Monday, August 22, 2011

Eyeball-to-Eyeball with a Sperm Whale

By Hardy Jones

In 2001 I joined a French film crew off the Caribbean Island of Dominica. They were doing a segment of the hugely popular French television show Ushuaia. I had been hired as the whale expert and because I speak passable French. We had some remarkable encounters with sperm whales and I played a marvelous joke on the French crew.

I sat down on the swim step of our 32 foot cruiser and hauled on my fins, holding my breath to avoid inhaling the noxious diesel exhaust sputtering out of the engine at the waterline next to me. French cameraman Roc Pescadere dropped down next to me, easing his massive video housing into the water. Seventy yards away the pair of sperm whales cruised slowly toward us, their bulbous heads forging through the calm surface of the deep blue Caribbean Sea. Behind the whales the blazing green of the volcanic slopes of Dominica rose under a blue sky contrasting with cumulous clouds.

I dropped a mask over my face and bit down on the snorkel then slipped into the water as quietly as possible so as not to alarm the whales. Roc followed and we kicked lightly to separate ourselves from the boat, then hung at the surface, peering over the top of the glassy sea to spot the whales. They had begun to pick up speed. While still heading toward us they were moving faster and veering slightly to their right. We were going to lose them. I felt the usual sadness when failing to make contact and wondered, "why are you comfortable approaching our boat but frightened off by a clumsy swimmer?"

By now the two whales were close enough to view underwater; no more than 100 feet away. Viewed from above the surface their single blow holes, canted slightly off center on the left of the head, ventilated and inhaled like steam engines beginning a journey. Beneath us was what to humans is perceived as endless blue but to the whales' sonar would appear as undersea slopes and canyons hundreds of meters below. One of the whales was considerably larger than the other, nearly fifty feet in length. Both had angled the leading edge of their pectoral fins downward and begun to arch their backs, the last move before throwing their tail flukes upward to depart the surface where man and whale can interface to enter an azure universe all their own.

In a last attempt to get the whales to come and play I resorted to a technique that had often worked with dolphins and killer whales. I began to sing a pathetic imitation of a humpback's song. "Whoooop. Whoooooooop. Uuuuuhhhhhh." The smaller of the two sperm whales continued its forward motion, pointing its massive square head straight down, raising the six-foot wide tail fluke to add gravity’s impetus to the descent. The larger whale seemed about to do the same but instead of going fully vertical it hesitated, slightly arched its back and stopped as though it had bumped into something. I remember thinking "that's the first clumsy move I've ever seen a whale make."

The sperm whale now lay still at the surface and began to sonar me, generating sonic images, not only of the exterior of my body but three-dimensional impressions of the bones and air spaces within my body. Anything that wasn't water-like would read. The sonar pulses were like fingers snapping and occurred at intervals of roughly six seconds. The world got very quiet and slow. Again calling on strategy learned from encounters with other cetaceans, I began to swim - not directly at the whale, but at a 45 degree angle which brought me closer while not making a direct approach. The whale turned and began to move forward very slowly on a similar tangential tack. At a distance of fifty feet I could see the whale's eye clearly, large as a grapefruit, rotating in the socket, looking at me. Once we were no longer head-on it's sonar could not focus on me. We were eyeball-to-eyeball.

The whale was light gray with lighter patches where skin had sloughed off, a way of reducing friction as it moves through the water. I paid close attention to the jaw. The surprisingly small lower mandible fit tightly into the upper, the five-inch teeth on the bottom fitting into empty holes in the upper. An open mouth can be a threat sign so I was glad this whale's mouth was clapped shut. To keep up with the whale I had to exert myself to the fullest, breathing like a runner in the final stretch of a marathon and kicking with all the force I could muster from my finned legs. Roc with his camera housing was left behind and I knew he'd be angry that I was drawing the shot away from him.

We continued moving closer. My companion was as large as a freight car. At twenty-five feet the whale turned slightly right. It had reached its limit of tolerance. I edged slightly left so we found ourselves broadside to one another, and I recall thinking "he's got a helluva a lot broader side than I do." We continued swimming parallel to one another, eyes engaged. I was looking into the eye an animal that has the largest brain of any creature ever to live on earth, a brain seven times larger than my own. The sperm whale's eye was massive and intelligent.

In part II: Sperm Whale Etiquette

For more stories of encounters with dolphins, killer whales, humpback and sperm whales read The Voice of the Dolphins, available at in print and Kindle.

No comments: