They approached like a living wall—five sperm whales in tight formation, ranging in size from the three-meter, one-ton newborn calf to the eleven-meter, 20-ton mother and the only slightly smaller female escorts.
Minutes before, they had been at the center of a milling herd of 26 whales, churning the surface of the sea into bloody foam. We initially believed that the floppy little calf we’d earlier seen taking its first breaths had been killed in front of our eyes. So much frantic activity and so much blood. It had been way too dangerous to enter the water then. Whale barging into whale. Rearing flukes thrashing air and water. The entire herd stampeding to the left. And then to the right. We could see no obvious predator, but clearly something was agitating the herd—and drawing blood. Then we saw the second calf. Spluttering and bunted to the surface on the side of an adult. The gushing blood had signalled the moment of its partuition.
Decisive moments don’t linger long. Floppy flukes are an unmistakable symbol of a newborn sperm whale—in this instance, only briefly silhouetted in the distance against sunlight on an adult’s back
Now the herd had calmed and was disbanding. The mother and small pod escorting the most recent calf was swimming on the very edge of visibility, but then, for whatever reason, they’d deviated and began approaching me, head on. Arching their necks. Raising their heads. Constantly spraying sonar. Sensing, listening, squinting, pressing forward hesitantly but inexorably like a curious pack of giant dogs towards this oddly shaped little life form that they had encountered and come to investigate. This was shaping up, as Henri Cartier-Bresson might have described it, as one of those “decisive moments”!
It doesn’t appear that Cartier-Bresson ever photographed a living, wild whale. It would have been good if he had. We would then have had some visual clues as to how he might have approached them to capture those decisive moments he defined as being essential to the success of any photographic image—those moments when the significance, the context, and the “precise organization of forms” of a subject all become apparent and visible in the fraction of a second it takes for the shutter to open and close.
Timing is critical: By the time the flukes, here at the lowest point of their stroke, have completed one beat up and then down again, the whale will be out of sight
Whales a few meters down present more even illumination, but light levels are significantly lower than at the surface. Drab gray skin sucks up a stop or two as well
Exploring that ideal can be challenging and rewarding when it is applied to underwater photography. Indeed, it is difficult enough just getting past the “precise organization of forms” when it comes to photographing whales, either from a bobbing boat, or amidst a randomly moving herd in the heaving three-dimensional, featureless, blue haze that is the open ocean.
And when it comes to sperm whales? Well, if not ugly, by comparison with the streamlined elegance of the likes of the blue, finback, minke, Bryde’s and sei, and incapable of the balletic poses of long-limbed humpbacks, they are certainly an “acquired taste” as pre-eminent researchers Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell put it.
They’ve also been described by Hal Whitehead as “surfacers” rather than divers, because they spend the vast bulk of their lives deep in the waters of the abyss. Their surface intervals can be as short as 10 to 15 minutes out of each hour, so there is often limited time to observe and record them, although they do, on occasion, spend longer on the surface, resting, socialising, lolling about, and giving birth.
Surfacing whales offer an opportunity for sunlight to shine on the usually shaded underside of the head and throat, creating a chance for strong composition
In the sometimes feverish activity of a sperm whale gathering, it’s a good idea to remain outside the arc of the swiping flukes. On a large adult, they can weigh as much as an SUV—and they travel at speed
Any conventional amateur photographic endeavours, such as ours, can only hope to contribute snippets and glimpses into complex and hidden life cycles. Nevertheless, we set about trying to photograph sperm whales in the hope that we might learn more about them, record some insightful views of their behavior, and, hopefully, through our images help build public awareness and support for the researchers and scientists working around the world to understand, manage, and conserve these whales.
Our technique is relatively simple. First, find whales. On clear days, the vigia (lookouts) on the mountainous coasts of the Azores can see up to 20 nautical miles out to sea and can guide us by radio to any whales that are visible. In less-than-ideal conditions though, when lowering cloud shrinks the horizon, or stiff breezes scatter whitecaps across the sea, success or failure depends almost entirely on the vision and experience of our skipper.
Two adolescent whales on their way to a social gathering: The pleasing organization of their forms hints at the mysteries of their lives below the surface, and belies the chaotic activity that will follow
Once we’ve located whales, we then have complete freedom to choose lens, f-stop, and shutter speed. The whales control everything else, including the times that it is appropriate to enter the water. All our work in the Azores is conducted under a permit issued by Secretário Regional do Mar, Ciência e Tecnologia (Regional Secretariat for the Sea, Science and Technology). It is illegal to swim with whales in the Azores without such a written permit. The permit sets out soundly reasoned guidelines which are designed to ensure that the whales are not disturbed or harmed by human swimmers. We adhere diligently to those guidelines: There is no satisfaction, and no photographic merit, to be had from deliberately spooking wild animals.
But, in reality, it is the whales themselves that set the rules. They will either approach, or they won’t, and this can change hour by hour, group by group, individual by individual. Sometimes we are privileged to be the center of attention as the whales watch us watching them watch us. Other times we are alone, stranded in the boat, whale-waiting for lengthy periods, reduced to inventing verses of whale-themed doggerel to pass the time.
Despite decades of research and volumes of data, science has still only scratched the surface of understanding of these enigmatic whales
It’s one thing to observe a pod of sperm whales swimming past. But when a whole group, including a minutes-old newborn, singles you out for close inspection, your heart will really start pumping!
Getting the camera slightly lower in the water by simply exhaling and sinking is a useful technique for keeping surface chop out of the frame
Now, after nine expeditions to the Azores so far, and several hundreds of encounters, these super-predators of the abyss have revealed themselves in the surface waters to be curious, aloof, and everything in-between. But never aggressive. We have come to admire them in ways we never imagined.
The portfolio here represents some of our efforts along the way. But with all the study of animal behavior, technique and composition taken into account, as photographers of anything living and moving, it’s also worth reflecting on another, sobering, gem of wisdom from Cartier-Bresson: “Of course, it’s all luck.”
A large adult female thrashes the surface, presumably, to summon the clan—perhaps to witness, celebrate, or assist in the birth of a new whale
About the Author: Wade Hughes is a Member of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He has dived in some 30 countries and territories around the world. He and his wife Robyn make their photographs freely available to individuals and organizations involved in education, research, and not-for-profit promotion of sustainable conservation. Requests can be sent to email@example.com.
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