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Whale watcher

Kihei photographer captures portraits of underwater giants, then donates pieces to help protect them

November 20, 2011
By KEHAULANI CERIZO - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News

KIHEI - Hawaii's humpback whale sighting season started this month, and drivers are already rubbernecking on coastal roads to catch a glimpse of the marine mammals.

Meanwhile, Kihei-based underwater photographer Douglas J. Hoffman is working to help viewers see the colossal creatures up-close, year-round and in the comfort of their own homes.

The artist, who has won awards for his images of humpback whales, captures intimate portraits of the animals and donates certain pieces to nonprofits that help protect them.

Article Photos

“Sanctuary” shows a family 10 miles offshore, protected by reefs and pinnacles that appeared to create a safe haven.


"Besides creating art and supporting my family, I want to help shape social awareness," Hoffman said. "I want to bring light to environmental concerns and have people make their own decisions."

Aside from selling his work online and in galleries, Hoffman has donated images to nonprofits such as Whale Trust, Whale Dolphin Conservation Society and Humane Society International. His photographs are used in different applications, from conservation magazines to posters.

The Whale Dolphin Conservation Society used Hoffman's sperm whale portraits as the face of the 2010 International End Commercial Whaling campaign. The group produced 250,000 postcard petitions and sent them President Barack Obama and the International Whaling Commission. Earlier this year, Hoffman's images were used by Humane Society International in an educational computer-based program and a photo exhibition to help end shark finning in China, an effort led by renowned primatologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall.

"I want to contribute to my world," Hoffman said. "In donating photographs to the NPOs, they have teams of people making an impact to change. . . . I can help confront issues bigger than me without having to put on the boxing gloves themselves," he added.

Hoffman returned recently from his annual trip to Tonga, where he photographed Southern Hemisphere humpback whales. All of his images are taken legally, he echoes, and 99 percent of his humpback whale portraits are photographed in Tonga, where swimming with the white-bottom Southern Hemisphere whales is allowed.

"It's a gift every time you swim with a whale," Hoffman said. "The reason I'm successful is that I'm looking to have a mutual interaction with the whale. If I can create an environment where the whales are curious and safe, and the humans are interacting with respect, we can observe the behavior."

For Hoffman, photographing whales is a delicate balance of diving skills, photographic talent and respect for marine life and habitat. The photographer has spent more than 10,000 hours underwater and has documented everything from coral, moray eels and fish to sharks and dolphins. Hoffman said that it's no easy task to deal with ocean currents and unpredictable weather patterns while considering photography elements like lighting, repetition and compositional rules.

"It's a very exciting, full-time, fast-paced thing," he said. "I have to make decisions quickly."

With all the marine life he's captured, Hoffman said, that whales have a special allure, and viewers are attracted to the ocean giants more than other subject matter.

"A human being is more likely to enjoy a whale than a moray eel," he said. "While these are all beautiful animals, they don't conjure up the mental images and evoke the same emotions that whales do."

Hoffman recalls the first time he swam with a whale in 2005, and the emotions that surfaced.

"So much waiting and patience had gone into it," he said. "I'm not even sure I had taken a good photograph of the whale. It was such an emotional experience. Even now, it's emotional and spiritual. When they look at you with those big eyes, you feel humble." Since then, he estimates seeing hundreds of whales.

The artist, who will receive his master's degree from Professional Photographers of America in January, won the 2010 Kodak award of photographic excellence; the 2008 and 2010 bronze medals Professional Photographers of America; and the 2008 gold medal for traditional wide-angle photography in the Our World Underwater competition, among other awards.

Hoffman moved to Maui in the 1980s, learned to dive and became an instructor. He soon discovered photography was his passion, and it came natural to combine the two interests. He met his wife and fellow dive tour instructor, Mieko, in 1995. The two live in Kihei with their two daughters, Hana and Aya.

Aside from Hoffman's individual work, he and Mieko own and operate Maui Photography Inc., which specializes in family portraiture and custom images for homes and new projects. Hoffman also spends time teaching photography, and will lead an upcoming class on taking scenic photos with his new Maui Photo Tours, which will launch Monday.

Next year, Hoffman will return to Tonga to photograph whales again, all the while working to protect the subjects of his pieces. "It's nice to create art that has a positive impact," he said.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at


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