Video & Photo: gigantic whale, "Ocean God", approaching & acknowledging dwarfed diver with high intelligence and gentleness..
Science calls these animals Eubalaena glacialis, "good, or true, whale of the ice."
Brian Skerry (photographer): "When I was at the bottom at 70 feet, and here comes this bus swimming down. It came within inches. Here’s this softball-size whale eye looking at me. But then it stops - stops on a dime. It’s just hovering there, and literally one flick of its tail, and it would have crushed me like a bug. But it doesn’t. It was just highly curious."
We sailed into this place called Sandy Bay, into reasonably shallow water—maybe 50 feet of water. From the moment we got there, the natives swam out to greet us. We had at least half a dozen whales around the boat. These amazingly beautiful, mottled white-and-gray whales came swimming over, looking up at us. They would be half as big as our boat—or twice that size. It was just amazing. I immediately suited up, jumped in—and these city buses swam up to me.
When I was at the bottom at 70 feet, and here comes this bus swimming down. I’m standing on the bottom, and as it comes down, I get on my knees, lean over backwards—my scuba tank is now digging into the sand. And of course their eyes are on the side of their heads, so it had to turn and look at me. It came within inches. Here’s this softball-size whale eye looking at me. But then it stops—stops on a dime. It’s just hovering there, and literally one flick of its tail, and it would have crushed me like a bug. But it doesn’t. It was just highly curious.
They would come within inches of me—not every day and not every whale. One dive I was swimming alongside this huge whale, kicking as hard as I can to keep up—it doesn’t appear to be moving very fast, but it’s still hard to maintain that speed as a human being. So I’m kicking and kicking and breathing like a freight train. This particular day I was using a new dry suit, so the neck seal was tight, and I could feel the artery in my neck pumping and my heart pounding in my chest. I’m thinking, Nobody’s going to believe this—I’ve got to get this picture! I tried to keep up with it as long as I could, but I had to take a break, so I stopped and kneeled down on the bottom. Instead of continuing, the whale stops and turns and waits for me. It was like a dog that was following me around. After a while it would get bored and go back up to the surface, so I would ascend to kind of remind it that I was still around. It would see me, and I’d go back down—and sure enough, the whale would follow me. It was like swimming around with a friend.
There was a day when I was in the water column all alone, and the visibility wasn’t so good, and I couldn’t really see what was happening. This whale comes over and was doing these big circles around me. And I’m following the action, when all of a sudden—boom! I get bumped in my shoulder. I turn, and there is another right whale literally right by my shoulder checking me out. So I’m between these two 45-foot buses, which easily could have crushed me. I mean, the callosities—the rough parts of skin that a right whale has—are like cement. When the whales are three feet or four feet away from you, one gentle lift of its head, and it would be like being hit by a sidewalk. That never happened. They were just highly curious and wanted to know what I was about.
Most whale photos you see show whales in this beautiful blue water—it’s almost like space. To see a whale that big in perspective with a human was cool. I asked my assistant to dive with me on that day just for that reason. We were standing on the bottom in very cold water—40, 39 degrees—and we’re down at 70 feet and this 45-foot, 70-ton whale glides across the bottom. My assistant is just dwarfed next to this thing. I think that the perspective and the whole man-whale interaction—that is a special photograph.
Science calls these animals Eubalaena glacialis, "good, or true, whale of the ice." Heavy irony is embedded in the common name, right whale, given by whalers who declared them the right whales to kill. Favoring shallow coastal waters, they passed close to ports, swam slowly, and often lingered on the surface. Such traits made them easy to harpoon, and they tended to conveniently float after they died, thanks to their exceptionally thick blubber layer, which whalers rendered into oil.
They dive 600 feet, brushing their heads along the seafloor with raised, wartlike patches of skin, sometimes swimming upside down, big as sunken galleons, hot-blooded and holding their breath in cold and utter darkness while the greatest tides on Earth surge by. Then they open their cavernous maws to let the currents sweep food straight in. This is one way North Atlantic right whales feed in the Bay of Fundy between Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Or so the experts suspect, having watched the 40- to 80-ton animals surface with mud on their crowns. Mind you, they say, that could result from another activity—one nobody can imagine yet.
Science calls these animals Eubalaena glacialis, "good, or true, whale of the ice." Heavy irony is embedded in the common name, right whale, given by whalers who declared them the right whales to kill. Favoring shallow coastal waters, they passed close to ports, swam slowly, and often lingered on the surface. Such traits made them easy to harpoon, and they tended to conveniently float after they died, thanks to their exceptionally thick blubber layer, which whalers rendered into oil. The first of the great whales to be hunted commercially, E. glacialis lit the lamps of the Old World from the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. By the 16th century Europeans had exhausted the eastern North Atlantic population and turned to North America's coast. There whalers set up stations in Labrador and took 25,000 to 40,000 related bowhead whales along with an unknown number of rights (records seldom distinguished between these two similar looking titans).
By the time New Englanders got into the right-whale-killing business, they were chasing leftovers. The Yankees hunted down another 5,000 or so, partly because whales became even more prized for their baleen than for oil. Hundreds of strips of this tough yet flexible material, each six to nine feet long and finely fringed, drape from the upper jaw. They form a colossal sieve that allows the giants to strain tiny crustaceans from the water for food—a billion flea-size copepods a day to supply the minimum 400,000 calories an adult whale needs (the ratio of a whale's body mass to its prey's is 50 billion to one). Society, however, thought baleen was best used for corset stays, stiffeners in fashionable gowns, umbrella ribs, and (consider: "I'm going to whale on you!") horsewhips.
As the 20th century began, the number of whales left in this species was possibly in the low dozens. Commercial harpooning wasn't banned until 1935. Their recovery since then might be compared to that of a human victim of a vicious assault: painfully slow progress, offset by relapses, with the ultimate outcome very uncertain.
About 350 to 400 North Atlantic right whales exist today. The survivors migrate along North America's East Coast between feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and wintering sites farther south—roughly 1,400 miles one way for pregnant females that journey to traditional calving areas off Georgia and Florida. They travel through an intensely urban stretch of ocean.
A research team from Boston's New England Aquarium spends the summer stationed in Lubec, Maine, studying the whales that gather to feed and socialize in the Bay of Fundy and nearby Roseway Basin, off Nova Scotia's southern tip. The scientists, who have built an archive of around 390,000 photographs, can recognize nearly every whale in the population by its unique callosity pattern (those wartlike patches on their heads), along with scars and other irregularities, and, increasingly, DNA samples.
Safeguarding wildlife, even in the globe's most remote places, gets harder all the time.
As for the whales of the North Atlantic, commercial fishing and marine transport are huge, vital industries, and modifying their operations along the entire eastern seaboard to protect a few hundred giants won't be easy or cheap. Yet scientists' models say that saving just two sexually mature females each year from being killed would change the trend for this endangered species from either downward or level to upward.
Images courtesy of Brian Skerry / National Geographic Society
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