Posted on Tuesday, 31 May 2016
“Blooooooows……….”! Came the cry from the crow’s nest as the warm bushy spout of the surfacing cachalot gave the great Sperm whales’ presence away.
The year was 1819 and the gold rush of the time was not for a shiny metal, but for very refined oil; that of the whale, and none was more prized than that of the Sperm whale.
Several hundred miles East of Chile the whale ship known as the “Essex”, which hailed from the Sperm whale oil capital of the world at the time, Nantucket, had spotted a Sperm whale family. The skilled harpooners quickly sunk their irons into two whales and lashed them to their boats for the roller coaster ride that almost always ended in the whales crimson spouting death.
This time was different though and the tables were about to be turned.
It was at this point that a massive white male Sperm whale, said to be 80ft long rushed the whaling mother ship, the Essex, and rammed her twice, holing her and in the process causing her to sink. Most of her crew were still in the far smaller harpooning boats and watched in disbelief as their home at sea heeled over and began her plunge down to Davy Jones’s locker. The Essex crew quickly salvaged the few things they could and abandoned ship. The crew now all took to the three small harpooning boats and began what was to be a marathon tale of survival and cannibalism on the open ocean.
This true story was the foundation for Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic tale of the notorious white whale that sank ships and Captain Ahab’s obsession with vanquishing this rogue cetacean.
The thought of a massive renegade white whale is what gets the juices of any adventuresome naturalist going, and when Monique and I started discovering an area where we were regularly seeing Sperm whales a few years ago, I have to say I never thought that such animal could exist.
On a beautiful day on the 15th of May of the year 2016, whilst drifting 50 kilometers off the South Western Tip of Africa, I uttered the same words yelled by the Nantucket whalers nearly 200 years before, “Bloooooows…….”! This time the excitement was not at the prospect of drums of oil, but rather a cache of incredible memories gained by spending time with this remarkable creature above and below the water. Having seen numerous Sperm whales in the past we instantly knew that this animal was exceptional. The blow was that much higher and bushier and the length of the animal was staggering, stretching for what I thought was the better part of 20 meters.
We knew we only had a few minutes before the world’s second deepest diving mammal (Cuviers Beaked whales dive deeper) would plunge down into the depths in search of its formidable quarry, which amongst many species of squid included Architeuthis, the Giant squid.
What an amazing experience to have been so close to such a remarkable animal, one that can hold its breath for more than an hour and dive to nearly 7000 feet.
We plotted the animals course and I slipped into the water some 100 yards ahead of it, giving it plenty of time to decide whether it wanted to come towards me or not. As I drifted I checked my camera settings and then glanced up. The animal was moving much faster than I thought and in no time had halved the distance to me. With visibility at around 30 feet I knew that this encounter would be intense if I was close enough to see it, and I had feelings of huge excitement mixed with a tinge of fear.
I could hear the whale breathing as I floated on the surface and I could now see the whales approach very clearly as it was only 60 feet away. I was on the wrong side of the whale for the light but I knew if I swam now I probably would not get around the whale and could easily be caught like a car stuck at a level crossing. I cursed at my lack of preparation. At 45 feet away the whale was almost in my visibility range and I dived. As I headed a few feet under the surface an eerie white apparition materialized. Initially I was confused but quickly I realized it was actually the white head of this giant living mammalian locomotive that was causing the greeny water to glow around it.
I was staring at what was for all intensive purposes a giant white Sperm whale.
All along and around the whale’s head, mouth and body were deep white scratches, rake marks and scars, and interspersed with these were teacup size sucker marks which gave the whole head a very white appearance.
Mind bogglingly I was in the water and now only 10 feet away from a modern day Moby Dick, and I could see why the Essex’s crew could well be forgiven for saying the giant whale that had taken revenge on their boat was white.
Caught between taking pictures or being brushed off by the whale if I did not quickly swim, I chose to do a bit of both, firing and swimming at the same time.
As my strobes fired the whale unexpectedly reacted and dived.
The last thing I ever like to do is startle my subjects, and I immediately stopped shooting and quickly surfaced and watched and listened. First the behemoth exhaled like a massive bellow being worked in an echoing chamber, and then I watched in awe as the nobbled tailstock arched and then revealed the giant fluke that hung like a huge umbrella a few feet away from me.
As the whale dived it defecated; all around me long strands of black slimy feces bore testimony to the success of this amazing creatures’ deep diving exploits.
I can feel the expectation of any scientist reading this asking if I kept any for isotope analysis or whatever, no I didn’t I was too busy trying to stop myself pooping in my wetsuit.
All too soon all that remained of my amazing encounter were the roiling vortices left spinning on the surface as the massive footprint marked where this master of the submarine canyons descended to ply his trade.
What an amazing experience to have been so close to such a remarkable animal, one that can hold its breath for more than an hour and dive to nearly 7000 feet. With the largest brain of any living creature, known or present, I wonder what it thought of the awkward creature with the bright lights that it had crossed paths with. Knowing that these whales can easily live up to 70 years I could also only but wonder if this whale had encountered my kind equipped with a harpoon decades before and somehow survived.
To read about previous offshore species encounters click on the links below:
May 2016: Pilot Whale
April 2015: Pilot Whale
December 2014: Sperm Whale
May 2013: False Killer Whale & Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphin