To shoot "Ella" the adult female dwarf minke whale, photographer Bryant Austin spent five days in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Austin, a Carmel resident, would spend up to eight hours in the water, getting as close as 6 feet away from the 30-foot long Ella.

He took more than 300 photos and spent more than 250 hours assembling the photographs into one single, seamless digital composite image that measures 6-feet by 30-feet.

"This had never been done before. I had to learn how to do this (by myself)," said Austin. "I made a lot of mistakes."

Those mistakes are nonevident in Austin's "Beautiful Whales" exhibit, opening Friday at the Museum of Monterey in Monterey. The exhibit runs through Labor Day.

Carmel photographer Bryant Austin gets up close with Mozart, a humpback calf, off the Kingdom of Tonga in 2006.
Carmel photographer Bryant Austin gets up close with Mozart, a humpback calf, off the Kingdom of Tonga in 2006. (COURTESY OF BRYANT AUSTIN)

The exhibit features a collection of Austin's whale photos — the minke whale and a humpback calf are among his subjects.

Ella's portrait takes up the center space in the museum's 2,700-square foot gallery. The museum said it's the world's only life-size, high definition photo of a whale.

The exhibit is also dubbed by the museum as the largest and most detailed photographs of whales that have ever existed.

Thomas Hood, resident facilities architect and exhibition designer for the museum, used numeric terms to describe how rare this sight was.

"Only one-one millionth of 1percent of the population will have had the opportunity to see a whale life-size, right in front of them. In other words, nobody," said Hood, who also is a past museum president. "For us, as a regional museum, to be able to bring something that people are really passionate about right here in the bay, to bring it right in here right off the wharf, in a spot where they used to dry off fishing nets, is really remarkable."

Austin shot Ella in 2009, after being commissioned for a whale photo exhibition to be showcased in Japan and Norway, two countries that hunt whales commercially.

"One of our interests was to see if this was something that was viable, inspiring people in whaling countries," he said.

Bryant Austin swims with a sperm whale off the coast of Dominica in 2011.
Bryant Austin swims with a sperm whale off the coast of Dominica in 2011.
"Don't tell people what to think or do, or what not to do, just inspire them. Really, the subtle goal is to lose your appetite for whale meat, perhaps."

Austin has lived on the Peninsula for 14 years. He previously worked with a sea otter research lab through UC Santa Cruz and the California Department of Fish and Game.

When time allowed, Austin and a team of volunteers would go out in the bay to search for whales. That's when he began to understand whales' personality quirks.

"I was looking for whales that are inquisitive, that would come up to the boat, which was very rare," he said. "It's against regulation to pursue a whale. If you can get them to come to you, you can photograph them all day."

Austin's biggest challenge was getting the true color and subtle details — skin peeling off, parasites crawling on the whale, the inside of the pupil.

"I had to be 6 feet away, with a portrait lens, like an 80 or 100 mm lens," said Austin. "You're only photographing so much of the whale at a time. So if they're like 50-feet long, you just photograph them as they go by."

The process was tedious, but the results are astounding.

"It took three years to realize how close I needed to be," said Austin. "10-feet (away) is too far away."

Follow Marcos Cabrera on Twitter @MarcosACabrera.

If you go
What: "Beautiful Whales," life-size photo composites by Bryant Austin
Where: Museum of Monterey, 5 Custom House Plaza, Monterey
When: Opening reception, 5 p.m. Saturday; exhibit open Friday (Feb. 1) through Sept. 2; museum open Tue-Sat 10a.m. to 5p.m., Sunday noon to 5p.m.
Cost: Museum admission: $5
Learn more: or 372-2608