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My White Whale: Photographing the Rare Cuvier’s Beaked Whale
By Joseph Tepper, July 8, 2014 @ 04:00 AM (EST)

Rising up from more than 20,000 feet below the surface, the island of Hawaii pierces the billowy Pacific Ocean on a moody March morning. The volcanic island’s dramatic slope brings the rarities of pelagic marine mammals within a couple miles of shore.

“You just never know what you’ll see out here,” hollers captain Daren Verbeck over the monotonous mutter of his boat’s twin engines. “Fin!” pipes out captain Deron Verbeck, pointing to a jet-black dorsal fin 10 feet off the bow. “It’s a Cuvier’s beaked whale!”

Even for a man who spends every waking minute on or in the water, the sighting has Verbeck’s attention—and with good reason. The Cuvier’s beaked whale regularly dives down to depths of 8,000 feet and little is known about this elusive species. Sightings of the whale catching its breath at the surface are often too brief to get in the water.

One of only a handful of in-water encounters with the elusive Cuvier's beaked whale


I sit with one of my legs halfway out of the speeding vessel, with camera cradled in my arms as Verbeck speeds up to get ahead of the 20-foot mammal. 

“If you get this shot, it will be the fourth in the world—ever,” says Verbeck matter-of-factly. His hand slips the boat into idle. “Get in now!”

With these words still ringing in my ears, I flop into the water with the boat still speeding at over 10 knots. When the bubbles clear, there’s a 4,000-pound cetacean speeding straight at me. Seemingly unphased by my clumsy intrusion into the water, the whale glides within arms’ reach, eyes glued to the reflective front of my camera housing as I snap away.

In a split second, the whale pivots straight down to begin his 90-minute dive into bone-crushing depths. Kicking back to the boat, I peer through my viewfinder as Verbeck yells out if I got the shot. 

Spitting my snorkel out I reply, “Now there’s five photographs in the world!”


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