Filming the humpback whale Print E-mail
Wednesday, 18 April 2007 00:00

Filming the humpback whale


By Jessie Moniz , Royal Gazette, 18 Apr 07

A local filmmaker a few weeks into a three-year documentary project about whales, is already making discoveries about the secret life of these amazing marine mammals.

Andrew Stevenson, who directed and produced award-winning documentary ‘Paving Shangri-La’, recently discovered that humpback whales are actually feeding in Bermuda waters, during their spring journey north from the Caribbean. Previously, it was thought that Bermuda waters were devoid of the krill that whales feed on.

“The fishermen were telling me that whales were feeding here,” said Mr. Stevenson. “And I’ve seen them at it. I saw pinkish stuff in the water and lots of whales around it.” 

When he approached Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences (BIOS) about it, he was told he was mistaken, and that there is no krill in our waters. BIOS asked him to take a sample of what he was looking at.

“In the Sally Tucker area off of Somerset, the current forms this particular ripple that is supposed to be good for fishing,” Mr. Stevenson said. “We saw foam on the surface. We put the net over for about 15 seconds and took it to BIOS. They confirmed that we had krill. In fact, our sample was chock-a-block full of animals including decapods, fish eggs and newly hatched fish that are perfect for whales that are starving and need some energy to continue north.”

Mr. Stevenson said it is obvious that whales are finding small amounts of food around the Island, especially when the current is pushing krill to the surface. 

The Royal Gazette recently spoke to Mr. Stevenson during a special five-day whale watching trip on the Spirit of Bermuda. The vessel is owned by The Bermuda Sloop Foundation. Its youth programme ‘Coastal Bermuda,’ teaches discipline and learning and social skills so young people can function better in society. Students receive hands-on experience in meteorology, marine life, navigation, as well as Bermuda’s economic development.

During this trip, nine teenagers ages 16 to 18 who had been involved in a General Education Diploma (GED) programme manned the boat, handling the sails and navigation and so forth. 

In addition, to their regular duties they were also charged with helping Mr. Stevenson to spot whales and log their behaviour.

Spirit of Bermudacaptain Chris Blake said the whale watching was an excellent experience for the junior sailors. 

“We saw quite a lot of whales on a trip we did about a month ago,” said Captain Blake. “We had middle school kids and they were just blown away. This is so much more natural than a zoo. It makes them appreciate it more to see them in their natural environment.”

Before the trip began reef watcher Judy Clee gave a talk about whales. Mrs. Clee, a diving enthusiast, often volunteers during fish counts and frequently narrates during whale watching tours around Bermuda. 

“The humpback whale has been referred to as ‘the great winged New Englander’,” said Mrs. Clee. “We are seeing them because they are doing a huge swim from the Dominican Republic where they went to breed or have babies. They are down there for four or five months in the winter. There is nothing for them to eat down there so in the spring they head north where they will spend all summer.”

Mrs. Clee said humpback whales are gentle giants. 

“They are not looking to eat people,” she said. “They eat krill and small fish. Krill are shrimp-like crustaceans occurring in huge numbers in open seas. The humpback whales have pleats under their belly. They open their mouth to take in a huge mouthful and the pleats expand. They push the seawater out of their mouths through a curtain of baleen. The krill and tiny fish are caught up in the baleen. Krill is usually found in vast biomasses up north. In Bermuda, we don’t have what they have up north, but we have more than the Caribbean.”

Although humpback whales don’t pose much danger to humans, they do sometimes damage each other. 

“They have these huge barnacles all over their bodies,” said Mrs. Clee. “Sometimes they will gore each other with them. You often see the scars from this on their bodies.”

Because it is difficult to tag humpback whales, researchers often record or photograph the markings on their pectoral fins which are thought to be unique as human fingerprints. 

“It is not a case of if you will see a humpback whale,” Mrs. Clee told the young sailors. “It is when you will see one.”

Unfortunately, on this day the ‘when’ turned out to be longer than expected. The Royal Gazettespent an entire day with Mr. Stevenson cruising the South Shore. It was a lovely day, with the wind blowing, and not much of a swell. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a flicker of a tail fin or a single tell-tale whale spout on the horizon. 

Nevertheless, Mr. Stevenson remained optimistic, saying you win some and lose some when you are filming animals in the wild.

He has seen whales on many occasions this season, particularly while he has been out on former premier David Saul’s boat. 

“I am starting to get a really good feel for what they are doing now,” he said.

“I think whales are feeding during the day and they seem to be travelling from the shallow water to feed in the morning. I think they go there at night, because it is more protected from sharks.” 

On a previous whaling trip he took a picture of a whale breaching almost completely out of the water. No one is completely sure why they breach, but it is thought that the breaching helps them to knock parasites off their bodies.

“The breaching picture was taken before the trip when there were plenty of whales about,” he said. “We had been following a pod of four whales for an hour or so when this one suddenly breached. I managed to get off seven photographs of the breach, and this was just one of them. It was taken close to Tucker’s Town, a mile or so offshore. That day we saw several pods of whales.”

Mr. Stevenson thought that the phase of the moon may influence the number of whales spotted.

“I saw hundreds of whales on the full moon this month, and then nothing after that. I’m told the other commercial whale watching trips also got skunked, or virtually skunked, so my thinking is the whales leave the Caribbean and time it deliberately so that they arrive here before the full moon when the krill come up. This allows them to get a bit of an energy boost before they continue up north to do their real feeding.”

Mr. Stevenson said the five-day Spirit of Bermuda trip wasn’t much of a success in terms of seeing whales, but he did enjoy sailing in the boat and being with the students. 

“On Thursday, we had 22 12-year olds come ‘whale hunting’ with us and they were very enthusiastic,” said Mr. Stevenson. “Spirit of Bermuda may incorporate ‘whale watching’ during the season for most of its trips at this time of the year and I’ll try and help them by letting them know where the whales are. After all, I’ll be out there every day that weather permits.”

Mr. Stevenson plans to make the film a 50-minute documentary. 

The hardest part will be getting the underwater footage. He had to purchase quite a bit of specialised equipment to make the documentary including a 45-pound camera to go underwater.

“I am taking risks being in the water,” said Mr. Stevenson. “The worst case scenario is if the boat drifts away from me. I couldn’t swim back against the current with the heavy camera. I wear a buoyancy compensator and a pony sub tank. That tank will fill up the buoyancy bag, so that I could float for a little while in an emergency.”

When diving, he always carries a mirror, a knife and a whistle.

“A few years ago a diver was near a whale and baby, and when the whale suddenly flicked its tale to swim away, it broke the diver’s leg and he drowned. So there are dangers in this.”

Without a number of individual donors and sponsors, Mr. Stevenson could not carry out his documentary. Cellular One has generously provided a cell phone and a dedicated line 77-SPOUT (777-7688) for people to report whale sightings. 

“I’m also looking for volunteers to help out on the boat from now to the end of April,” said Mr. Stevenson.

“Qualifications would be no time constraint once we set off, no likelihood of seasickness, good eyesight and initiative. David Saul has kindly lent the project his boat which is based in Devonshire Bay.”

Anyone interested in helping out can e-mail Mr. Stevenson at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it to let him know what days he might be available.

He thought one of the best places to spot whales from land was from Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, because you can see the area known as Sally Tucker’s from there. 

“In Bermuda we have no wilderness, but we have humpback whales we can see from the shore,” he said. “A lot of Bermudians don’t even know that they are there.”

 

 
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