As the HWRF research vessel Deep Blue is prepped for work, and my excitement to get back on the water builds, I have been recalling all the incredible encounters from last season. There are too many notable days to count, but one stands out in my mind as the most heart-pounding of all.
As Deep Blue was not ready for the start of last season, we began by using a smaller boat called Sport Cat. It wasn’t spacious, but it was zippy and easy to maneuver, and fit our small research team nicely. One morning we had been observing a large competitive group of humpbacks, a common occurrence in these waters. These consist of one female and several males, all competing for the primary position close to her side. Many believe that the “winner” eventually mates with the female, although this is not yet confirmed, as no one has actually observed humpback mating. Often the competition gets intense, and physical blocks, bubble displays and full-on collisions are quite common.
This had been one of those groups, with a lot of exciting competitive behaviours. One male began a display known as chin-slapping, when the whale lifts its front half out of the water, then comes crashing down on its belly with a loud slapping noise. This can be used to signify that the male is giving up on the competition, before leaving the group. As we watched, this chin-slapping male continued his behaviour, sending water flying all around him. We were very excited about the photo and video footage, as we had a close angle directly in front of him. And then we noticed that he was not veering, or stopping. He sent shock waves of wind and sound as he moved still closer. The next chin slap sent a salty spray over the back of the vessel, setting off alarm bells in our heads. Someone yelled to hit the gas and the driver threw Sport Cat into gear, sending us flying forwards. The next thing we knew a massive black and white belly rose high out of the water and slammed down exactly where we had been just seconds before, showering everyone in sea spray. We quickly maneuvered out of his path, and watching him chin-slap several more times before vanishing with a dive.
It was agreed that this male was simply too consumed in his display to notice us in his path, but nonetheless this provided a lesson and experience that none of us will ever forget. It also is a reminder that sometimes there is such a thing as being too absorbed in your work!