Migrating Naturalist: Underwater Adventures

My shot of a male bubble trailing from the mouth. Notice the bottlenose dolphin!

If I should die one day due to some tragic accident, I would want it to be from a whale. Of course, incidents of humpbacks making contact or even indirectly causing danger to a diver are few and far between, as the whales are so astonishingly aware of their surroundings. But I would die happy knowing that of all the mundane, horrible, or even laughable things that could cause death or danger to a human being, I went out by the hand of one of the most incredible creatures on the planet.

When working an internship for the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation, one can never, ever expect to be put in the water with the whales. This prevents those from applying whose only desire is to have that romanticized “swimming with the whales” moment, and emphasizes the hard work and dedication that are fundamental to this organization. You’ve got to put in your time, work until you’re exhausted, and live, breathe, and dream whales. But if you’re lucky and put in your dues, eventually you may have the opportunity to train as an underwater photographer. This is one of the most essential roles on the boat, as there may be key events which are only visible underwater, especially since whales spend the majority of their lives under the surface. Also, underwater divers may be able to get a photograph of the gender of a whale in question, or an ID photo for one of the more stubborn non-fluking whales.

Toward the end of last season, we were rewarded with diver training, which was one of the most incredible times of my life. I have been in the water with singers, calves, and competitive groups, and was awed by the whales each and every time. So today when we were offered the chance to enter the water once again, I was immediately ecstatic. As soon as I received the signal to enter the shimmering water, trusty camera in hand, whales were visible all around. We had been observing a competitive group of 5 humpbacks, and they circled around and under us, as the primary escort male defended the female by chasing off challengers. Suddenly one of the males veered straight towards me and the other diver, chased out by another male. My heart began to race, as this 40-ton animal charged full-speed in our direction, while I continued to frantically snap photographs. Thankfully, he noticed us in his path and turned sharply, arching forcefully and gracefully, displaying his vast white belly. I attempted one last shot of the whale, before he disappeared into the hazy blue depths. As I raised my head out of the water, a string of words which should not be repeated burst from my lips, as my heart pole-vaulted into my throat. I must have had shaking hands and a ridiculous grin on my face for the next hour, and even now my mind keeps repeating the amazing encounter.

Like I said, I would have been happy to meet my end in that water today, but I’m much happier still to be reminded of just how alive one can be. For this, I say a mental thank-you to the whales, for the gift of a truly visceral and life-changing experience.

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