Scott Portelli: “He Gave Me A Hug With Both Pectoral Fins Wrapped Around Me”

May 24, 2016 Laura Bridgeman

Scott Portelli is an award-winning photographer who travels the world and snaps unbelievable photos with other-than-human animals. He often travels to Tonga, where humpbacks gather annually. Scott has this story to share:

“One of the most memorable stories I have was with a young humpback calf that I happened to come across several times over a season. The calf was bold and inquisitive and as the season went on he grew larger and more curious. I would get in the water and he would swim straight towards me, with pectoral fins outstretched, with the intention of seeing what this small slow human felt like. He literally gave me a hug, with both pectoral fins wrapped around me. But you can imagine, a 3 tonne hug from a baby whale can be a bit rough to say the least. At one point I had to push off from the baby whale to avoid him coming in too close again. They are magnificent creatures with varied personalities and they often seek interactions out as they learn about their new environment. It was a moment I will never forget.”

Scott Portelli

Scott is passionate about ocean protection initiatives, knowing full-well the serious, human-made threats many species contend with in the watery depths. This is why he regularly donates his stunning photographs to ocean conservation organizations, including Sonar (thanks Scott!).

But his work doesn’t stop there. In 2014, he launched the Tongan Fluke Collective (TFC), a continually growing database of photographs that helps identify individual whales in the area. One of the most reliable ways to tell whales apart from one another is by looking at their unique tail flukes – think of them as giant fingerprints. Scott has amassed a significant number of fluke shots for the collective, and reaches out to professional photographers and the general public visiting Tonga to contribute as well. To date, the TFC has provided fluke IDs to the Pacific Whale Foundation, Allied Whale Catalog, Southern Cross University, Ocean Geographic Society and Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalog.

Scott Portelli

How to ID flukes.

In 2015, Scott donated a dollar for every photograph donated to the collective. He raised $675, which will be given to VEPA (Vavau Environmental Protection Association) to give to the Tongan Community to help finance schools, hospitals and community programs.

Sonar would like to officially recognize Scott for his many contributions to whale awareness and protection. We hope that he will continue to bring beautiful images to the world, for the benefit of all.


How To Participate in the Tongan Fluke Collective:

Upload to dropbox and share the link with us at


Send Scott your email address and he will add you to the shared dropbox folder.


All photos credit Scott Portelli.