Published: May 16th 2012April 5th 2012
I've been incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to spend so much time with the whales. In the midst of the research with the competitive groups, you're so engrossed in identifying, photographing, and data recording that you're oblivious to the awe of the scene until you hear the oohing and awing from the whale watching boats that have to keep back 100yards. After we had a the bulk of the season under our belts and the intensity of the groups started to slow, us interns started getting opportunities to photograph the whales underwater.
One my first time, we were instructed to step quietly into the water and swim out about 20 yards to intercept a competitive group of 9 whales. You could make out the faint white shapes of pectoral fins approaching in the distance. We kicked our fins as fast as we could to get within about 40 feet and snap some photos as they flew by. We signaled to the boat, got picked up then scooted out in front of them again to get dropped off in their line of travel. The whales flew by us again, only in view for about 20 seconds. Out of the water
we saw some surface lunges between males and a breach. "Oh great," I thought "they'll probably breach right on us on our next dive." Our third placement was the best though. Once in the water I saw a few glimmers of white 30 feet below the surface steadily approaching in the distance. A few seconds later I could make out the dark outline of few more whales and suddenly all 9 whales soared by 30 feet below our flippers. From above with their 16 foot pectoral "wings" outstretched they looked like a tight formation of airplanes. I had never seen them swimming from directly overhead and I was struck by how similar their shape is to that of a commercial airplane. It's also amazing how fast they were going without really moving their tail - they seemed to be completely still as they glided forward. Then I see some rapid tail movement as the primary escort charges at a another male to his right. The two take off (luckily straight down and not in my direction!) and in 2 seconds the chase is too deep to see. The rest of the group remains on autopilot and as they disappear from
Another time a whale's singing was heard above water even with the engine on. Looking around, we saw it in the water 30 feet from the boat. Normally with a singer we'll drop the hydrophone to take a listen to the song but since this whale was so close, Katrien and I got in to take photos. This whale was in the typical singing position - nearly vertical, head down, and 30 feet below the surface. Some of those notes really vibrated in my stomach! It felt like I had swallowed a cell phone on vibrate. It must have shaken our bladders too because we both urinated twice soon after getting out of the water. It may also have had something to do with water penetrating the rubber gasket of my underwater camera which was ruined except for the memory card.
Newborn whales are 12-15 feet long, two to three thousand pounds, and quite playful. In one encounter we thought there may have been a male escort because the calf would stray up to 40 yards from mom which was strange. In the water the mother was resting 30 feet under and the calf was playing
and taking frequent breaths at the surface. "This is nice," I thought as we watched from 40 feet away. Then the calf turned toward me and began drifting forward. "Uh-oh," I thought as it came inside 20 feet because I'd heard that calves can be dangerous if they want to play with divers and unintentionally hold them underwater. It turned and looked at me with its right eye at ten feet away then turned and looked at me with its left eye at 5 feet away! At that point I now notice that mom is creeping toward me about 20 feet under my feet and I worry about her getting protective. But luckily the calf returns to mom's slipstream and they swim away.
One particularly hot day we all took a cool-off swim when out of the blue emerged a manta ray! Kind of scary to think about how we didn't see this slow moving shark relative until it was 30ft from us - especially when there are tigers and great whites in the area.
Snorkeling has been my favorite activity on the weekends. Us interns will all go check out new bay or reef. One small bay
had at least 40 turtles in it! A friend showed us a spot where he had found seahorses and even after pointing to them it took me 5min to see them because of their camoflague. We were also invited on the Atlantis submarine to check out the Carthaginian shipwreck and corals down 150ft. I like snorkeling better though, at that depth all the colors fade to blue.
Haleakala is a 10,000ft volcano on the other side of the island. I caught a ride with some friends. They stopped at a bakery but I wasn't hungry since having a huge breakfast. I joked that I wasn't going to eat anything on my three day hike in homage to the whales that don't feed during their months in the Hawaiian breeding grounds. They laughed and asked if like the whales I was also going on my hiking trip to mate.
I will be headed to Alaska this summer but not to follow the whales. I'll be doing an ecological inventory of some park land near Anchorage. I like to think that if I do go on a whale watch I may recognize some of the whales in their summer feeding
There are more photos below