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Getting up close and personal with marine mammals a snap

April 10, 2012
By ILIMA LOOMIS - Staff Writer ( , The Maui News

A telephoto lens and a partner to help row the boat are two of Robert Raimo's secrets to getting a great whale photo.

After retiring to Maui nine years ago, Raimo ordered a two-person rowboat that was similar to the ones he had used as a teenager working as a lifeguard in New Jersey. As they rowed the boat off Kihei for exercise, he and his wife, Ellen, became more and more fascinated by the whales that migrated to Maui every winter, and wanted to take some pictures. What began with a few snapshots grew into an obsession.

"We started taking out our little crappy camera, and now we're using a Canon 7D with a 400 lens, and my wife is using a Nikon with a Sigma 50-to-500 lens," he said.

Article Photos

Robert and Ellen Raimos’ cameras captured a close encounter between a kayaker and a humpback whale in waters off Kihei. Robert Raimo says when tourists wander into his photographs, he likes to get their contact information so that he can send them a copy. The Raimos have an obsession with photographing whales from their rowboat.

Since then, the Raimos and their rowboat have become a familiar sight for boaters and beachgoers in South Maui. The couple is on the water nearly every day and can spend three to four hours a day rowing and taking pictures during whale season.

Raimo said that he never studied photography but began taking pictures of his son, who is an avid surfer. The hobby grew from there.

"You start taking pictures, then you see someone else who's taken a better picture and you move your gear up to a higher level so you can get the picture you want to get," he said.

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"Neighbors: Profiles of Our Community" is a periodical feature about everyday people who make the Maui community unique. To nominate someone for a "Neighbors" feature, email The Maui News at

Raimo noted that he and his wife are always mindful of federal laws protecting humpback whales, which makes it illegal to approach the whales closer than 100 yards. He said having a good camera with a long lens and a stabilizer make it easy to get up-close-and-personal photos of the marine mammals while maintaining a safe distance.

"What we do is try to position the boat where we think they'll swim by," he said. "But I can't get too close, because I won't get the picture - it won't work with our equipment."

Other tricks he's learned include trying to position himself between the sun and the whale so that he's not shooting into a glare and taking lots and lots of pictures in the hopes of scoring one lucky shot.

"We take around 400 a day, and we get maybe 10 good ones out of the 400," he said.

In addition to photographing Maui's largest visitors, Raimo also enjoys taking pictures of two-legged tourists. He said that he'll often take candid photos of kayakers who are lucky enough to have a close encounter with a whale. If a whale surfaces near a kayaker and he gets a shot, Raimo will later row over to the visitor and ask for contact information so that he can send the person a copy.

When the tourists get home and find Raimo's pictures in their inbox, they're often "stunned," he said.

"It's really fun to give a photo to someone of something they enjoyed doing, and they really like it," he said. "It gives them a good memory."

Raimo said that he and his wife haven't gotten tired of spending all those hours with each other in the rowboat, noting that it helps to have a partner who can keep rowing when the other wants to take a picture or rest their arms.

"Although we do argue occasionally over who gets to hold the best camera," he joked.

* Ilima Loomis can be reached at "Neighbors: Profiles of Our Community" is a periodical feature about everyday people who make the Maui community unique. To nominate someone for a "Neighbors" feature, email The Maui News at



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