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Swimming With Singing Whales

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Question: Did you feel a sense of \r\nconnection with the whales\r\nyou swam with?

Sylvia\r\nEarle: The first time I had a chance to meet a whale and see a\r\n whale and\r\nwhales see whales, underwater, was in 1977.  It \r\nwas a project that Roger Payne and I dreamed up\r\ntogether.  I went to a conference\r\nin New York, listened to him talk. \r\nHe heard me talk at the same conference.  We\r\n felt we had common ground.  I was really \r\ninterested in what he had to say about\r\nwhales.  He was really interested\r\nin the thought that you might actually get into the water with whales \r\nbecause I\r\ngave a talk about exploring the ocean from the inside out, not just from\r\n the\r\ntop down and so we dreamed up this project to go to Hawaii to work with\r\nhumpback whales, the singing whales. \r\nHe and Katy Payne, his wife had really been listening to whales \r\nfrom the\r\nsurface trying to imagine what it looked like when they do sing.  Nobody knew.  They hadn’t been \r\nthere to catch a singing whale in\r\naction.  And to try to correlate\r\nthe sounds that they make with the behaviors that they have. So we put \r\ntogether\r\nthis project, got the National Geographic and California Academy of \r\nSciences,\r\nthe New York Zoological Society, Survival Anglia, a film company, other\r\nsupporters to weigh in to craft an expedition that would take a big \r\npiece of\r\n1977, take us to Hawaii.  We had a\r\nboat contributed.  We had fuel\r\ncontributed.  We had Al Giddings\r\ngot engaged as a filmmaker.  We had\r\nPeter Tyack, a graduate student of Peter’s and of Roger Payne’s. So \r\nanyway,\r\nthis big expedition started from a little conversation into a big deal \r\nand the\r\nday came.  It was the 13th of\r\nFebruary, 1977 with Al Giddings, Chuck Nicklin and one other guy who was\r\nhandling the boat, a little rubber boat, moving along, looking at a \r\ngroup of\r\nwhales, five of them kind of cruising along and we just tried to \r\nparallel them\r\nat a respectful distance and then all at once the whales decided they \r\nwere\r\ngoing to come and check us out, so they did a sharp turn and headed for \r\nour\r\nboat, so we stopped the boat and looked over the side and there were \r\nthese\r\nwhales upside down looking at us like giant swallows.  People\r\n see pictures of whales in the old books.  They \r\nlook like busses, loaves of\r\nbread.  They’re kind of static and\r\nlike blocky creatures, but underwater they’re like ballerinas.  They’re upside down, right side up,\r\nturning and flying underwater. \r\nThey’re not stiff and blocky. \r\nThey’re slim and beautiful and they dance. 

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We had convinced all these supporters that what we \r\nreally\r\nwanted to do is to get in the water with them, see the whales on their \r\nown\r\nterms, to listen to their sounds and correlate sound and behavior and \r\nthen came\r\nthat moment when little tiny boat, little people and big whales looking \r\nover\r\nthe side.  There was no book of\r\netiquette that said "This is what you’re supposed to do when you meet a \r\nwhale\r\nunderwater," so it’s that little hesitation, maybe 30 seconds and then \r\nover the\r\nside and here are these creatures. \r\nI mean I weigh 115 pounds and here are these creatures that \r\nweighed 40\r\ntons and you know I’m 5’3’’. \r\nThey’re 40 feet long and what are you supposed to do?  It was up to them.  They came \r\nstraight for us and I\r\ncouldn’t get out of the way fast enough, so I just stayed there and let\r\nwhatever would happen, happen and then this big female came right out of\r\n the\r\nblue, right for me and I thought it’s up to her what is going to happen.  What she did was just sweep by close\r\nenough so I could feel the wash as she went by and this grapefruit sized\r\n eyed\r\njust tilted and turned and she was checking me out and then I saw her \r\nturn and\r\ngo toward Al Giddings, big fins, flippers 15 feet long with an edge of\r\nbarnacles along the front of it like you know sharp barnacles.  If she had chosen to take a swipe at Al\r\nhe might not have survived it, but and knowing that this was possible, \r\nthere\r\nweren’t any books to say otherwise, Chuck Nicklin and I starting hooting\r\n underwater\r\nyou know trying to warn Al that this whale was coming straight for him \r\nbecause\r\nhe was busy doing what filmmakers do. \r\nHe was focused on that other whale over there.  He\r\n didn’t even see her coming.  What happened just \r\nchanged everything.  As she approached she did \r\nsomething\r\nremarkable.  Instead of\r\ndecapitating him as she might have with her big fin.  She\r\n just lifted it up over.  She knew exactly where \r\nher body was.  She had meant us no harm.  She was just curious and did this sleek\r\nthing like that and then I stopped worrying and I started really \r\nengaging them,\r\nengaging myself in this get acquainted session that went on for two and a\r\n half\r\nhours.  They just kept circling\r\naround and coming back, five whales. 

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It turns out we now know the one female who first \r\ncame\r\ntoward me at the time it was difficult to tell for sure who was a male, \r\nwho was\r\na female, but this was a big rotund female we determined, about to give\r\nbirth.  That is what those whales\r\ndo when they come to Hawaii they come to give birth.  It’s\r\n a nursery area. \r\nThey stay there for awhile until they leave to make the journey \r\nback up\r\nto in this case the arctic waters for feeding and the others are likely \r\nto have\r\nbeen males.  The years of study\r\nthat have followed suggest that what we were seeing is a chase, males \r\nafter a\r\nfemale trying to engage her and we were just a part… we were incidental \r\nto\r\nthis, but we were wide-eyed incidental and they were curious.  They diverted enough to from their\r\nother business to make us part of their business and that’s it.  That’s the thing.  You go into \r\nthe ocean and if you just\r\nlet things happen, you think you can script a scene about what you want \r\nto\r\ndo.  I want to go film sharks.  Well\r\n good luck.  They’ll do what they want to do.  You are there as a witness, as a guest\r\nin a way and I’m never disappointed, but I never try to make things \r\nhappen\r\naccording to some plan.  Give it\r\nup.  The plan is to go and be\r\nsurprised. 

Recorded April 14th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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

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