January 2009, Neko Harbour, Antarctica
As the humpback whale swam towards our zodiac the boat went silent. Bobbing gently up and down in the antarctic water, engine off, we could do little but watch its steady, determined approach as it headed towards us. Breathing stopped. Hearts raced. The whale dived just below and looking down white fins were in touching distance set against the black water, a sight I'd relive in dreams for days after. Then up again on the other side and a blow, sending warm, fermented fishy whale breath over all, and swiftly the whale was gone. Tears were shed. Relief certainly, for a humpback whale weighs 35 tonnes and with one flick of its tail, all would have been thrown in the water (how fortunate that anger towards humans is not in the nature of whales generally). So happiness also, for a brief moment of connection with a wild free animal on its own terms.
August 2013, Alaska
Burbles and static and the distant throb of a far away engine and then, a thin plaintive call building in volume. The speaker goes silent. The hydrophone lies a few feet below our boat straining to catch any sound. Then there it is again building in strength. Not the melodic whale calls designed to travel oceans - this is a call to arms. A neat circle of bubbles forms on the water ahead. The sound stops abruptly, the water boils and then they arrive. Perfectly synchronised, seven huge mouths thrust out of the water. Here and there, a few silvery fish leap out and away as best they can, fortunate remnants of the shoal. Fat bodies slap back onto the surface of the water then pause, squeezing out water through baleen plates, then swallowing down their prize.
Later, the setting sun has turns the water the colour of fire and all around there are the gentle sounds of blows, as humpback whales surface, breathe then quietly dive again feeding on the abundance of small herring that gather in huge shoals at this time of the year. There are more than one hundred whales in view around our small boat and just for a moment the world is perfect.
WHALE NOTES: We travelled to Alaska in August to catch the unique feeding behaviour of the humpback whales at this time of year when some gather together in groups and "bubble-net feed." Having found a large shoal of fish the whales swim in a circle around blowing bubbles through which the fish cannot pass. At a signal from the lead whale the whales charge up through the trapped shoal, mouths agape, scooping up tonnes of fish as they burst out at the surface. Only a few humpbacks seemed to have learned how to hunt with this technique and they gather each year in the same place. Their tail flukes have unique patterns which act like fingerprints allowing individual whales to be identified by researchers.
April 2017, San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California
We're calling, singing, splashing the water as hard as we can, leaning over the side of our small wooden boat as far as we dare. This couldn't be further from a a normal wildlife experience. Ahead we can see a pair of whales, a mother and calf, and our small crew desperately wants to play. The mother nudges her calf and then they're with us. The youngster riding up out of the water to see then accepting scratches and tickles and stroking and splashing.
What does a whale feel like ? A whale feels spongy and leathery like a well upholstered sofa. They are grey in colour and, although only young already have number of barnacles as passengers. The game goes on for minutes, the whales playing around the boat until seemingly boredom sets in and they swim away.
WHALE NOTES: Grey whales arrive to give birth to their young in San Ignacio lagoon in December. There they are safe in the shallow waters from attacks by killer whales who will not enter the lagoon for fear of being stranded on the sand bars at the entrance. With no food in the lagoon the mothers simply have to wait as their calves grow by drinking their milk until they are large enough to brave the journey north to their feeding grounds in the Arctic, usually leaving around April. In most situations human-whale contact would not be encouraged, but in San Ignacio the whales actively seek out contact with the small fishing boats and seem to enjoy the interaction - a small environmentally-friendly tourism industry has developed in the lagoon where the local fishermen fiercely protect the whales from over-exploitation and undue stress. Encounters are strictly on the whale's terms. Why the whales seek to interact is not well understood despite lots of studies - it may simply be to counteract the boredom of being in the lagoon while they wait to grow - but they do seem to benefit from the experience.
April 2017, Open Ocean, Baja California
Another day in Baja. Nothing prepares you for the sight of a blue whale. The size is astonishing. No matter how many photographs and how many films you've seen the reality of the scale of the largest animal ever to have lived on earth is unbelievable. And now there are two in front of us, mother and calf, the sonar of the "Spirit of Adventure" allowing our skipper to predict their rise on the starboard bow with precision.
The whales move sleekly through the water at speed, making quick blows of air as they surge forwards, the water dancing an electric blue as the sunlight reflects of water and skin. Blue whales are so large, so fast, that we expect just a glimpse and then they should be gone. Something is different today.
The calf swims close to the bow and rolls as we gaze down below. And as we look at each other eye-to-eye, with just a few meters of insubstantial air between us, hearts beating, adrenaline racing, we share the joy of being alive. Our journeys in search of whales had brought us our most emotional and amazing wildlife encounter to date.
WHALE NOTES: Blue whales are the largest animals known to have lived on the planet, weighing up to 170 tonnes and are 30 metres in length, just a fraction shorter than the length of a Boeing 737 airplane. Little is known about their lives. The current population is estimated to be about 10,000 to 25,000, approximately 1-3 percent of the population that is believed to have existed before whaling. Numbers have been very slowly increasing, making sightings a more realistic possibility, especially of the coast of Sri Lanka, California and Mexico.