Swimming With Singing Whales

Sylvia Earle describes an intimate encounter with a 40-foot-long humpback whale.
  • Transcript


Question: Did you feel a sense of connection with the whales you swam with?

Sylvia Earle: The first time I had a chance to meet a whale and see a whale and whales see whales, underwater, was in 1977.  It was a project that Roger Payne and I dreamed up together.  I went to a conference in New York, listened to him talk.  He heard me talk at the same conference.  We felt we had common ground.  I was really interested in what he had to say about whales.  He was really interested in the thought that you might actually get into the water with whales because I gave a talk about exploring the ocean from the inside out, not just from the top down and so we dreamed up this project to go to Hawaii to work with humpback whales, the singing whales.  He and Katy Payne, his wife had really been listening to whales from the surface trying to imagine what it looked like when they do sing.  Nobody knew.  They hadn’t been there to catch a singing whale in action.  And to try to correlate the sounds that they make with the behaviors that they have. So we put together this project, got the National Geographic and California Academy of Sciences, the New York Zoological Society, Survival Anglia, a film company, other supporters to weigh in to craft an expedition that would take a big piece of 1977, take us to Hawaii.  We had a boat contributed.  We had fuel contributed.  We had Al Giddings got engaged as a filmmaker.  We had Peter Tyack, a graduate student of Peter’s and of Roger Payne’s. So anyway, this big expedition started from a little conversation into a big deal and the day came.  It was the 13th of February, 1977 with Al Giddings, Chuck Nicklin and one other guy who was handling the boat, a little rubber boat, moving along, looking at a group of whales, five of them kind of cruising along and we just tried to parallel them at a respectful distance and then all at once the whales decided they were going to come and check us out, so they did a sharp turn and headed for our boat, so we stopped the boat and looked over the side and there were these whales upside down looking at us like giant swallows.  People see pictures of whales in the old books.  They look like busses, loaves of bread.  They’re kind of static and like blocky creatures, but underwater they’re like ballerinas.  They’re upside down, right side up, turning and flying underwater.  They’re not stiff and blocky.  They’re slim and beautiful and they dance. 

We had convinced all these supporters that what we really wanted to do is to get in the water with them, see the whales on their own terms, to listen to their sounds and correlate sound and behavior and then came that moment when little tiny boat, little people and big whales looking over the side.  There was no book of etiquette that said "This is what you’re supposed to do when you meet a whale underwater," so it’s that little hesitation, maybe 30 seconds and then over the side and here are these creatures.  I mean I weigh 115 pounds and here are these creatures that weighed 40 tons and you know I’m 5’3’’.  They’re 40 feet long and what are you supposed to do?  It was up to them.  They came straight for us and I couldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so I just stayed there and let whatever would happen, happen and then this big female came right out of the blue, right for me and I thought it’s up to her what is going to happen.  What she did was just sweep by close enough so I could feel the wash as she went by and this grapefruit sized eyed just tilted and turned and she was checking me out and then I saw her turn and go toward Al Giddings, big fins, flippers 15 feet long with an edge of barnacles along the front of it like you know sharp barnacles.  If she had chosen to take a swipe at Al he might not have survived it, but and knowing that this was possible, there weren’t any books to say otherwise, Chuck Nicklin and I starting hooting underwater you know trying to warn Al that this whale was coming straight for him because he was busy doing what filmmakers do.  He was focused on that other whale over there.  He didn’t even see her coming.  What happened just changed everything.  As she approached she did something remarkable.  Instead of decapitating him as she might have with her big fin.  She just lifted it up over.  She knew exactly where her body was.  She had meant us no harm.  She was just curious and did this sleek thing like that and then I stopped worrying and I started really engaging them, engaging myself in this get acquainted session that went on for two and a half hours.  They just kept circling around and coming back, five whales. 

It turns out we now know the one female who first came toward me at the time it was difficult to tell for sure who was a male, who was a female, but this was a big rotund female we determined, about to give birth.  That is what those whales do when they come to Hawaii they come to give birth.  It’s a nursery area.  They stay there for awhile until they leave to make the journey back up to in this case the arctic waters for feeding and the others are likely to have been males.  The years of study that have followed suggest that what we were seeing is a chase, males after a female trying to engage her and we were just a part… we were incidental to this, but we were wide-eyed incidental and they were curious.  They diverted enough to from their other business to make us part of their business and that’s it.  That’s the thing.  You go into the ocean and if you just let things happen, you think you can script a scene about what you want to do.  I want to go film sharks.  Well good luck.  They’ll do what they want to do.  You are there as a witness, as a guest in a way and I’m never disappointed, but I never try to make things happen according to some plan.  Give it up.  The plan is to go and be surprised. 

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen