Freediving with Sperm Whales in Kona, Hawaii
The past two weeks I have had some of the highlights of my freediving/underwater photography career. It started with interactions with multiple pods of Sperm Whales over a few days. Then with two consecutive days of Mid-Pacific Killer Whales followed by a day with False Killer Whales feeding on Mahi Mahi. Just when I thought it was over I got a call from a fisherman friend Russ last Wed that there were more Sperm Whales off shore. He gave me coordinates and said it was the most Sperm Whales he had ever seen.
I started making phone calls. I called two close friends, Doug Perrine a world renowned under water photographer and Julie Steelman fellow Kona Underwater Photography Society (KUPS) member, both of which are on the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team. I told them that there were Sperm Whales and asked how fast they could be ready to go. I think we were on the water in Doug’s boat in less than an hour.
We ran out to the area that was on my GPS and started to search. It didn’t take long before I spotted a spout offshore from us about a mile. I took over driving while Doug geared up for the first drop. When we arrived near the whales we assessed the scene and could see fifteen to twenty whales lying on the surface breathing. They have a very distinct spout. Being “toothed whales” they have a single blowhole, which is positioned on the top, left side and near the front of their elongated head. When they breathe the spray of the spout shoots up, left and forward at a forty-five degree angle.
We positioned ourselves away and off to the near shore side of the whales (for proper lighting) and Doug slipped into the water. These whales along with most other whales and dolphins have a very keen sense of hearing and can detect the slightest sounds in the water. So being in the right position for the animals to approach requires the right direction of travel, slow swim speed and stealth, this is all very important. We want the animals to pass in front of us with the sun to our backs so we have optimum lighting. We also want the animals to be near the surface for the same reason. We also do this because we don’t want to disturb the animals.
As Doug swam out away from the boat Julie and I notice that the whale had turned and was now moving towards the boat. We yelled for Doug to start swimming back towards the boat, but the whale beat him to us. This whale looked like a near adult, which would put him in the forty-five to fifty-five foot ranges. The whale approached slowly, putting itself between Doug and the boat and then did an extraordinary thing.
It started to roll over and went completely upside down lying on its back. The whale raised its jaw out of the water to where Julie and I could see all the way down to its stomach. I started scrambling to get my gear on and Julie was hurrying me to get in and get a shot. Doug in the mean time was trying to swim around the whale’s head to get the sun light behind him for a better shot.
I slipped into the water all the while thinking, “I’m going to get a shot of Doug and this enormous whale”. As I swam out and tried to position myself for the shot the whale must have felt pressured by having Doug on one side and me on the other, flipped over and with two swipes of its tail was gone into the deep. I had just ruined Doug’s chance at getting an incredible shot and I scared a forty to fifty ton animal, I felt horrible on all levels.
What amazes me is that an animal that is in the fifty foot range can be afraid of two men a fraction of its size. I’m sure that the whaling industry has burned this fear into the psyche of the whales. I’m also sure that some of these whales were alive when commercial whaling was in full swing with the capability of living past seventy years of age.
The whales were moving slowly out offshore and to the south. We made a few more attempts to get Doug, Julie and myself in the water to get photographs, but to no avail. So we decided to move off a few hundred yards and wait to see if they would start to socialize. This is when they are most likely to approach the boat and may even be curious of something new in the water with them.
After about forty-five minutes they all came together again. This is when the magic happened. It was my turn to get in so we repositioned the boat quite a ways off to the side of the animals. I slipped in and started my long swim away from the boat. I don’t want to be near the boat because even with the motors off it still makes noise from the wavelets hitting the side of the hull. After swimming for a while I looked up and saw four whales pointed straight at me.
I couldn’t see them under water, but I could hear their echolocation and communication clicks. I slowed my kicking pace and then I could see them come into view. There were four of them all side by side only a few feet apart from each other. I sat motionless as they ever so slowly approached. As if they were synchronized swimmers they all stopped right in front of me. They laid there motionless as I did clicking their echolocation on me.
I took a deep breath and exhaled (a technique I often use when shooting photos near the surface when I don’t want to make a disturbance in the water and to stabilize my camera from the surface waves) and slowly sank straight down a couple of feet. I started shooting photos. The noise from my camera must have sparked their curiosity because as soon as I did this, the whales started to reposition to get a look with their eyes at me.
There was one large female and I believe three juveniles. The largest female was to the left with a small calf next to her right. Then a little bit larger animal third in the line and a very small calf on the end to the far right. As I sunk under water the large female mimicked me and sunk under and rolled on her side. She was echo locating me, which is not only loud, but also strong enough to feel in the water. It’s as if someone is shooting you with an airsoft machine gun with no pellets.
Now all of them were getting curious as I lay there floating in front of them. It must have looked funny to see four huge heads pop up to breathe and then my head being dwarfed in the mix. Being blocked by the other whales the smallest whale to the far right moved out from behind the others and crossed in front of them rolling and echo locating me until it was close enough to get a good look. It turn side ways to me and stopped. Then after a minute or so started to move back to the group, when the larger of the two calves came out and rammed the little one in the side as to say “get out of the way!” This started what looked like a playful wrestling match that took place right on top of the other two large whales.
They swam along slowly playing and rubbing amongst them selves not paying any attention to me which allowed me to take a full breath and dive next to them for a shot from below. The lighting was beautiful and the animals were completely unaffected by my presence as if I had just become one of the pod. They even stopped momentarily as if to let me catch up with them. But as soon as they flicked their tales the slightest bit it propelled them so much faster than I could swim and they moved away out of view. We signal to the boat by raising a hand in the air to let them know that we are done in the water, but I was so overwhelmed with excitement that I raised my camera housing above my head and pumped it up and down.
I had just “shared” an experience with other air breathing aquatic mammals such as myself, that have the capacity to think and reason as we do. I can only hope that because of this interaction they will start to trust us enough to return and enjoy the encounters they have with humans instead of fearing them as they have had to do in the past.
Help stop commercial whaling by finding an organization that you respect and trust and contribute in any capacity that you can. Even if its just to say thank you, every little bit helps.