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Dominica Diary: Pinchy and Me

Dominica’s sperm whales seem to have weathered Hurricane Maria with aplomb, even if the island itself is worse for wear and therefore a fair bit less gemütlich to tourists. However come back I have, and not in search of new experiences, but only to relive those of last year. The act of swimming with whales might be classed under been there done that, but I want more to repeat the emotion of the event rather than the actual act.

People ask if I fear swimming with animals with five-inch teeth, the ability to hunt and kill giant squid at depths of up to 3,000 feet, and which outweigh me by 500 times or more. The answer is: not in the least. Therein lies the deeper pleasure.

You see, a sperm whale like Pinchy (below), radiates (for lack of a better word) a sense of calm, one that a human diver cannot help but discern. Her grace in the water plays only a small part in creating the to-the-marrow sensation one feels that she bears people no ill, and that she herself is at peace with her surroundings. I am casting about for the right word; one has the opposite of an adrenaline rush: relaxation and tranquility are the order of the moment.

In the below image, Pinchy (about thirty-five feet long and twenty-five tons) has seen three of us in the water for a good hundred yards, and probably further than that using her echolocation. She swims straight toward us to get a good look. Dartblog’s freediving (no scuba) reporter is to her left (only about 20 feet below the surface):

Pinchy and Me2.jpg

Then she dives straight downward, tail in the air, for the depths. We watched her descend until she could no longer been seen:

Pinchy and Me1.jpg

The slashes and scratches on Pinchy’s head are the remnants of past battles with giant squid — formidable creatures that don’t die without a fight. Virtually all sperm whales bear scars from these brutal encounters. As for the curious white lines on her head, they are places where Pinchy’s skin has peeled off, perhaps due to the sun. Whales slough off their skin regularly; one finds strings of the gooey stuff floating in the water here.

Pinchy is part of Dominica’s resident population of sperm whales, the most studied whales on the planet. Researchers recognize animals by their distinct tail pattern — something that can change if an orca, pilot whale or false killer whale takes a bite. Here is Pinchy’s:

Pinchy Fluke.jpg

The image comes from the Fluke Book maintained by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, the folks who gave Pinchy her name.

Addendum: Our trip was organized and led by Patrick Dykstra of Picture Adventure Expeditions, a small outfit that can take you to swim with sperm whales in Dominica, blue whales in Sri Lanka, whale sharks in Djibouti, and orcas in Norway. Patrick is an NYU Law alumnus, but he numbers among the many lawyers who have gone on to do better things with themselves. Pat took the above photographs of your humble servant (he also shot a great deal of video footage that appeared in Blue Planet II).

Addendum: An equivalent emotion to that of swimming with whales is to be had in the presence of a happy, affectionate elephant.


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