Photographer Eric J. Smith has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Always with a camera in hand, he constantly surveys the world to see what might be worthy of a picture. In March 2020, he was certainly ready when an opportunity presented itself during a whale watching expedition in the San Ignacio de Baja lagoon. His photo of a mother whale sticking her head out of the water as whale watchers remain blissfully oblivious to what’s next to them has become a viral sensation.
We had the chance to contact Smith about photography and what it’s like to see his work circulating on the internet. This is actually Smith’s second viral photo, and the other also involved whales. In 2015, his image of a man staring at his cellphone as a huge whale emerges from the water was his first viral hit experience. The 2020 photograph had a similar reaction and Smith shared a bit more with us about the day she was captured.
“In March 2020, the week before the world shut down, I returned to the San Ignacio de Baja lagoon to photograph migrating gray whales. I had been there in 2017 and it changed my life. The ability to have a such close contact with these amazingly intelligent and friendly creatures was unlike anything I had ever experienced.Each morning, small groups of visitors board small motorboats known as pangas, to see the whales “In this photo, a panga with people from my camp was approached by a mother and her baby, known as the ‘cow and calf pair,'” Smith told My Modern Met. The calf made an appearance near the bow of the boat, causing everyone to stare forward. A second later, the mother emerged one foot behind the stern in a behavior called a spy jump. She slowly and silently lifted her head above the water to look around.
Positioned in another boat a few yards away, Smith was able to take the shot before everyone realized what was happening. And it was a good thing he was quick, because just as everyone was turning around, the whale fell back below the surface. Smith knew right away he had something special on his hands.
“Happy accidents are rare, but I try to put myself in scenarios where they are much more likely to happen,” he shares. “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 always look at the world in unique images and I can’t really turn it off. I’d rather be ready to capture a great moment than see it fade from my memory.
As the image circulates around the world, Smith is happy to know that it is bringing joy to people at a time when it is so desperately needed. And, he’s still looking for answers as to why those two photos struck a chord. “This is my second viral image in five years and both involve humans and whales. I’ve tried to figure out what it means, but of the hundreds of photos I take and post each year, these are the two that really took off. I know that when I’m on the water in the presence of whales, I feel at home.
This perfectly timed whale-watching photo is Eric J. Smith’s second “whale-centric” photo to go viral.
Smith is an accomplished photographer and filmmaker with over 25 years of experience.