Summary of the 2007 season Print E-mail
Written by Andrew Stevenson   

From RG Magazine/december 2007/january 2008

"Nick, it’s Andrew. I’ve done the weights and balance on the underwater camera housing in a pool- now I need to try it out in the ocean. It’s a beautiful day. Can you come out with me on the boat to…” I stood up as I talked on the phone. Gazing through the window over my computer screen at the ocean off Grape Bay Drive I saw a splash on the reefs just a hundred yards off the beach. “Oh, my…!” I exclaimed, “I don’t believe it.”

"What?”

“There are humpback whales on the breakers!” In fact, there were three whales lying on their backs waving their pectoral fins.

 

When Nick Hutchings arrived the three whales were still lying off the breakers, repeatedly whacking the water with their sixteen-foot flippers. It took time to get the boat from Hamilton past Somerset onto the South Shore. We trolled for a couple of hours down to St. David’s without seeing them. When we were off Grape Bay Beach again we found the three whales and turned the engine off. I put on my wetsuit and as they headed for the drifting boat I managed to get in the water as the whales passed by. My heart pounded. Within seconds it was all over. Things were looking good. Three whales lying on their backs beckoning me. Getting in the water, camera rolling, first time out; this wasn’t going to be as difficult as I thought.

Back on land I eagerly checked the high-definition footage. The whales had passed by about twenty feet away but on the computer screen they were arely discernible, vague cigar-shapes cruising by in murky water. With a 120-degree wide-angle lens, a 45-foot whale twenty feet away looks like a guppy. Six weeks later my predictions of having an easy time filming whales were sadly way off the mark. After 300 hours on the water, often nine hour days back to back, bouncing around on the open ocean on David Saul’s 22-foot boat Phidippides, I had not a full minute of footage. At the end of April I was physically exhausted. I was also emotionally spent from the expectations I placed on myself to film whales underwater successfully to make a 50-minute documentary on these magnificent creatures and their relevance to Bermuda’s history.

As anyone who has gone whale watching here in Bermuda can attest, it isn’t easy spotting whales. Bermuda has a reputation amongst whale experts as being a difficult environment to observe these magnificent creatures. Trying to get in the water to film them increases that challenge exponentially. getting close enough to film them in good visibility with a wide-angle lens is a major test of one’s patience and luck.

By virtue of being a seamount in the middle of the ocean, there are no protected bays outside the ring of barrier reefs surrounding Bermuda. The humpbacks migrating north in February, March and April do so during some of our worst weather with high winds and waves being the norm. And because the humpback whales do not reside here, unlike the summer feeding grounds to the north or the winter breeding grounds in the Caribbean, the window of opportunity to observe them is small. There were times I did manage to get in the water with whales, but the visibility was hopeless. Once a whale swam under me and surfaced on the other side. I hadn’t even noticed. Whenever I did manage to get in the water with whales it was always on the whale’s terms and up to the whale to initiate the contact. The boat engine was off, and the whale approached the boat.

By the end of March I had carpel tunnel syndrome from lugging the 45-pound underwater housing from the house to the car, the car to the punt, the punt into the boat and vice versa. I was worn out from back-to-back nine-hour days balancing on a tuna tower. My eyes were red from searching for whales. By the end of April I still didn’t have a minute of underwater footage despite the time and effort, and all that expensive camera equipment. It wasn’t for lack of trying. I had gone out every day that weather permitted and some days when it didn’t. Much of the winter and spring weather in 2007 was atrocious and getting in and out of Devonshire Bay when there are swells is a terrifying ordeal. If a National Geographic crew had been here, their producers back in Washington would have had conniptions at the mounting costs.

I was frustrated and tired, but not disappointed. I kept telling myself that if it were easy filming whales underwater in Bermuda, everyone would be doing it. I knew it would be difficult and that’s why I had made it a three-year project. I still had another two seasons, I kept reminding myself as I headed out day after day, despite the local fishermen telling me the whales had already gone.

Then the persistence paid off. In the last week of April, when conventional wisdom would dictate that the whales had already migrated past Bermuda, we trolled South Shore west of Devonshire Bay, past Sally Tucker’s, and were fifteen miles offshore on Challenger Banks. By midday we hadn’t seen a thing. We stopped, took a lunch break and I showed my volunteer crew for the day, Kelly Winfield and Kevin Horsfield, how to help me change the video clips on the underwater video camera and how to use the other video camera on the boat, should the occasion arise. That, as it turned out, was a good thing.

Soon after our break a radio call from a fishing boat reported a whale in the north-west quadrant of Challenger Banks. We began looking but came instead across a pod of dolphins. It was a perfectly calm day and I took advantage of the conditions to film the dolphins from the bowsprit, holding the camera just inches from the surface as the dolphins rode the boat’s bow wave. Then I suited up and slid into the water with the underwater camera. Not shy while I was on the boat, the dolphins were leery of me when I was in the water with them. Then I noticed a change in their body language and their clicking sounds. I glanced down and saw a dark shape immediately beneath me. It was the beginning of a close encounter with a whale that lasted an hour and forty minutes and provided more close-up footage than I could ever have hoped to obtain over three years. It also had a profound impact on me.

The whale swam beside me and looked me in the eye time and time again, his eye only feet away. He performed intricate manoeuvers 360 degrees around me, under me, beside me. At times the whale almost touched me but it seemed to know exactly where I was in relationship to any part of its body. At other times he hung motionless in the water nose down. A couple of times it moved upwards in the vertical position, tail first, without any apparent movement of its tail or enormous flippers. I never had a sense of fear, although I certainly felt intimidated as the 45-foot animal came directly at me and then passed barely a foot underneath me. A careless tap of its massive tail could easily kill me. And yet this huge animal was incredibly gentle. The delicate tips of its long sixteen-foot flippers flexed, like the fingers of a human hand, as they almost touched my face. He lay quietly on his back as if embracing me, his flippers extending either side of me.

When the whale submerged the current of water sucked me down behind the 40-ton cetacean. The tail flicked within inches of the camera. He swam underneath me and then remained motionless, his head barely a couple of feet under me, as if he were listening to my heartbeat. But he never made a sound. Several times he swam directly at me and hung in the water beside me as his tennis-ball sized gray eyes peered intently into my camera lens. For a week after the experience I found it difficult to sleep. Over and over again I kept asking myself, “Why?” Why had he swum to me, why had he behaved the way he did? What was he thinking when he held his nose out of the water so that our eyes would be at the same level and looked at me so intensely? It was as if he were courting me, his ballet-like movements seductive, his flippers flashing semaphores. For a month I could barely talk about the encounter without becoming emotional. I felt I had been in the presence of a very intelligent being and that the whale had been communicating with me but I was unable to understand what he was saying. So used to using words for communication, the primeval ability to commune without words had atrophied beyond my capabilities.

 

 

This wasn’t a curious whale swimming by and returning for another look. This was a powerful one-on-one experience, the whale totally focused on my presence. Several times his flippers or his tail whacked the water within inches of me but I never felt threatened; I was intimidated, yes, most definitely. But I knew I wasn’t a threat to him. The engine was off on the boat when we first encountered each other, and remained off. After weeks of searching for whales, this whale had sought me out.

The only time I felt scared was when I was about a hundred feet from the boat and another whale approached. A scuffle between the two whales ensued and I was caught in the middle. With a 45-pound camera lashed to my wrist, an inadvertent knock would send it crashing into my face. All I saw was white foam from the thrashing of tails and flippers, but neither whale touched me. Eventually the other whale swam off. Twice fishing boats approached us, aware that something was going on. On both occasions, despite the boats keeping a respectful distance, the whale swam off. But when the spectators motored away, the magical whale returned. Eventually I had to change the high definition clips in the camera. When I climbed back into the boat the whale slapped the water beside the boat with his tail and pectoral fins.

“That’s not the whale I’ve just been swimming with?” I asked in disbelief as I clambered aboard and the whale surfaced and trumpeted through his nostrils like a charging elephant.

“That’s the whale you’ve just been swimming with,” Kevin Horsfield confirmed.

“I thought it was a calf,” I replied. The whale was considerably longer than Dr Saul’s 22-foot boat. He seemed to have the dimensions of a submarine. When I finally slipped back off the transom he swam slowly towards me until we were once again feet apart. When a fishing boat trailing several fishing lines started circling persistently around us, the whale disappeared, this time for good.

We surmised this magical whale was a ‘friendly’, a whale that makes a habit of approaching boats. I sent the shots of the unique patterns on the underside of the tail fluke to be identified at Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbour, Maine. They dedicated two students the time-consuming task of matching the tail flukes to one of 6,000 tail flukes of North Atlantic humpack whales in their catalogue. Surprisingly there was no match. Nothing. Not only was this not a ‘friendly’, he had never been identified before. This magical whale could also be easily identified by a distinct white scar on his right cheek, perhaps as a result of an Orca attack, but more probably from bottom feeding and catching the lower jaw on a rock or other protuberance. But no one seemed to recognise him from the facial wound either.

Once the ‘whaling’ season was finished I was able to organise all my photographs and footage. After sorting through the images I realised I had photographed and filmed the other whale that had intruded on my intimate moments with Magical Whale on four separate days over a period of that week. Armed with a photograph of the underside of his tail fluke, I flew to Bar Harbour to meet Dr Steve Katona of College of the Atlantic and Rosemary Seaton and Judy Allen of Allied Whale. After a day of productive talks I settled down in their offices to go through their whale catalogue to see if I could identify the whale that had approached me when I was with Magical Whale. The odds of sitting there in one evening and identifying this whale were a long shot, and Judy and Rosemary left me there to turn off the lights and lock the offices when I left.

Within fifteen minutes of going through the whale catalogue from its initial years, I had identified the whale. “Are you sure?” Judy Allen asked when I phoned her. There was no doubt at all, a perfect match with nine points of identification. It had been photographed in 1978 by Professor Hal Whitehead in Newfoundland and never seen since. This was my second match. Allied Whale had already managed to identify one of my still photographs of a whale fluke with a whale first photographed in Newfoundland in 1978, almost thirty years ago, and seen another half a dozen times in Newfoundland and the Dominican Republic.

Three days after that miraculous encounter with Magical Whale I obtained some hours of above water footage of a pod of five whales, a female and calf, a primary escort and two challengers with John and Chris Burville. These whales were clearly demonstrating the courtship behaviour associated with their breeding grounds in the Caribbean. After several unsuccessful attempts I managed to film the female and calf underwater when they avoided the attentions of their jealous and protective primary escort. The mother turned the calf around 180 degrees and guided her youngster back for a closer look at me.

While filming whales was my primary objective, the many hours spent on the water observing these creatures led to interesting conclusions. Ater four or five months fasting down on the breeding grounds in the Caribbean there can be no doubt that the migrating humpback whales are picking up snacks on the Bermuda seamount on their way north to their summer feeding grounds. Local fishermen in Devonshire Bay had told me that I would find plenty of whales at full moon when the krill would come up to feed on the phytoplankton. On a calm morning the day of the full moon in late March, I left Devonshire Bay on Phidippides with Camilla Stringer. Visibility was perfect, the water so clear that it seemed we were floating on air some 70 feet above the coral. We spotted several spouts on the horizon, all heading west. The water was so calm we were able to see one whale’s ‘footprints’ as it swam at about five knots just below the surface. We paralleled the whale, 30 yards to his side, and eventually he came alongside and rode the bow wave of the boat. We travelled together along South Shore until we came to Sally Tucker’s off Somerset. The water was calm as an oil slick up to that point and yet ahead of us was a ripple line extending some hundreds of yards along the ‘edge’ of Sally Tuckers. It was clearly an upwelling of currents. On top of the ripple line was a streak of foam. We threw a funnel net with a bottle attachment overboard and collected a water sample before continuing north to the other side of the ripple line. Whereas the water on one side was crystal clear, the water on the other was murky. Over the next hours we saw scores of whales, apparently feeding on the murky side of the upwelling.

Judie Clee and I took the bottled sample of water to the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences the next morning where Dr James Wood and Dr Samantha De Putron identified the contents. The specimen of water was full of krill, copepods, tiny fish and fish eggs. The whales had clearly been feeding on a nutrient-rich environment fuelled by an upwelling of deep water off the seamount.

Dr. Clyde F.E. Roper, Emeritus Zoologist at the Smithsonian Institution commented on my description of events. “Your observations with regard to the full moon are interesting. In clear oceanic waters, as demonstrated in the research Bob Gibbs, others, and I did in the 70s off Bermuda, a full moon depresses the mesopelagic vertical migrators (macroplankton and nektonic fishes, squids, crustaceans) because they adhere to a specific ambient light intensity, not depth, when they migrate from mid-depths toward the surface. Thus, on the full of the moon, they do not come up so far as they do in the dark of the moon. That dynamic obviously changes in the case of strong upwellings in highly enriched, productive waters where the primary roducers and microplankton don't give a hoot about light intensity differences or depth. They just keep on producing, and the consumers concentrate where the food is. In fact, if the biomass were concentrated heavily enough in the upper 100-150 m, that density could reduce the amount of full moon light that penetrates, and, consequently, those predators that normally would stay deeper can now enter the smörgåsbord without sunglasses!”

Occasionally I took a busman’s holiday and went out with Michael Hayward or Michael Heslop on their commercial whale watching trips. Several times we witnessed pods of five to seven whales diving and surfacing together in the same area for as long as two or three hours. Intervals between dives were consistent, sometimes for seven or eight minutes, on other days for as long as twenty minutes. It seemed they were cooperatively hunting. Once I observed a mass of bubbles or ‘bubble cloud’ where seven whales had submerged some minutes earlier. One day we found what looked like a dead octopus. It was in fact a Histioteuthis, a deepsea squid. The mantle (body) had been bitten off, making it look octopus-like. This was only the second time a Histioteuthis had been found in Bermuda. The favourite food of odontocetes, or toothed whales, which tend to dive deeper and are known to be especially fond of squids for a meal, it fitted in perfectly with our sighting the day before of a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale.

 

 

While the ‘whaling’ season starts in February and goes through until May, we have had anecdotal evidence that whales may be hanging around Bermuda through the winter. Most recently I had confirmed reports of whales breaching off Elbow Beach on the 30th of December and the first three weeks of January, which is an indication that there are some whales, immature females perhaps, who have not gone all the way down to the Caribbean for the winter. Perhaps they’ve figured it’s better for them to stay here and occasionally feed, rather than not get lucky in the melée down south and starve. It’s important to document all these sightings so that we can better understand what the whales are doing around Bermuda. Having hundreds of eyes on shore looking for whales is a lot more efficient than a couple of pairs of eyes bobbing on top of the tuna tower on a boat.

2008 will be my second season looking for whales and trying to get in the water to film them. If anyone does see a whale, please phone 77-SPOUT (777-7688) or e-mail me at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it . I’m still looking for dedicated volunteers who don’t get seasick and can come out at a moment’s notice, seven days a week from the end of February to mid-May.

 

 
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