Appreciating The Whale: Part I

Bret GilliamThere’s been plenty written about the natural history and scientific behavior of whales, but I wanted to share some far more personal accounts of whale encounters viewed from the long standing relationships that I have been lucky enough to experience over the course of five decades.

Since I am neither a scientist, mammalogist, shrill left-wing activist, nor a Norwegian harpooner, my sagas with whales are simply those of the lay-person who had the extraordinary good fortune to share the wild with some of God’s greatest creatures and accept them on their own terms. I made mistakes, blundered occasionally, scared myself silly a few times, but generally reached a rare understanding and appreciation of whales that could only be attained through repeated contact since early childhood and a stubborn nature that drove me to form my own conclusions about whale behavior and how to interact with the leviathans. Over the years, my photo images would record behavior previously undescribed or misunderstood by huffy science professionals and help open some minds that had frequently remained closed to observations by those outside of academia.

And, as you’ll see, I had a bit of fun doing along the way.

Appreciatiing the Whale -- photos c by Bret Gilliam
Appreciatiing the Whale -- photos c by Bret Gilliam

The Moby Dick Influence

If you’re in my age group (born in 1951), the earliest impression of whales was probably some version of Melville’s classic Moby Dick (no, not the porn version, you degenerates). I read the book as a child in grade school in spite of the confounding literary style and confused biblical references that soared over the head of nine-year-old who only was interested in the exciting whale parts. Fueled by my own visions of the novel, my parents consented to take me to visit the historic Mystic Seaport where much of the “New Bedford” scenes in director John Huston’s version of the movie were filmed in the mid-1950s. When I finally got the chance to see the film I was captivated and even more determined to see whales firsthand some day.

It’s funny how things work out. Diving became my professional career along with being a shipmaster all over the world. On that long and circuitous path, I had the chance to observe whales in every ocean and to swim with them in the wild back before the plethora of rules and regulations were developed to control human interaction with cetaceans.

As a kid, my family frequently visited Maine and I honed my seafaring skills in the summer aboard lobster boats and other commercial vessels that worked the coast and shared the water with the humpback, minke, right, finback, and sperm whales that abounded back in the early 1960s. Occasionally, a colossal blue whale would pass by us when we worked way offshore and the image of a mammal nearly 100-feet long that tipped the scales at over 200 tons remains etched in my memory as though carved in stone.

While my initial fascination drew me to the sperm whales because of Moby Dick’s lineage, I quickly learned to appreciate the gregarious nature and fun loving personality of the humpbacks who seemed to actually seek out contact with my species. Although my early encounters were limited to topside glimpses, these whales breached, tail-lobbed, and spy-hopped to get our attention and it seemed, at times, that they were going to get into the boat with us.

But they remained mysterious creatures and, in those days, we dared not slip into the water to join them in their realm. Perhaps our reticence was prompted by unfounded horror stories from sensationalist reports that we’d be rammed, slapped around, or swallowed whole a la Jonah in the Old Testament. More likely our firm commitment to staying on the boats was reinforced by the profusion of sharks we saw. Of course, in 1964 we all shared the absolute sure certainty that sharks would eat us on sight if we dared to try to dive with them. It wasn’t until my practical diving experience challenged the theory that all sharks were instant killers that I deigned to give snorkeling with humpbacks a chance.

Of course, the lobstermen and other fishermen shared the equal sure certainty that I was completely insane but tolerated my frantic efforts to actually see a whale underwater with one part grudging appreciation for my courage… and at least two parts sympathy for whatever level of mild retardation I suffered. Nonetheless, my repeated efforts yielded no success. mostly due to bad visibility and a significant lack of understanding for the whales’ behavior habits. Ah well, the gift of youth.

Remember, when I saw my first whale from a distance in 1959, they were all still hunted actively worldwide. It always amazed me then, and still, that whales would ever consider a close relationship with man considering all the devastation that our kind has visited upon theirs. There were no activist organizations then like Greenpeace or World Wildlife to educate us and warn about the destruction of this incredible resource of intelligent marine mammals. To most people, whales were not much more than fish. To me, they were subjects of fascination and almost mystical reverence. I loved whales. Hell, I wanted to be one.

When commercial operators discovered that whales were good business to take sightseers out to visit, a whole new industry was created in New England and Hawaii. Of course, this also led to the development of a whole new set of rules to control interaction with whales and a need for a new bureaucracy to police everyone. Don’t get me wrong: I think regulations to protect whales are good. It’s just that some of the people that ended up making the rules seemed to have a profound lack of practical field experience when it came to whale behavior and habits. (Here’s a recent example of bureaucratic absurdity: A Maine whale watch excursion boat spotted a whale exhausted and entangled in a fish net barely able to keep itself on the surface and in imminent peril of drowning. The captain maneuvered his vessel alongside and had his crew cut away the net. The freed whale swam away to spout another day. The captain was initially cited and fined by federal whale officials and the U. S. Coast Guard suspended his license. Maybe he should have just let his passengers watch it struggle and die… at least that what any objective observer would deduce from our government’s response to his well-coordinated and timely rescue. But there was sufficient outcry from professionals like myself that all punishments were rescinded.)

Consider the humpback. There are all sorts of rules about not approaching the whales too closely. And that’s great in theory. The reality is that many humpbacks are naturally curious and seem to welcome interaction with humans. I’ve been offshore in the Gulf of Maine when whales surface next to yachts, ships, lobster boats, and excursion vessels and do everything but climb aboard and make a sandwich. These loquacious mammals will playfully entice the unwary observers by waving a pectoral fin and then dousing the surprised onlookers when they venture within range. Retreating to a safer distance only prompts the whales to approach within a few feet and spy-hop to ogle the humans from up close.

Breaching behavior, where the humpback propels his massive body completely clear of the water in a flying leap, is still not fully understood. Some experts opine that the act is motivated as a threat warning. Others are firm that breaching is undertaken to cast off unwanted parasites. Finally, equally qualified experts believe that the whales do it as a sheer expression of exuberance and joy… simply because they can. Having observed thousands of breaches over the years, I’m more inclined to go with the last expert. I think they’re having fun and showing off. If I could do it, I would, too. Admit it: so would you.

Another behavior that was first described by lay observers like myself was the practice of “bubble ring” feeding. The humpback dives to depth and then releases a blast of air from its blowhole that buoys up krill, sand eels and other small critters that make up its diet. These organisms are carried to the surface in the bubbles. The whale surfaces beneath them with its mouth fully open and then closes its bite while straining the food through its baleen as the water is expelled. This bubble feeding is performed singly or in large groups as a coordinated effort.

When it was first seen and reported, the “expert” scientists dismissed the behavior entirely as a load of rubbish with a curt notation that, while intelligent, whales were not that intelligent. I might say the same of the folks in the white lab coats. From my own selfish perspective, I’d suggest that science could benefit a lot more than they admit by accepting and analyzing the reports and film of field observers who actually interact with whales above and below the water. Refreshingly, it seems that both groups have finally begun to appreciate the expertise of the other and cooperatively study results in a better true understanding of cetaceans and their behavior.

While most whales exhibit a general lack of interest in humans, humpbacks are the exception. Something deep in their psyche seems to invite human contact… albeit with certain rules that the whales establish themselves. One thing is certain; no human will ever be able to approach a humpback in the water unless the whale agrees. We’re just too slow and can’t hold our breath long enough. And, oh yeah, a humpback is capable of slapping you silly if you violate their rules of engagement.

So take your whale encounters any way you can, whether aboard a whale watch excursion boat, a snorkeling expedition where it’s permitted, of simply the brief glimpse as they pass by while you’re out for a routine day on the water. It’s all good.

My fascination with whales spawned a lifelong passion for visiting them in the wild. I hope you’ll enjoy the narratives that follow wherein I attempt to share the beauty, wonder and humor of one who follows whales as interesting subjects… and friends.

Two Humpback Whales in Gulf of Maine
Two Humpback Whales in Gulf of Maine

Close Encounter!

It’s been a rare privilege for me to have had the opportunity to work “up close and personal” with humpback whales in various locations for over forty years. I remember seeing pods at close range during the sixties in the Gulf of Maine. During these summer feeding migrations, we were able to approach individuals in kayaks and later snorkel with them where they treated us with bit of benign indifference while they chowed down on hundreds of pounds of sand eels and krill.

But the water was cold and the visibility rarely more than thirty feet or so limiting our observation of these magnificent beasts to seeing only about half the animal at any given time. I longed for the chance to get some in-water time with the humpbacks where conditions would afford better filming conditions.

In January 1971 I joined a special Navy diving team working with fast attack nuclear submarines in the Virgin Islands and had my first chance to see whales in unlimited visibility. Typically, the encounter was unplanned and totally unexpected. I was ascending to my first decompression stop and dragging along a heavy 16mm movie camera in a bulky housing. I’d run about 80 per cent of the film spool on a sub as it passed at high speed and was settling in for a long deco hang.

In this area of the Caribbean between St. Thomas and St. Croix, the Virgins Islands Trench reaches depths in excess of 12,000 feet and the visibility can exceed 200 feet in the open sea at times. When I noticed a large dark torpedo shaped monolith headed my way, I assumed the sub was making a slow pass at us as our exercise completed operations for the day.   But as the image sharpened, I realized it was an adult humpback out for a spin. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

The fifty-foot female made an initial pass keeping a respectful distance and then did a roll-over and came around so close that I had to back peddle to give her room. I watched in awe as the scene unfolded before me. This was the first time I had ever been able to see an entire adult whale underwater and her graceful acrobatics left me mesmerized. After a few minutes of slack-jawed staring, I burned off the last of the 16mm film in the magazine as the whale performed a series of fluid maneuvers before my lens. We continued our rather one-sided ballet for nearly a half hour before she eased off into the blue.

Upon surfacing, I bounced up and down all over the dive deck eager to share my experience with the rest of the crew. They were as excited as I was having watched the show from their high vantage point where they could clearly see both whale and diver as we made our acquaintance. When she returned to the surface to blow she made a point of swimming under the ship and then spy-hopping to “eyeball” the enthused deck observers before resuming her encounter with me. We were all basically basket-cases of adrenaline. You’d have thought an alien spacecraft had landed on the deck.

The following month we had two weeks off while the ship was in for maintenance and I eagerly signed on with a yacht being delivered to Florida from the islands. After hearing stories about humpbacks in the Silver Bank area between the Dominican Republic and the Grand Turk, we decided to plan a stop on our way north. We arrived in mid-February and anchored about a mile from the eastern edge of the low barrier reef. That night we heard whales blowing all around us and like kids waiting for Christmas morning, we never slept a wink.

With the first rays of dawn we could see dozens of spouts and several displays of breaching as the whales flung themselves clear of the sea in a joyful exuberance that was pure poetry. By nightfall we had exhausted ourselves after all day snorkeling sessions with a non-stop procession of humpbacks. After the first encounter we had returned to the yacht and erupted into excited stream of consciousness babbling each determined to out-shout the other in our enthusiasm.

We had swum with up to nine whales at once that seemed delighted at our cautious intrusion. Newborn calves had introduced themselves to us only an arm’s length away while their doting mothers hovered nearby. Aggressive male humpbacks had churned the water white with dramatic charges, head butts, and tail slaps as part of their sexual posturing. And you thought a redneck bar on a steamy Saturday night could showcase some “men behaving badly” antics…

The last night we spent on the Bank had us staring wistfully at a sunset of impossible beauty when a mother and calf surfaced right next to the boat and lifted their heads practically into the cockpit. Standing on their tails and bobbing in the gentle evening sea, they positioned themselves with their heads turned to present eyes the size of hockey pucks that seemed to look right through you. At that point, the experience of swimming with our military’s subs seemed pretty pale by comparison.

That initial trip led to nineteen others where I would visit every inch of the Silver Bank over the ensuing years. For most of that time, we would always have the anchorages entirely to ourselves and scarcely even see another vessel. Only in the 1990s did commercial operators begin carrying tourists to the area in limited numbers. Ironically, the uncharted confusion of the Bank and its threatening coral heads had historically influenced ships and yachts to give it a wide berth. But this isolation would ultimately prove an irresistible draw for those seeking a whale encounter.

In 1993 I arrived on the Bank during the first week of February. It was blowing a solid thirty knots and beyond the protected lee of the reef a nasty six-foot swell made pretty tough sledding in the outboard inflatables. After pounding myself into a stupor the third day with only a couple short encounters we decided to call it quits until the wind subsided.

For lack of anything else to do I went exploring in the shallows among the coral pillars and simply relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Even here you cannot escape the whales’ presence though as their haunting songs flow over the underwater landscape and fill your ears as you swim. Sort of the ultimate in Sense-A-Round sound…

As I turned the corner on one of the massive coral heads that rise from the thirty-foot depths to within inches of the surface, I came face-to-face with a mother and calf less than ten feet away. They were resting and breathing softly with the baby lying next to his mother’s watchful eye. It was the smallest calf I’d ever seen: no more than six feet in length and maybe 250 pounds. About my size, I reflected ruefully.

Not wanting to frighten the baby, I stopped and lay quietly at the surface with them. After a few minutes the pair did a slow turn and begin to swim into even shallower water around the coral head. I decided to go around the coral head in the opposite direction so I’d meet up with them as they approached me head-on on the other side.

My mind was racing. Was this a newborn? Had I nearly stumbled on what every photographer in the world had sought for decades? Certainly, the calf was the right size and he clearly was so young that he couldn’t hold his breath for more than few seconds. I cradled my camera and begin to line up the shots. Sure enough, the pair was waiting for me as I eased around the massive coral buttress into water that was now barely fifteen feet deep.

It was surreal to see this leviathan mother some fifty-feet in length easing herself over the smooth sandy bottom. Her massive pectoral fins gently grazed the sand leaving a trench marking her trail while the baby rode the pressure wave just above her head. The depth shallowed even more and her belly barely cleared the bottom. I moved to the coral head and clung to an outcropping to let them pass all the while firing away with my 15mm wide-angle lens.

As the mother’s twenty-foot tail fluke filled my lens from only inches away, I began a slow pursuit and wondered to myself why no escort male had picked up supervision of the pair. Maybe the mother liked to give birth unbothered? Or maybe the rambunctious males were leery of the shallow water that threatened to strand them?

I was suddenly aware that the bottom was no longer fifteen feet below me. My fin tips hit something solid when I kicked and I looked down thinking I’d let myself drift onto the coral head. Wrong! The male I had been speculating on was directly below me having been masked in the gloom before. He now had set his sights on moving up to place himself between his new family and myself. He had accelerated his slow swim and I now found him about to surface directly between my legs!

Now some might rationalize on daytime talk shows and computer chat rooms that “size doesn’t matter” but at that moment in life I was firmly convinced that it was about to matter a whole lot!

To my left were the jagged coral branches of the reef top and Mr. Big chose that moment to raise his pectoral fin to just clear the hazard. His fin soared over the coral head like a stunt airplane turning around a course pylon. That effectively killed any escape in that direction. A quick look behind confirmed that the whale’s back would make contact with me in seconds. I gulped a breath and dove over his head with my chest massaging his widow’s peak on the way by. Finning to give us each some space I ended up on my back about three feet off the bottom and under his right pectoral fin.

Okay, this isn’t so bad, I thought. He’ll just glide over me and then I can come up. Wrong again! He chose that exact moment to stop and simultaneously dropped his pec fin neatly pinning me to the sand. I had always wanted a close encounter but this was ridiculous. There I was flat on my backside with several tons of deadweight pectoral gently anchoring me. I never even thought of struggling. I lay quietly and played dead. Rather aptly, I thought.

From my constrained view, I could look the big guy in the eye from about five feet away. He articulated his gaze back to me and sized me up. After about thirty seconds he eased up his pec fin and moved ahead. I put one hand up and fended myself off his belly as moved over me at a snail’s pace. Finally the tail passed overhead close enough to let me count the smallest barnacles and I gratefully hit the surface for some much-needed oxygen.

While I was taking inventory of body parts and mentally calculating if I qualified for hypoxia-induced brain damage, all three whales came at me from the shallows. The male led the mother and her baby deftly through the reef and then waited for them to exit to the deeper water. We regarded each other without malice as he ended up once again on the surface right next to me. I fired off a few frames and then he moved gradually away into the blue with his charges… a picture of family values to please every southern Baptist on their way to a Disney boycott. From my perspective, it was definitely an E-ticket ride.

Hanging With the Humpbacks

Flash forward a few years and I’m back on the Silver Bank bobbing in the ocean hoping to finally see a group of humpbacks that I had dropped in to intercept. As the whales approached me, I could hear them “talking” before I could actually see them underwater. But the systematic whistles and long squeals let me know they were closing on me. Indeed, I could feel the sonar echoes vibrate off my bones it seemed as the sound surrounded me.

A quick glance from the surface let me catch a glimpse of an uplifted tail signaling the beginning of a dive. The female was less than two hundred yards away and moving toward me at about two knots. I packed my lungs with a series of hyperventilations and held the last breath. Kicking my own fins over my head, I began a slow easy descent to 70 feet and hoped my breath-holding skills hadn’t deteriorated too much. I hovered about 20 feet from the sandy bottom and waited.

Like two dirigibles, a pair of humpbacks approached and eyed me with a certain detached curiosity. I held my ground and brought my cameras up firing away. The escort male faded into the gloom, apparently placing me in a category that was filed “no threat” in his leviathan brain. Wanting to blend with my cetacean companions, I began to swim parallel with the mother as she brought her two-week-old calf into view to inspect this strange new intruder in their remote playground.

Now they were so close that I could reach out and touch the body of the adult as she cruised slowly closer. A minute and half into my dive, I knew I had to start up. I eased clear of the mammoth pectoral fin that extended over me nearly twelve feet, and headed for fresh air. Mother and calf matched my ascent and we broke the surface together less than an arm span apart. The newborn seemed to need a breath as badly as I did and we rested together under his mother’s watchful eye.

As we relaxed in the gentle ocean swell, I framed up the last of my shots to capture the pair together. And then we were off again on easy dive just a few feet below the mirrored waves where they worked on a few acrobatic barrel rolls and wing-overs as I watched in mute awe. This encounter would last nearly a half hour before they outpaced me and headed off… leaving me once again to appreciate how very special my time with these giants was.

Only a decade or so ago barely a handful of humans had the chance to swim with humpbacks in the wild. This was my 18th expedition to the Silver Bank since 1971. The thrill for me has only intensified over the years as the whales have increased in numbers and I continue to renew acquaintances with individual animals that I recall as babies nearly four decades ago.

The Joys of Free Diving

Traditionally, prolonged diver interaction with humpbacks has been limited to the few intrepid explorers who have been able to maintain aggressive breath hold dives while swimming with the whales. The casual snorkeler is swiftly left in the whale’s wake, perhaps because they are found uninteresting to these marine acrobats. In most of my experiences, the whales give only a passing acknowledgment to swimmers on the surface before moving away. Only by diving well below the surface to depths of 30-50 feet and establishing “eye contact” have I been able to sustain their curiosity.

Conventional scuba generally is about as popular with whales as Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid would be at George Bush’s birthday picnic in Crawford, Texas. (The president would prefer to have Dick Cheney take them bird hunting… or at least let Teddy Kennedy drive them home from the party.) Scuba exhaust bubbles create an acoustical signature that may be misinterpreted as a threat behavior or maybe the idea of a bunch of ungainly swimming creatures belching clouds of bubbles from every orifice is just considered bad behavior in whale etiquette. I don’t know, but you can basically forget getting any quality time if you approach them looking like an off-the-rack Jacuzzi.

So for years, I had limited myself to holding my breath for a few minutes or so or until achieving a certain hypoxic-induced blue hue in my quest for time in the whale’s element. This method has produced some memorable photos over the years and an enlightened sense of humility when the bounds of human breath hold physiology confirm that I cannot keep pace with even a baby whale.

With the advent of modern rebreathers, at least some of these limitations were to be set aside. In the mid-1990s, a handful of specially licensed vessel operators have conducted limited cruises to the Silver Bank during the humpbacks’ residence there from January through April. These liveaboards have allowed small numbers of guests to take their best shot at anticipating the whales’ path and dropping in front of them hoping for a quick glimpse as they passed underwater.

Unless you were a pretty hardy free diver, most of these sightings were of limited duration. By no means did this lessen the thrill. It’s hard to be blasé about spending time in the water with this planet’s largest creatures, even if only for a few minutes, as they surged past in the blue. But even the most conditioned breath hold diver gets maxed out after 30 minutes or so of brisk surface swimming in between one to two minute dives to as much as 90 feet.

Back in 1994 after burning about a million calories in a mile and a half mile swim-along session with four humpbacks, I had to ask myself if there wasn’t a more efficient way of photographing these guys. Here I was nearly a hundred miles from the nearest dry land, alone in the water with my cameras, as the sun began to set over the western horizon.

I hoped the inflatable driver was tracking my progress by the whale’s spouts because he certainly couldn’t see me in the four to six foot swells. Putting on my best effort at a human breach, I mimicked the whales and finned myself as high out of the water as I could and peered downwind. Sure enough, there was the inflatable churning steadily to pick me up. I reminded myself again about the wisdom of developing a reputation as a heavy tipper at the end of expeditions.

With time to kill, I floated in the wave’s trough and ticked off the alternatives to continuing my lung busting routine of sustained free diving with heavy cameras. Underwater scooters (or DPV’s) were out. With cameras mounted on them, they never ended up pointing in the right direction and some whales seemed to hate the whine from the motor and prop. Scuba was out because of the bubbles and remote controlled video cameras were just too much of a crapshoot. Then I thought of rebreathers and the same old arguments against them came back. Too expensive, too bulky to swim with, and a maintenance nightmare in the field. You can see I had a lot of time to consider all this before the inflatable got to me. Maybe this kid didn’t know I was a big tipper…

Behavior Among Whales

The north Atlantic humpback is the most social of whales and many seem to delight in their contact with humans. The same whales that spend the winter on the Silver Bank return to the Gulf of Maine during the summer months to stuff themselves on sand eels and krill that abound off the coast. During this time, the whales are easily approached and quite gregarious as they play on the banks off New England. I’ve had many opportunities to swim with them on Stellwagon Bank or Jeffries Ledge but the water visibility is generally poor in the summer plankton blooms and only rarely have conditions been good for underwater filming.

Also, it’s cold. Not cool, not chilly, not brisk. Damn cold. After spending nearly 25 years living all over the Caribbean, it’s tough for me to come to grips with anything less than about 80 degrees water temperature. Back then, when up north I free dived with the whales in a 2mm wet suit that gave me maximum flexibility and allowed me to be quicker in the water. If I kept active, I could last about half an hour before I needed to be extracted and re-warmed like a reptile on a rock. Trust me ladies, in the Gulf of Maine, men quickly discover that they have nipples, too.

After cavorting in their food rich summer habitat, the humpbacks begin their annual migration back to the Silver Bank or to points further south in the Caribbean. It is suspected by cetacean experts that the primary motivation for this odyssey is to allow the calves to be born under optimal conditions of warm, protected water. The Silver Bank provides the ideal nursery.

Located between Grand Turk island in the remote Turks & Caicos group and the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, the Bank has long been a nightmare for ships and yachts in transit. Magically, a massive area of random coral pinnacles and well-developed reefs suddenly rise from the bottomless depths of the southern North Atlantic. In the lee of the reefs, the whales enjoy relatively settled seas and almost total solitude, as the area remains inaccurately charted to this day. Only a handful of dive vessels and the occasional sailing venturer dare to enter their domain.

Theory has it that the females give birth sometime in the latter part of January but a birth has never been witnessed by anyone in spite of years of anxious search. On several occasions, I have observed whales that were obviously pregnant alter their normal swimming routines and disappear only to re-appear later that same day with an infant in tow. Where they go and how the birth is accomplished is pure speculation. Certainly, the babies are born tail first like dolphins and begin swimming on their own immediately.

I’ve seen proud mothers obviously coaching their newborns in diving skills and breath holding as they make a grand tour to show off the new addition to the rest of the pod. During this period while nursing, the babies gain an average of 200 pounds a day. You can almost see them growing in front of you. I had a fraternity room mate like that once back in college.

Rarely will a mother and calf be seen without an “escort male” who takes responsibility for shepherding the pair safely. And woe betides the diver who dares to annoy the escort with aggressive behavior. Typically, the male will position himself to cut off an intruder’s access to the mother and newborn. If the hint is not taken, he may take more direct steps such as tail or pectoral fin slaps that are not exactly subtle and can leave a diver dazed or drowned. I’ve seen other males emit a stunning sonar blast to lash the offender with a bone jarring underwater sonic boom. But this is unusual and takes pretty boorish, rude intrusions to provoke. (Howard Stern and Don Imus, take note and warning.)

Whales, I have found over the years, are very similar to people in their social interaction. They make first impressions and play favorites. And if you don’t measure up in some mystical order of whale social-climbing, you are simply shunned. And you thought high school was tough.

During the winter of 1994, I was on a ship with an eager photographer who just couldn’t wait for his first contact. But while the rest of us adopted minimalist outfitting limited to mask, fins and snorkel, he dressed like a drunken Mardi Gras freak. His six-color wet suit was adorned with (I swear, I’m not kidding) bells, clankers, and several rescue alert strobes. Rounding out his ensemble were a set of blinking multi-colored lights than ran from head to toe and encircled his abdomen like some crazed Santa Claus on bad acid from the sixties. Combined with snorkeling skills that replicated a gasping salmon with palsy, he didn’t exactly make a figure that invited close contact. But in his delusional world, he somehow figured his outfit would serve to attract the whales.

Come on, would you hang out with this guy at a cocktail party? Whales aren’t dummies. They have brains larger than the body of the average St. Bernard. They treated this guy like he farted in church. Every time he got in the water the whales fled. They know a geek when they see one, I guess. Hey man, you get make an effort to blend a bit!

On the other hand, they seem to appreciate a diver who can do a good job of swimming with them naturally. My long time dive buddy, Lynn Hendrickson, is a champion free diver and was practically adopted by one female whale we named Valentine (since she first appeared on that holiday with her calf). Lynn would plow through the surface to meet Valentine face to face about 30 feet deep and then keep pace with her. This seemed to hold an endless fascination for the whale and she would drive off other divers to isolate her time with Lynn.

Eventually, Lynn would tire and Valentine would actually slow down and wait for her. After about twenty minutes or so, the whale decided to roll over on her back and extend her long pectoral fin to Lynn as a handhold so she wouldn’t have to work so hard to keep up. The two spent nearly an hour together before she moved off to feed her calf. But she returned repeatedly over the course of the week and always renewed her friendship with Lynn to the exclusion of others in the water. After a few days of this female bonding I was beginning to consider an alienation of affection lawsuit against Valentine. I was sure they were listening to Melissa Etheridge music instead of traditional whale songs…

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4 thoughts on “Appreciating The Whale: Part I”

  1. Thanks, you made me smell and taste the salt water. Louis

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  2. In early January, off the south coast of Kauai, we had a young male humpback come to visit us, a group of scuba divers. We had been hearing humpback songs all through the dive, but suddenly we were hearing deep thumps, so deep that you could feel them like someone was thumping your chest. Visibility was about 100 feet. A few minutes after the thumps, out of the distance came this large gray object. He swam by about 25 feet away, went past 100-150 feet, made a u-turn then made another 25 foot pass.

    A truly amazing experience and probably once-in-a-lifetime…but I hope not. Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to have it happen again.

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  3. I loved reading this article. Is there any way to see some of his photographs?

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  4. Brett writes like he dives.This article requires wider ciculation.
    I hope he does a book (he has enough experience and his style is humerous and professional} Stan Waterman has done it and this is better. And he has such a pretty dive buddy who just happens to be his wife. We all should be so lucky

    Way to go

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