Swimming with whales is not a typical task in most job descriptions, but it’s just a day in the life for TEDxSanJoseCA speaker Bryant Austin, a photographer who snaps images of these gentle giants from hardly 10 feet away.

In a quest to prevent the extinction of whales of all kinds — from humpback to minke — Austin uses his photography to create life-sized portraits of these creatures: one of which took over 200 hours to make and weighed a whopping 1,200 pounds.

At the top, a selection of his photographs — and below his talk on his process and the wonder of seeing a living, breathing whale up close:

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