A Once-In-A-Lifetime Encounter

By David Trescot

 

I had come to Dominica hoping to film sperm whales. Our trip leader was renowned photographer Amos Nachoum, and our local guide was Dominican native Andrew Armour. He’s known as “The Whale Whisperer,” and has been featured on television shows due to his ability to get close to sperm whales. With experts like Nachoum and Armour guiding us, I had high hopes for quality whale encounters — what I got far exceeded my imagination.

We searched for whales each day via boat, aided by a directional hydrophone. Our plan was to zero in on their general vicinity by listening for their sounds, and then spot them at the surface while they were relaxing and socializing. Sperm whales are intensely social animals. Their society is matriarchal, with pods being made up of adult females and their young. When a male reaches adulthood (around 13 years) he leaves the pod and goes off on his own or with other bachelors.

The loud clicking sounds of sperm whales can be heard from quite a long distance; we could hear their hunting clicks from many miles away, and made our way to their general location and waited. Soon we saw a surfacing sperm whale’s telltale spray, which is very distinctive and angled spray because the blowhole is on the front left side of animal’s head rather than on the top. Our excitement built as we neared its location.

“It’s Scar!” shouted Armour. Those were the magic words we had been hoping to hear. Armour has known Scar, a young male, for the whale’s entire life. Armour encountered Scar first when the whale was very young had an injury to his head and fin, hence the name. Armour swam with Scar many times over the ensuing years, and from these interactions it seems that Scar has developed a fondness for human interaction. The rest of us jumped into the water and went over to greet Scar. It was a little intimidating to be in the water with this creature, since he had now grown from a baby into a 35-foot male, weighing about 30 tons. He let us swim right next to him, and would roll to examine each of us in turn. Over the next few days we had great encounters with both Scar and a number of other whales. The family groups would swim around us, intertwining with each other in a balletic dance. They would often scan us, the distinctive clicks penetrating deep into our bodies.

As magical as these encounters were, it wasn’t until my last day in day in Dominica that I had the encounter of a lifetime. We spotted a whale, and I slipped into the water and started swimming in its direction. I hoped it was Scar, and that he was in a social mood and would let me get close to him. In my mind I was repeating the nature photographer’s mantra “let me get closer.” As I swam towards where I hoped to intercept the whale, I took a moment in the water to focus my camera on my fins. When I looked up from the camera, I saw that Scar had changed direction. He wasn’t going to swim near me  — he was going to swim over me. My excitement turned to fear, as this giant creature got much, much closer than I was expecting. In the video you may be able to hear some muffled expletives as Scar quite literally plops on top of me and comes to a complete stop. And then my fear turned to joy as Scar rolled over onto his back. He hadn’t come to eat me — he had come for a belly rub. As I gave his belly a rub, I noticed that he had small squid tentacles stuck to his mouth. He had apparently just come from a lunch of deep-water squid, and these squid have little hooks on their tentacles in addition to the usual suckers. I reached out and removed one of the tentacles from his mouth to look at it closer. My mother is convinced that I have no survival instinct, since my first response when next to a giant carnivore was to take food out of his mouth. She may be right.

Sadly, Scar is no longer seen with his family around Dominica. He has reached sexual maturity, and has left the family group to become a solitary male. I imagine him now living in colder and deeper waters, feeding on larger prey and eventually doubling in size. He will sometimes return to mate, but he will no longer have the constant companionship of his youth. Of course no one really knows what goes on in the mind of a whale, or any animal. And I know that I’m anthropomorphizing when I attribute human emotions to Scar, but I also know that I felt an undeniable intelligence in that giant creature, and I wish him well on his great journeys ahead. I hope that some day in the future I might have another encounter with him. And I like to imagine that he will scan me in the dark waters, and then glide gently forward to greet an old friend.

 

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