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Whale/Human Watching Up Close

Dominica Map.jpgAfter working on our freediving skills in Paris, we have traveled to Dominica, a small nation in the southern Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles archipelago (right), to swim with sperm whales. In the below picture I am about twenty feet down and taking a look at a juvenile female (one of a group made up of three females and a calf) who has come over to check me out, too. The young lady is about eight to ten feet away, which gives you a sense of her size (about thirty feet long; probably twenty-five tons). What you can’t see is her grace: she moves through the water with a silent calm; her swimming seems almost motionless. As she ever-so-slowly approached me, she rolled off to her side to get a better look. What was going on in that big brain, which can be five times the size of a human one — and with a much more evolved cortex? I don’t know, but I think that we were both happy:

Dominica1C.jpg(Photo: Olivier Borde)

Sperm whales are carnivorous predators, but fortunately, to date anyways, they have not developed a taste for humans (there is no recent recorded fatality related to whales — or to orcas for that matter). They eat a little of everything, but their dish of predilection is squid, small and very large (the beaks of giant squid have been recovered in whales’ digestive tracts), which they find using echolocation — an on-board sonar of sharp clicks that travel for miles. That’s how we found our group, by listening on hydrophones for their sounds and then watching for spouting on the surface.

When sperm whales group together they make a different series of sounds called a coda: precise, smaller clicks that are repeated in intelligible series. We heard these sounds, too, but what are they saying among themselves?

Our trip was organized by researchers from Darewin and Click Research, two efforts animated by French engineer Fabrice Schnoller with the assistance of other scientists. They define their mission as “to better understand dolphin and whale click communication and perhaps, one day, make contact with these extraordinary animals.” Schnoller and his freediving colleagues have recorded whales and dolphins all over the world while in the water with them. They believe that only by swimming with these mammals can they observe them in their natural state. Watch an interview with the team.

Some interactions take place at depth, and some are on the surface. Just who is the investigator and who is the subject here?

Dominica2.jpg

(Photo: Fred Buyle)

We looked at each other, and then the whale swam by me, taking evident care to hold her fin and huge tail lower so as not to swipe at me. Once clear, she gave a broad stroke of her tail and she was gone. Whales are solicitous of humans; they don’t swim actively until they are well past a diver.

The most astounding moment of the trip came when we were positioned several hundred yards in front of a calf that had been left on the surface by its foraging-in-the-deep mother. However after a few minutes, the calf dived, too. We waited for a while, and when the little one did not appear, as a change of pace I swam down to about forty feet. The second time that I did so, I heard the Geiger-counter-like clicks of echolocation, and within a few seconds the calf appeared out of the blue about twenty feet below me. It had chosen to come say hello. I was almost out of oxygen, but as often occurs when there is something on the line, my air returned. The calf moved in to about six feet from me, and we swam quietly in parallel, eye to eye, for about twenty seconds. Trust is a lovely thing. And add to that the fact that I have always dreamed of an animal appearing magically from the depths. Bliss.

Addendum: Swimming fins have evolved a great deal since my early scuba diving days 45 years ago.The best ones now are made of carbon fiber, and they are close to four feet long. Rather than providing abrupt forward thrust, they move smoothly in the water, almost as if you were kicking without them, but generating a great deal more power.

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