Posted on Sunday, 28 December 2014
There are many experiences that one can dream of and once in a while those dreams can come true. In this case the opportunity of getting in the water with a Sperm whale came as a complete surprise.
We have had a very windy summer up to this point meaning few chances of getting off Cape Point to explore the pelagic environment in our area.
Just ten days ago we finally got a good weather day and with two good friends joining us we headed off into the open ocean leaving just past dawn. Sea conditions were still lumpy as we rounded the Point and I know we were all thinking that it was going to be a tough day! Fortunately as we pressed on the sea began to settle as our enthusiasm increased. The water temperature began to rise and just a few miles off the Point we were in 21 degree Celsius water with the visibility in the 20 meter range and the rich blue colour making for beautiful diving conditions. Our primary target was to find Mako and Blue sharks but as always we are constantly on the lookout for anything of interest.
Our first sign of something interesting was a tell-tale spout a few miles ahead of us. As we approached we found to our great excitement that the spouts belonged to a couple of female sperm whales. These are whales that we do not come across very often and as such we do not have a lot of experience on how to approach them, and we have never dived with them before. The water conditions were too good to pass up this opportunity so with direction from John and Pam (who have dived with these gentle giants off Dominica on a number of occasions) we prepared to set Chris up for a Sperm whale swim-by. With their direction we approached the whales in the least impactful way possible but we soon realised they were shy and had very little interest with us. In fact, as we came closer they would turn away from us.
They only spend short periods of time on the surface and realistically you have about 10 – 12 minutes before they submerge for another 45 minute feeding bout in the depths below. This provided tricky conditions and after a number of failed attempts with the shy whales we began our hunt for the sharks…
We seem to find the highest numbers of blue sharks in the more green coloured water so although we had great conditions we had to wait a good two hours before the first blue shark arrived at the boat. In fact he was the only shark we saw that day! But, the 2 meter long male still gave us a great look and a great dive.
I ducked myself down and there she was, swimming straight towards me… I couldn’t believe it!
Just as we were preparing to depart for home John spotted another Sperm whale spouting fairly close to us and suddenly it was game on again. Chris was still in his wetsuit and Pam directed me perfectly onto the swim path of the whale. Chris slowly eased in the water and then swam like mad to reach to exact meeting point of the approaching sperm whale. He had a breath-taking view as the whale passed within a couple of meters from him. Even though we weren’t in the water with Chris all of us on board were so excited at the experience Chris had just had. The whale moves at a speed you are not aware of when watching them from the surface and once the whale swims past you it is impossible to keep up with them. So, the “dive” is literally to get yourself ahead of the whale on its approach, and hope like crazy it doesn’t turn away.
When Chris got on board we spotted a second whale a few hundred meters away. I didn’t have time to put on a wetsuit so I got ready in my shorts (luckily the water was warm) and grabbed my mask & fins before getting ready on the dive step. Chris lined the boat up and very soon I got the command to get in, and then swim as fast as I could. I suddenly found myself, in my shorts, in the middle of the open ocean, over a thousand meters of water and racing towards a gigantic 20 ton sperm whale, on my own! It was a daunting feeling but the moment I realised my frantic swimming was taking me towards an experience of a lifetime I calmed down and tried to take the moment in.
I got ahead of her and on the surface I had a terrific view of this huge bulbous head riding slightly above the surface, and then hearing that beautiful exhale as she approached to within visibility under the water. I ducked myself down and there she was, swimming straight towards me… I couldn’t believe it! I think she must have been curious, I am certain I was the first human she had even seen underwater, and changed her path even more directly towards me. I found myself trying to back pedal as she came less than a meter from me. I didn’t realise how much depth a sperm whale has to its head especially. As she came past I tried to find her eye so that I could look into it. It took a few heart beats before I located it way down beneath me. She was just calmly looking at me in a thoughtful way and I definitely felt the intelligence behind it. In fact it was very human-like.
It is difficult to describe how large a 20 ton whale is and when it comes to a sperm whale I can now say with authority that it can be likened to an ice-berg; 90% of it is underwater, and seeing one on the surface definitely does not convey how large it is. I was completely in awe as this massive animal moved past me and only realised too late that I should have started kicking with it much earlier in an attempt to stay a little longer with her. In just a moment she was already on her way and her fast moving tail left me in her dust, or prop wash more literally!
It didn’t matter though, this was one incredible moment and a life highlight I am sure to try and repeat again!