Archived post

This is an archived post. Please click here to see the latest entries.

« I Am Not Making This Up | Home | The Endowment’s National Ranking »

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?


(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.


Featured posts

  • August 14, 2013
    Breaking: Of Crips and Bloods and Memories of Ghetto Parties
    History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, or sometimes it just repeats itself. From the New York Times on November 30, 1998: At Dartmouth College, white students at a ”ghetto party” dressed…
  • June 25, 2013
    Dean of the College Charlotte Johnson’s War on Students Part (2/2)
    Part 1, Part 2 Today’s post again recounts the events that befell the Freshman. However, the content of the Hanover Police department report reproduced in this space yesterday is supplemented by information from my own…
  • October 18, 2009
    When Love Beckoned in 52nd Street
    We were at San Francisco’s BIX last evening, enjoying prosecco, cheese, and a bit of music. A full year of inhabitation in Northern California has unraveled to me no decent venue for proper lounging, but…
  • October 9, 2009
    D Afraid of a Little Competish
    So our colleague and Dartblog writer Joe Asch informed me that the D has rejected our cunning advertising campaign. Uh-oh. The Dartmouth is widely known as a breeding ground for instant New York Times successes,…
  • September 4, 2009
    How Regents Should Reign
    As Dartmouth alumni proceed through the legal hoops necessary to defuse a Board-packing plan—which put in unhappy desuetude an historic 1891 Agreement between alumni and the College guaranteeing a half-democratically-elected Board of Trustees—it strikes one…
  • August 29, 2009
    Election Reform Study Committee
    If you are an alum of the College on the Hill, you may have received a number of e-mails of late beseeching your input for a new arm of the College’s Alumni Control Apparatus called…

Dartblog Specials

Subscribe by Email

Enter your email address:

Help, Pecuniarily

Please note

This website reflects the personal opinions of its authors. Any e-mails received may be published along with the full name of the sender. If you wish otherwise, please say so.

All content appearing at should be presumed copyright 2004-2018 its respective bylined author unless otherwise noted or unless linked to original source.




May 2018
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31