The biggest animal on Earth, the blue whale
My quest to swim with the blue whale began circa 1975, while working on a marine biology field station in the Sea of Cortez. We regularly encountered finback whales (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest animal on the planet, minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), and false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens), but the largest animal on Earth, the giant blue whale, always got away.
Occasionally, through our binoculars, we would spy a huge whale spout as one of these behemoths rose to the surface to breathe. Dropping everything, we’d rush towards the action in our pangas and search endlessly, but always to no avail. It was during one of these unsuccessful missions that I promised myself that one day—no matter what it took—I would see the elusive blue whale up close.
Not long afterwards, that wish came true, but not in quite the way I had hoped! While exploring Smith Island off of Bahia de Los Angeles, in Baja, we found a 73-foot whale beached and bleached. The stench was almost unbearable, but we returned the next day in our pangas with hooks and dragged it to another little island called Piojo. As we were working to move the animal, the locals kept repeating the word “moscas.” It turned out to be murderously hungry little flesh-eating sea lice, which cleaned the entire whale carcass to the bone in under a week! After the moscas had done their job, we built a small museum, did the taxonomy and hung the bones on display.
Gathering whale bones for the museum in 1975
The remains of a beached blue whale ready for display
In your mind’s eye, picture an object that is 100 feet in length, maybe five camper vans or a liveaboard dive boat. This is the enormity of the animal we are talking about here, and I sometimes find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that anything can grow to this size and weigh up to 190 tons by simply eating krill, a tiny shrimp-like crustacean that underwater photographers shoot with macro lenses on black-water dives.
The whales follow their favorite food around the globe, from the equator to the Arctic or Antartica, but spend most of their time at depth and still have many secrets left to reveal about their migration and behavior. We do know that they don’t reach sexual maturity until they are at least eight to 10 years old, calve every two to three years, with a gestation period of between 10 and 11 months, and have a lifespan of 80 to 90 years.
It wasn’t until 1967 that a ban was put on taking blue whales, and the current population is estimated to be a mere 10,000 to 25,000 worldwide, a small number when you consider that between 1868 and 1978, an estimated 382,000 blue whales were caught and killed for their oil and meat.
So where do you go to see one of these ocean giants in the water? Like most animals, the best way to locate them is to first find their food.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a blue whale
In the Presence of Giants
The deep trenches off the coast of Trincomalee in Sri Lanka are full of plankton and also in the migration path of many different whale species. It is currently the best place in the world to reliably encounter blue whales, yet it is forbidden by law for anyone to swim with them in Sri Lankan waters without an official permit from the government. If you are lucky enough to get a permit or join an expedition that has one, the peak season for blue whales is from February to May, and starting around mid-March, sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) join the feast, as their favorite food, squid, also arrive to feed on the plankton swarms.
Recently, with some good fortune, I was invited to join a permitted expedition. Steeped in rich cultures and bursting with photo opportunities, Sri Lanka rises up out of the Indian Ocean and is known for its tea, spice, and silk exports dating back to the days of the ancient Silk Road. Arriving in Trincomalee for our departure each day, the beaches are lined with rows of colorfully garbed villagers waiting for the fishermen to drag their nets to the shoreline.
Fisherman hauling in the days catch in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka
The fishing boats that deliver the food to the village are the same vessels that take you out to look for the whales—except the dive boats have been retrofitted with four plastic garden chairs nailed back to back to provide seating for guests! There is no dedicated entry point into the water, and the only way in is to slide over the slightly splintered railing head first. It is a snorkeling-only trip, as any action you find is at the surface and it has become a well-established understanding that whales consider bubble blowing as aggressive behavior or bad manners and will quickly leave or attack.
The key to a successful jump is to dive in as quietly as possible so as not to disturb or frighten the whales. It’s a fair drop of perhaps eight feet to the water and can be bit of a rough workout on your rib cage if you are not careful. Camera-wise, you need to be as light as possible, which means no strobes or anything else that will cause unnecessary drag in the water. Long freediving fins are a must if you want any chance of keeping up with the action, and you won’t be wearing any weights, as these will also hold you back. The plan is simple enough: Dive in, swim hard, dive deep, and come up fast. Catch your breath, scramble quickly back into the boat and repeat.
Keeping up with a blue whale is a near-impossible task!
This isn’t like a humpback whale excursion with animals that are often stationary and used to human interaction. In fact, it seems blue whales still perceive boats and humans as a threat, and for that reason it is very hard to get close to them at all, even once you have seen one at the surface. The tactic employed by the boat captains is to race ahead of the whale, cut the engines and then drop you in the water as quietly as possible, hopefully directly in its path. If you are lucky and the captain has guessed correctly, you will soon be face to face with the largest animal on Earth. If not, then you simply clamber back on board and start the process all over again.
The whales perform around 10 shallow dives between breaths, before diving deep and disappearing for 30 minutes or more. Where they will surface after this is anyone’s guess, but after a while you become grateful for the 30-minute rest, as it gives you a chance to recover and prepare for the next round of drops. Whatever happens, you will be working hard and sleep like a rock every night. Looking for blue whales is hard work!
My very first encounter with a blue whale in the water
Success at Last!
As hard core as this all sounds, when you do eventually encounter your first blue whale, it is well worth all the effort. One of the most magical moments of my trip happened on my very first jump. With virtually no expectations, I dove in head first, kicked my legs, and suddenly, there she was. I froze, totally dumbfounded by the sheer size of the animal as she turned directly towards me, and for perhaps 15 seconds or so we were face to face. I was in such awe that I didn’t even think to take a picture, but I will never forget the image I captured in my mind that day. My wish to swim with a blue whale had finally come true!
After five days of hard work, bruised and battered but very happy, we had photographed blue whales ranging from 65 feet to 80 feet in length. We also found pygmy blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus brevicauda), Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni edeni) and the rare Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai), previously thought to be a dwarf fin whale. At the end of the trip, we also spent two very quiet days working on our sun tans at sea while unsuccesfully searching for sperm whales.
A collage of multiple images of the biggest blue whale of the entire trip
A close-up portrait of a fin whale
Our last day was one to remember though, thanks to a fleeting encounter with the largest blue whale we saw the entire trip. It was at least 80 feet long and passed below us quietly for a few seconds before disappearing into the blue. Unfortunately, I also cracked a rib shortly afterwards by falling over in the boat as we navigated some rough seas, but luckily the injury came at the end of the trip and hadn’t stopped me from getting in the water and realizing my dream.
While it has been a lifelong goal of mine to swim with blue whales, I would encourage everyone—diver or otherwise—to take at least one whale-watching trip in their lifetime to get close to these majestic creatures. Even from the boat you can see plenty of action, and there is nothing more exciting than watching a whale breach in front of you and come crashing back to the ocean. I also highly recommend that you extend your trip by a few days in order to explore on land and plan a safari at Yala National Park to see its elephants, monkeys, leopards, and countless other animals. Sri Lanka truly is a photographer’s paradise both on land and at sea.
Giants also roam free on land in Sri Lanka
Yala National Park is also famed for its leopards
Don’t forget to pack your long lens, so you can capture topside gems like these Malabar pied hornbills
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