The Flash sequence above shows the end game of the humpback whale bubble net feeding lunge. These huge animals have developed a technique to corral their prey into a tight ball to make eating a bit easier; not a bad plan when you have to eat so much.
Either singly or in groups the whales dive and coordinate releasing air to create a curtain of bubbles around, in this case, tens of thousands of herring. The whales slowly come together in a decreasing spiral to concentrate the bubble curtain and the fish. The survival instinct of the fish kicks in and they form tighter and tighter balls driven towards the surface by the bubbles and the whales themselves.
Nearing the surface the whales propel themselves aggessively upward and lunge out of the water with gaping jaws open almost 90 degrees. As is seen in the detail shot herring are leaping out of the water to get away.
Interestingly, bubble net feeding is not seen in all humpback populations around the world. We were fortunate to observe bubble net feeding although we typically saw only two or three whales at a time. This was not because of lack of food, there were billions of herring in the water for the annual spawn. Rather it was a lack of whales. In late April and early May, the Alaskan humpback numbers are fairly small as most whales are still making the swim from their winter grounds around the Hawaiian islands.
When we go back in July, we expect to witness bubble net feeding with groups of 15+ whales. Almost makes me embarrassed to show a sequence with only two. I will re-engage in July with more whales!
The trick to photographing the lunge is twofold. First, expect there will be a large splash and significant whitewater. These will be your highlights and will drive the exposure. Metering off dark water without any concern for the splash/bubbles will yield blown highlights. I prefer to shoot in Manual mode with an exposure to properly expose white. Second, watch the whales and learn. You will see patterns in the water immediately before the whales surface. When the patterns show up, point your camera with exposure set for the highlights, focus, and shoot!