats known as pangas, to see the whales. In this photograph, a panga with people from my camp were approached by a mother and her baby, known as “a cow and calf pair.” The calf made an appearance near the bow of the boat causing everyone to look forward. A second later, the mother emerged a foot behind the stern in behavior called a spy hop. She slowly and silently stuck her head high above the water to look around. I was in another panga a few dozen feet away and caught the moment right before everyone realized she was so close. When everyone turned around, she quickly sank below the surface. Cheering and hysterical laughter ensued.

Q: Do these sorts of “happy accidents” occur often in your photography?

Eric Smith: Happy accidents are rare, but I try to put myself in scenarios where they are much likelier to occur. I also make it a point to have a good camera with me at all times, because you never know when you’ll see something amazing. I’m always viewing the world in single frames and can’t really turn it off. I’d rather be ready to make an image of a great moment than have it fade from my memory.

Q: How has the pandemic affected your work in the past year?

Eric Smith: The pandemic has greatly affected my work as it has for most of us. The inability to travel has been jarring physically and psychologically. I have been lucky to sneak away a few times, to the San Juan Islands, Hawaii, and an assignment to document kelp reforestation off the coast of Southern California. But the majority of last year has been in and around my house. This pandemic has gotten me more in touch with my community and renewed my appreciation for our local wildlife. I live in the shadow of the Hollywood Sign at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains where we coexist with bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, all manner of raptors and extraordinary birds. Photographing these creatures has been my joy in these difficult times. I also finally had the time to write, design and publish my first book entitled “Bearing Witness: The Photographs of Eric J. Smith.”It was truly a labor of love and something that I would never have been able to do without the lockdown.

Q: What’s next for you?

Eric Smith: My full-time gig came to an end in January, and I started my own LLC to make a go at being independent. As the world begins to open back up, I hope to start getting assignments and projects again. I also opened an online store for my prints and books. Like many other directors and photographers, we are entering a new world, but I am extraordinarily hopeful. If you think I might be a good fit for a project or would like to purchase an image, please get in touch!

You can see more of Smith’s work on his website, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook pages. You should check out his online store.

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