The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Exploration

The Freedivers Who Eavesdrop on Whales

I’m in the passenger seat of a white van, on a dusty, potholed road somewhere along the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. It’s 9:00 p.m. and the stars are out. “Is this the right way?” I ask our driver.

He’s a local named Bobby; that isn’t his real name, but that’s what he wants me to call him. Bobby is shaking his head and flashing me a reassuring smile. It’s the same smile he used ten minutes ago when he took a wrong turn into someone’s front yard, the same one he gave me twenty minutes before that when he brought the van to a dead stop in the middle of a two-lane freeway, stepped out into oncoming traffic, and ran across the street to ask a barefoot man on a bike for directions.

“Bobby? Is this the right way?” I repeat.

That smile.

Then Bobby suddenly pulls into a driveway. Through the headlights, it looks like we’ve just pulled into a junkyard. Twelve hours driving through steep mountain roads, jungles thick with elephants, and dusty towns filled with men in baggy slacks selling boiled peanuts and green bananas – and now this.

“Bobby?”

He pulls out of the driveway and takes a left. This road is narrower and bumpier. Bushes scrape the doors. The eyes of unknown animals glow from copses of coconut palms. A dog barks. Bats the size of rats flutter and swoop inches from the windshield.

Minutes later, we come to a stop in a barren sandlot. To the right is a creepy-looking, three-story pink-concrete building. A single, bare light bulb shines over a white plastic table on the patio, giving the scene an Edward Hopper feel. Bobby exhales, pulls the key from the ignition, and smiles. We’ve arrived at our destination, he says: the Pigeon Island View Guesthouse.

{%{"quote":"Of the twenty or so sperm whale scientists in the field, none dive, film, or interact with their subjects. Schnöller finds this inconceivable. “How do you study sperm whale behavior without seeing them behave, without seeing them communicate?”"}%}

That evening, after days of air travel from five different points of the globe, the whale search party has gathered and we are all sitting together around the patio table. On one side sits the expedition leader, Fabrice Schnöller, and Guy Gazzo, a 74-year-old freediving legend, both from Reunion Island, a French outpost located 400 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Across the table is South Africa national-record holding freediver, Hanli Prinsloo, and her aquatic he-man boyfriend, a world-champion swimmer from Los Angeles named Peter Marshall. Belgian photographer, Jean-Marie Ghislain, sits next to Prinsloo. Ghislain tells the group that he has just returned from a trip in Botswana to swim with crocodiles. The trip ended after the first day when a team member had his arm eaten off.

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Thirty years ago to the week an American film crew came to this spot – Trincomalee, Sri Lanka — and captured the first footage of sperm whales in their natural habitat. The resulting film, Whales Weep Not, narrated by Jason Robards, became an international sensation and helped spark the Save the Whales movement.

Schnöller and his crew hope to have a similar impact by capturing the first 3-D footage of sperm whales and human-and-whale freediving interactions which Schnöller will use an upcoming documentary. We'll also be recording audio data for a group of researchers in France who are trying to decipher the sperm whale click language.

But for any of this to work we’ll first need to find some whales.

Schnöller, who is 45 years old and wears an uncombed swatch of short gray hair and oversize multicolored shorts, first swam with sperm whales in 2007. He was sailing with a friend from his home in Reunion to neighboring Mauritius, when a pod approached the boat. Schnöller grabbed a mask, snorkel, and fins, and jumped in. Within a half hour the pod surrounded him. Then they oriented their bodies vertically, like obelisks, and stared up with wide eyes. They began echolocating his body; Schnöller could feel their echolocation vocalizations, called clicks, penetrate his flesh and vibrate through his bones, his chest cavity. The whales stayed with him for two hours.

Six months after the encounter, Schnöller sold his lumber store and dedicated his life to trying to understand these animals. He built his own A/V equipment to record sperm whale behavior and communication. He enlisted some of the foremost marine scientists to help him crack their “hidden language.”

In the five years since he began, Schnöller and his team — none of whom have had any formal research experience or even hold scientific degrees — have collected the largest database of sperm whale behavior and vocalizations in history.

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What's given them such intimate and immediate access is that they are the only researchers in the field willing to swim with whales. More specifically, they are the only researchers freediving to -40 feet and below, then swimming in whales' deep-sea turf.

“Jane Goodall didn’t study apes from a plane,” said Schnöller. “And so you can’t expect to study the ocean and its animals from a classroom. You’ve got to get in there. You’ve got to get wet.” Schnöller’s renegade band believes that the only way to crack the sperm whale language code, and to truly understand these animals, is by diving with them face-to-face.

This balls-to-the-wall approach puts traditional ocean scientists at a disadvantage. No university or institution would permit its employees to motor miles out to sea in a beat-up boat off the coast of a developing country to swim with sperm whales, which can grow up to 125,000 pounds and 60 feet in length and are the largest predators on Earth. And, freediving isn’t a course offered with most ocean-based PhD’s. Few students would want to take the course if it were. Freediving requires months to years of training to master. And if all the training is successful, it would only bring researchers within chomping distance of the four dozen seven-inch-long teeth that line the sperm whale mouth.

Not getting crushed, drowned, or eaten by sperm whales is only one of the challenges of studying them. Another is actually finding the animals. Sperm whales migrate from the north and south poles towards the warmer waters along the equator every summer. If you're lucky enough to see a pod, chances are you’ll never get close enough to dive with them. Schnöller predicts he sees sperm whales about 1 percent of the time he’s at sea looking for them; he’ll dive with them about 1 percent of the time he sees them. In other words, this is hard work with few rewards. It’s made even harder by the fact that most countries with coastlines prohibit swimming with sperm whales.

In late 2012, Schnöller heard that huge pods of sperm whales were congregating off the coast off Trincomalee, a Podunk town along the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. In fact, the whales were regulars in this spot. They've come each spring to hunt, socialize, and mate in the Trincomalee Canyon, an eight-thousand-foot-deep chasm that stretches twenty-five miles across the Indian Ocean, from the northern tip of the country into the Trincomalee harbor. They've come here each spring from around March through August for as long as anyone can remember, and probably for millions of years before that.

Best of all, researching sperm whales in these waters was easy — there are no permits required, no authorities to evade, no cruise ships, no recreational swimmers or divers, no whale-watching industry to speak of. Over the course of a few months in 2012 and 2013, Schnöller shook loose enough funding to send him and a team of expert freedivers to the Trincomalee Canyon for a ten-day expedition in March 2013. He asked if I wanted to come along.

Our first two days treading the Trincomalee Canyon are a disaster. We spend them in two tiny, shadeless fishing boats juddering around the ocean without seeing any whales. The film crew’s cameraman gets seasick the first day and refuses to go back out. Without a cameraman, and still without any usable footage, the documentary director threatens to pull the plug on the documentary.

On the evening of the second day, I meet Schnöller on the second-story patio. He’s sitting alone, haloed in mosquitoes. The blue fluorescent beam of a headlamp shines down on a table filled with half-assembled underwater-camera casings. Behind him, a waxing moon hangs low over a tinseled sea.

“This is very hard work, you see,” he says, looking up as I take a seat at the table. He’s wearing an American flag headband and knockoff Facebook sandals that he picked up at a junk store on the way here, and he looks as ridiculous as that description makes him sound. “Ocean research takes patience, lots of patience, persistence, and is very physically exhausting.”

Schnöller grew up in the west African nation of Gabon, the son of a former French army lieutenant who worked for then dictator Omar Bongo. The family’s house was located beneath a canopy of mango trees at the shoreline of an unpopulated beach, which was where Schnöller spent much of his youth. He told me earlier how he remembered watching crocodiles from a nearby river crawl up the front porch and eat food from the dog bowl. Sometimes while the family was eating dinner, giant mambas would slide in through wooden planks in the roof and drop down on the dining-room table. Schnöller’s father kept a shotgun close by, and after a few years, the roof was peppered with holes.

On weekends, Schnöller would sail along Gabon’s wild coast and make camp on unexplored islands. He learned how to navigate through the ocean’s many moods, keep cool in crises, and improvise his way out of trouble. He learned to be patient.

“There are no fast results in this research,” he says. “That’s why so few people bother doing it.”

Actually, he corrects himself, nobody is doing it.

Of the twenty or so sperm whale scientists in the field, none dive, film, or interact with their subjects. Schnöller finds this inconceivable. “How do you study sperm whale behavior without seeing them behave, without seeing them communicate?” He’s convinced that to understand sperm whales, one must first understand their communication, and to understand their communication, one needs to understand their language, which he believes is transmitted through clicks.

The idea that sperm whales and other cetaceans (dolphins, belugas, orcas, etc) share some form of sophisticated communication is not a New Age theory, and it's not as nuts as it sounds.

At 17 pounds, the sperm whale has brains that are five times the size of ours; it's the largest brain ever to have know to have existed on Earth. The sperm whale's neocortex, which governs higher-level functions in humans such as conscious thought, future planning, and language, is estimated to be about six times larger than ours. Sperm whales also have spindle cells, the long and highly developed brain structures that neurologists have long associated with speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering, and intuition — those things that make humans human. Sperm whales not only have spindle cells, but they had them in far greater concentration than humans. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggest that they evolved them more than 15 million years before us. In the realm of brain evolution, 15 million years is a very long time.

Sperm whales are the loudest animals on earth. Their vocalizations are loud enough to be heard several hundred miles away, and possibly around the globe. At their maximum level of 236 decibels, these clicks are louder than two thousand pounds of TNT exploding two hundred feet away from you, and much louder than the space shuttle taking off from two hundred and fifty feet away. Sperm whale clicks could not only blow out human eardrums from hundreds of feet away, but vibrate a human body to pieces. The extraordinary power of clicks lets whales use them to perceive an intimately detailed view of their environment from great distances. They can detect a ten-inch-long squid at a distance of more than a thousand feet and a human from more than a mile away. Sperm whales’ echolocation is the most precise and powerful form of biosonar ever discovered.

Not only are sperm whale vocalizations extremely loud; they are also incredibly organized. They sound unremarkable to the human ear — something like the tack-tack-tack of a few dozen typewriters — but when slowed down and viewed as a sound wave on a spectrogram, clicks, which range in length from 24 o 72 milliseconds (thousands of a second), reveal an incredibly complex collection of shorter clicks woven within them. Inside one click is a series of smaller clicks, inside those smaller clicks yet even smaller clicks, and so on, each unfolding like a Russian nesting doll.

Sperm whales transmit these clicks at very specific and distinct frequencies, and can replicate them down to the exact millisecond and frequency, over and over again. They can control the millisecond-long intervals inside the clicks and reorganize them into different structures, in the same way a composer might revise a scale of notes in a piano concerto. But sperm whales can make elaborate revisions to their click patterns then play them back in the space of a few thousands of a second.

“These patterns are very structured; this is not random,” says Schnöller, taking a sip of beer. The only reason sperm whales would have such incredibly complex vocalizations, Schnöller suggests, is if they were using them in some form of communication.

Schnöller isn’t alone. Most marine biologists believe that sperm whales are in fact communicating through their clicks. They just have no idea what they’re saying. Schnöller hopes to be the first.

{%{"quote":"Sperm whale echolocation, even from miles beneath the ocean’s surface, is strong enough to vibrate five feet of wood and make an audible clicking sound. It sounds like a signal from another world, which, in a way, is precisely what it is. I get chills listening to it."}%}

“When you think about it, human language is very inefficient, it is very prone to errors,” Schnöller says. Humans use phonemes—basic units of sound, like kah, puh, ah, tee—to create words, sentences, and, ultimately, meaning. (English has about forty-two phonemes, which speakers shuffle around to create tens of thousands of words.) While we can usually convey phonemes clearly enough for others to understand them, we can never fully replicate them the same way each time we speak. The frequency, volume, and clarity of the voice shifts constantly, so that the same word uttered twice in a row by the same person will usually sound discernibly different, and will always show clear differences when viewed on a computer. Comprehension in human language is based on proximity: If you enunciate clearly enough, another speaker of the same language will understand you; if you bungle too many vowels and consonants, or even pronunciation (think of French or a tonal Asian language), then communication is lost.

Schnöller’s research suggests that sperm whales don’t have this problem. If they’re using these clicks as a form of communication, he believes, it would be less like human language and more like fax-machine transmissions, which work by sending out microsecond-length tones across a phone line to a receiving machine, which processes those tones into words and pictures. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a pod of socializing sperm whales sounds a lot like a fax transmission.)

Human language is analogue; sperm whale language may be digital.

“Why do they have such huge brains, why are these patterns so consistent and perfectly organized, if they aren’t some kind of communication?” Schnöller asks rhetorically. He mentions that sperm whales have more brain mass and brain cells controlling language than humans do. “I know, I know, this is all just theory, but still, when you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense otherwise.”

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To illustrate his point, Schnöller relates an encounter he had the previous year with a pod of sperm whales. The pod whales, both adults and their young, were hanging out in the water, clicking and socializing, when Schnöller approached them with a camera attached to a bodysurfing board. A calf swam over and faced Schnöller, then took the camera in its mouth. A group of adults immediately surrounded the calf and showered it with clicks. Seconds later, the calf let the camera go, then backed up and retreated behind the adults without ever looking at them. To Schnöller, the young whale looked ashamed. “It got the message not to mess with us.” He laughs. “That’s when I knew, they had to be talking to it. There’s just no other way.”

Schnöller says he’s also witnessed, on numerous occasions, two sperm whales clicking back and forth to each other as if they were having a conversation. He’s seen other whales pass clicks and then suddenly move in the same direction. He’s watched a whale bend its head in exaggerated motions to face one whale head-on and pass one pattern of clicks, and then bend in another direction to face another whale and pass a completely different pattern. To Schnöller, it all looked like they were talking.

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But neither Schnöller nor anyone else will be translating the cetacean language anytime soon. It’s too complicated, and both resources and personnel are too scarce to study it closely. The DareWin team has come here to collect data in the hope of simply proving that sperm whales use clicks as some form of communication. They’ll record as much sperm whale socializing as they can, then correlate coda clicks with specific behaviors. The crazy-looking pod at Schnöller’s feet, called a SeaX Sense 4-D, uses a underwater-camera housing with twelve minicameras and four hydrophones to document the sperm whale interactions in high-definition audio and video, in all directions at once.

Nobody has ever recorded sperm whale interactions and behaviors with such sensitive equipment before, because no such equipment had existed. And even if it had, academic and institutional scientists couldn’t get in the water to use it because none freedives with whales. Schnöller and his crew are allowed such intimate access to whales because they approach them in their natural, most unthreatening forms, by freediving with them. The whales don’t scare off, they don’t swim away, and they don’t attack. They become curious. Often, the whales welcome him and other freedivers into their pods and try to communicate with them.

At seven in the morning on the third day, the boat captains arrive and lead us back to our hired beat-up “research vessels — two decades-old pangas with wooden planks for seats.”

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I’ll be on a boat with Hanli Prinsloo, Peter Marshall, and Jean-Marie Ghislain. The plan is for the two boats to head out together, several miles off the coast, to a spot in Trincomalee Canyon where the seafloor drops off to a depth of more than six thousand feet. From there, we’ll split up and look for whales. Should someone on either boat spot any, he’ll use a mobile phone to alert the other boat. We’ll then trail the whales, wait for them to slow down or stop, and then get in the water.

We pack up, squeeze in, and set off south toward the horizon, our rickety craft riding low in the water. Hours later, we're tweny miles off the coast, floating in a dead-calm sea. Still, no whales.

“There were just so many out here last year,” Prinsloo says, who had travelled here last year and had a half-dozen whale encounters. She’s curled up in a sheet wet with seawater and sweat, leaning against Peter Marshall. Both of them are wearing T-shirts around their faces, so only the lenses of their sunglasses peep through. “I don’t know,” Prinsloo laments. “I don’t know what happened.”

Ghislain, the photographer who told us the unfortunate crocodile tale earlier in the week, wipes his sweaty palms against his T-shirt. He emits an exaggerated sigh, takes a sip of water, and turns to stare into the open ocean. A minute becomes an hour; an hour becomes two. I check my dive watch: the temperature gauge reads 106. Even my fingers are sunburned.

The notion of all of us trying to arrange a peaceful encounter with whales is bit ironic, given the way humankind has treated them for centuries.

According to legend, in 1712, an American ship captained by Christopher Hussey was hunting right whales off the southern coast of Nantucket Island when a gale suddenly blew the vessel dozens of miles south, beyond sight of land, to a barren stretch of deep water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The crew struggled to regain control of ship and were readying the mast to tack back to shore when they noticed columns of mist shooting up at odd angles from the water’s surface. Then they heard heavy, heaving exhalations. They had floated into a pod of whales. Hussey ordered the men to draw lances and harpoons and stab the whale closest to the ship. They killed it, tied it to the side of the boat, fitted the mast, and sailed back to Nantucket, then dropped the whale’s body on a south-facing beach.

This was no right whale. Hussey knew that the mouths of right whales are filled with baleen, a hairlike substance used in filtering out krill and small fish. The whale he had just caught had enormous teeth, several inches long, and a single nostril on top of its head. The bones of its flippers looked eerily like those of a human hand. Hussey and his crew cut open the whale’s head, and hundreds of gallons of thick, straw-colored oil oozed out. The oil must be sperm, they thought (wrongly); this strange whale must be carrying its “seed” within its oversize head. Hussey named it spermaceti (Greek sperma, “seed”; Latin cetus, “whale”). The English version of the name took hold: sperm whale.

From that point forward, the sperm whale was screwed.

By the mid-1700s, whale ships had flocked to Nantucket to join a thriving industry. Sperm whale oil, the straw-colored seed taken from the whale’s head, turned out to be an efficient and clean-burning fuel for everything from streetlamps to lighthouses. In its congealed form, it made top-quality candles, cosmetics, machine lubricants, and waterproofing agents. The Revolutionary War was fueled by sperm whale oil.

By the 1830s, more than 350 ships and 10,000 sailors were hunting sperm whales. Twenty years later, those numbers would double. Nantucket was processing more than five thousand sperm whale corpses a year and reaping upwards of twelve million gallons of oil. (A single whale could yield five hundred or more gallons of spermaceti; oil from boiled blubber could produce about twice that amount.)

But hunting the world’s largest predator didn’t come without dangers.

Whalers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were attacked regularly. The most famous incident occurred in 1820. The Nantucket whale ship Essex was off the coast of South America, its crew hunting whales, when they were rammed twice by a charging bull. The ship was lost. A crew of twenty men escaped in smaller boats and drifted off into the open ocean.

Nine weeks later, still drifting, the crew was close to starvation. Following maritime custom, the men drew lots to see who would be eaten. The captain’s cousin, a seventeen-year-old named Owen Coffin, was chosen. Coffin put his head on the side of the boat; another man pulled the trigger of a gun. “He was soon dispatched,” wrote the captain, “and nothing of him left.”

Ninety-five days later, the boat was rescued. There were two survivors: the captain and the man who had pulled the trigger. The harrowing tale served as the basis for Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick and, more recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction bestseller In the Heart of the Sea.

As sperm whale stocks decreased in the ocean near Nantucket, and whalers had to search farther away, the cost of oil increased. Meanwhile, a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner invented a method of distilling kerosene from petroleum. This process produced a substance close to whale oil in quality, but much cheaper. In the 1860s, the whale-oil industry collapsed.

The discovery of petroleum sounds like a death knell for whaling, but ultimately, this new cheap fuel would hasten the sperm whale’s destruction.

In the 1920s, new diesel-powered ships could process whale bodies so quickly and easily that whaling become profitable again. Sperm whale oil became a primary ingredient in brake fluid, glue, and lubricants. It was used to make soap, margarine, and lipstick and other cosmetics. The whale’s muscles and guts were mashed up and processed into pet food and tennis-racket strings. (If you own a top-quality wooden tennis racket made between 1950 and 1970, chances are it was strung with the sinew of sperm whales.)

Whaling went global. From the 1930s to 1980s, Japan alone killed 260,000 sperm whales—about 20 percent of the total population.

By the early 1970s, an estimated 60 percent of the ocean’s sperm whale population had been hunted, and the species was nearing extinction. While the world had grown proficient at hunting sperm whales, the whales themselves were a complete mystery. No one knew how they communicated or socialized; no one even knew what they ate. They had never been filmed underwater.

The documentary Whales Weep Not, which was seen by millions of people in the 1980s, offered the public the first view of sperm whales in their natural habitat. Sperm whales seemed far from the image handed down by history and literature. They were not surly brutes munching boats and men but gentle, friendly, even welcoming. The global antiwhaling movement gained support throughout the early 1980s and eventually ended all commercial whaling by 1986.

The general increase in awareness of the sperm whale’s intelligence and human-like behavior has not deterred some countries from trying to hunt them again. As of 2010, Japan, Iceland, and Norway have been pressuring the International Whaling Commission to end its thirty-year moratorium on whaling. Schnöller and other researchers predict the moratorium could be lifted as soon as 2016, and hunting of sperm whales could again become legal.

Sperm whales have the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal; females give birth to a single calf once every four to six years. The current sperm whale population is estimated at about 360,000, down from approximately 1.2 million just two hundred years ago, where it probably hovered for tens of thousands of years before whaling began. Nobody knows for sure, but many researchers fear the population has been declining once more. Continued hunting could significantly decrease the population for generations and eventually push sperm whales back toward extinction.

Back on the boat, another hour passes. And another. I check the thermometer on my dive watch and notice the temperature has climbed to 109.

Then, suddenly, an electronic chirp blasts from the back of the boat. It’s Schnöller, calling our captain’s cell phone. The DareWin team has just spotted a pod of sperm whales near the Trincomalee harbor. Schnöller says the whales have probably been there the whole time; we just hadn’t been far enough out to spot them. They’re following slowly behind the pod, waiting for an opportunity to get in.

The captain starts the motor and we shoot south.

“You see the ploofs?” says Prinsloo, pointing east at the horizon. What look like little mushroom clouds shoot from the surface at a 45-degree angle. A sperm whale has only one external nostril, which is located on the left side of its head and causes its exhales to emerge at an angle. These distinctive blows can go about twelve feet high, and on a windless and clear day, they’re visible for a mile or more.

“They look like dandelions, don’t they!” says Prinsloo. Three hundred yards to our right, another blow erupts.

“Get your mask,” she says.

Our team has agreed to put only two people in the water at any one time, to avoid scaring off the whales. I’m on the first shift. The captain turns and pulls parallel to the pod so that we’re a few hundred feet in front of them.

“You can never chase down a whale,” Prinsloo explains as she yanks off the sheet and grabs her fins. “They always need to choose to come to you.” If we move slowly in predictable motions, just in front of the whales’ path, they can easily echolocate the boat and get comfortable with our presence. If they’re disturbed by us, they’ll take a deep breath and disappear beneath the surface. We’ll never see them again.

As the boat edges closer, the whales still haven’t dived—a good sign. Prinsloo says it’s not a full pod, just a mother and calf. Another good sign. Calves get curious around freedivers, and their mothers, in Prinsloo’s experience, encourage them to investigate.

Both whales are four hundred feet from the boat when they slow down, almost to a stop. Our captain cuts the motor. Prinsloo nods to me; I pull on my fins, mask, and snorkel, and we quietly submerge.

“Take my hand,” she says. “Now, follow.” Breathing through our snorkels with our faces just below the surface, we kick out toward the whales. Today, the visibility is mediocre, about a hundred feet. We can’t see the whales in the water, but we can certainly hear them. The blows grow louder and louder. Then the clicking begins; it sounds like a playing card stuck in the moving spokes of a bicycle. The water starts vibrating.

Prinsloo tugs my arm, trying to get me to hurry up. She pops her head above the surface for a moment and stops. I stick my head up and see a mound a hundred feet in front of us, like a black sun sinking on the horizon. The clicking grows louder. The mound pops up from the surface again, then disappears. The whales leave; we don’t see them depart. But we can hear them beneath the water, their blows softening as they drift off. The waters calm, the clicks slow like a clock winding down. And they’re gone.

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Prinsloo lifts her head and faces me. “Whale,” she says. I nod, smiling, take the snorkel out of my mouth, and begin to tell her how incredible the experience was. Then she shakes her head and points behind me.

“No. Whale.”

The mother and calf have returned. They’re stopped and are facing us in the other direction, a hundred and fifty feet away. The clicking starts again. It’s louder than it was before. I instinctively kick toward the whales, but Prinsloo grabs my hand.

“Don’t swim, don’t move,” she whispers. “They’re watching us.”

The clicks now sound like jackhammers on pavement. These are echolocation clicks; the whales are scanning us inside and out. We watch from the surface as they exhale. With a kick of their flukes, they lunge toward us.

“Listen,” Prinsloo says urgently. She grabs me by the shoulder and looks directly at me. “You need to set the right intention now. They can sense your intent.” I know how dangerous human-whale interactions can be, but I strive to set my fear aside, calm myself, and think good thoughts.

Behind Prinsloo, the whales approach, hissing and blowing steam like two locomotives. “Trust this moment,” she says. The whales are a hundred feet, seventy-five feet away. Prinsloo grips my hand. “Trust this moment,” she repeats, and she pulls me a few feet beneath the surface.

A hazy black mass materializes in the distance, growing larger and darker, like a drop of ink on a paper towel. Details emerge. A fin. A gaping mouth. A patch of white. An eye, sunk low on a knotted head, peers in our direction. The mother is the size of a school bus; her calf, a short bus. They look like landmasses, submerged islands. Prinsloo squeezes my hand and I squeeze back.

The whales approach us head-on. Then, thirty feet from colliding with us, pull softly to the side and languorously veer left. The rhythm of the clicks shifts; the water fills with what sounds to me like coda clicks. I believe they are identifying themselves to us. The calf floats just in front of its mother, bobs its head slightly, and stares with an unblinking eye. Its mouth is turned up at the end, like it’s smiling. The mother wears the same expression; all sperm whales do.

They keep their gaze upon us as they pass within a dozen feet of our faces, shower us with clicks, then retreat slowly back into the shadows. The coda clicks turn to echolocation clicks, then the echolocation fades, and the ocean, once again, falls silent.

Trying to save and study sperm whales is not without dangers either.

One of my companions tells me about a freediver-whale encounter in the Azores, off the west coast of Africa. After more than an hour of friendly contact and observation, a young bull approached and apparently got jealous. The bull turned and shot the freediver with clicks that left the man with hours of debilitating pain in his stomach and chest. (Long term, he suffered no ill effects.)

Schnöller told me a similar story. He was diving with sperm whales in 2011 when a curious calf approached and started bumping him with its nose. Schnöller held out his hand to push the calf back and felt a sudden shock of heat rush up his arm. The energy from the clicks coming out of the calf’s nose was strong enough to paralyze Schnöller’s hand for the next few hours. He too recovered.

Prinsloo and Ghislain had their share of close calls in Trincomalee last year. After spending hours in the water with a pod, a bull approached Ghislain at a fast clip. Prinsloo motioned to Ghislain to get out of the way. Just then, the bull turned, raised his twelve-foot fluke above the surface, spun it, and slapped it down. If Ghislain hadn’t moved, his head would have been crushed. Prinsloo and Ghislain claimed the fluke slap was possibly a playful interaction, not meant to harm. But when you’re in the water with an animal five hundred times your weight and ten times your size, such play can be fatal.

The fact is that nobody—not Prinsloo, Schnöller, or Buyle—really knows how risky these kinds of encounters are. Up until ten years ago, Schnöller told me earlier, nobody was diving with whales.

“Everyone thought it was too dangerous,” said Schnöller. Today, only a handful of divers attempt it, and most have had their share of narrow escapes.

Few people — and no other researchers — would dare risk their careers — and lives — to dive with these animals.

Luke Rendell, a sperm whale researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me in an e-mail that Schnöller’s research approach looked like “a pile of hokum” and was probably a “pretty flimsy scientific cover to go swimming with whales.” His team was perfectly capable of “collecting data without freediving with the animals, thank you.” To be fair, Rendell said he welcomed more researchers to the field, but he thought the DareWin’s website looked suspiciously like pseudoscience.

Schnöller brushes off the criticism as “normal scientist reaction.” And he’s finding legitimacy with partnerships with researchers at the University of Paris and other oceanographic institutions. “This will all be official, it will all be scientific,” he says.

Institutional scientists study sperm whale communication by recording clicks with a hydrophone from the deck of the boat, without ever knowing which whale is clicking and why. One of the longest-running sperm whale research programs is the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, headed by Hal Whitehead. The group studies sperm whale behavior by, among other things, following pods around and snapping photographs of flukes when the whales come up for air.

Meanwhile, last year Schnöller had a face-to-face encounter with five sperm whales that lasted three hours. The entire dive was documented in three-dimensional video and high-definition audio and is, to date, the longest and most detailed footage of sperm whales ever recorded.

Schnöller insists he’s not trying to subvert the scientific system—he wants to work within it—he is simply trying to speed up the collection of data, which, at the institutional level, happens at a glacial pace. For Schnöller, and perhaps for the whales, that pace may be too slow.

If hunters don’t eradicate sperm whales, pollution might. Since the 1920s, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), carcinogenic chemicals used in the manufacture of electronics, have slowly seeped into the world’s oceans and, in some areas, reached toxic levels. For an animal to be processed as food, it must contain less than 2 parts per million of PCBs. Any animals that contains 50 ppm of PCBs must, by law, be considered toxic waste and be disposed of in an appropriate facility.

Dr. Roger Payne, an ocean conservationist, analyzed sea life for PCBs and found that orcas had about 400 parts per million of PCBs—eight times the toxic limit. He found beluga whales with 3,200 ppm of PCBs, and bottle-nosed dolphins with 6,800 ppm. All of these animals were, according to Payne, “mobile Superfund sites.” Nobody knows how much more pollution (PCBs, mercury, and other chemicals) whales and other oceanic animals can absorb before they start dying off en masse.

Payne and other researchers point to the baiji dolphin, a freshwater native of China’s Yangtze River, as a possible portent of the sperm whale’s fate. Considered one of the most intelligent of all dolphin species, the baiji dolphin has become functionally extinct due to pollution and other manmade disturbances. (At last count, there were about three baiji dolphins left.)

For Schnöller, sperm whale research isn't recreation; he doesn't spend months away from his family, using his own money, just to go “swimming with whales.” He's in a race to understand these animals before humans wipe them off from the face of the Earth.

On the fourth day, the film crew leaves. The cameraman had been violently seasick since the first day and refused to spend another ten hours motoring around in a rickety boat. The director, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, was exhausted.

“You never told me it would be this hard,” said Vaughan-Lee when I’d talked with him the previous night. He was scratching his bald, sunburned knees beside the patio table. I had warned him, repeatedly, but the point was moot. He told me he’d decided to cut his losses and take the next flight home to San Francisco.

They left a day too soon.

That morning, the remaining team of seven, plus the hired boat hands, cram into a single boat designed for half our number. With the motor coughing and wheezing, we head south. Hours later, we’re fifteen miles from the coast and idling over the deep water of Trincomalee Canyon again. Schnöller checks his GPS, putting us near where they saw the whales yesterday.

“Turn the motor off. I listen for them,” he says. From the bow of the boat, he grabs a sawed-off broomstick with a metal pasta strainer tied to the end. He inserts a small hydrophone into the center of the strainer and drops the whole contraption into the water, then puts on a pair of ratty headphones.

This strange device, which is wired to an amplifier, works like an antenna to home in on sperm whale clicks. By spinning the strainer around, Schnöller can determine what direction they’re coming from. Frequency and volume give him an idea of how deep the whales might be.

“They sell these to institutions for fifteen hundred euro,” he says, laughing. “I make mine from junk, and it works just as good.” Click Research, a new oceanographic manufacturing company he’s now building, will offer a version that works as well as the institutional model for only $350.

Schnöller puts the headphones over my head and hands me the broomstick. “What do you hear?” he asks. I tell him I hear static. Schnöller cups the headphones tightly over my ears. “Now listen. What do you hear?

He takes the broomstick from my hands and spins the strainer slowly around below the surface. Through the static, I begin to hear a syncopated rhythm, like distant tribal drums. I tell Schnöller to stop moving the strainer. Everyone on the boat falls silent. The rhythm speeds up and grows higher in pitch, the patterns overlapping. What I’m hearing isn’t drums, of course, but the echolocation clicks of sperm whales hunting in the deep-water canyon miles beneath our boat.

Schnöller grabs the headphones and passes them around the boat. Everyone is entranced. A boat hand listens for a moment, then passes the headphones back to Schnöller. He gingerly walks to the bow and picks up a worn, wooden oar, then dips the paddle in the water and sticks the end of the handle in his ear.

He explains in stilted English that this was how Sri Lankan fishermen used to listen for whales hundreds of years ago. Sperm whale echolocation, even from miles beneath the ocean’s surface, is strong enough to vibrate five feet of wood and make an audible clicking sound. I give it a try and hear a faint tick-tick-tick. It sounds like a signal from another world, which, in a way, is precisely what it is. I get chills listening to it.

Schnöller puts the headphones on and spins the strainer dexterously. He tells us the whales will switch from making echolocation clicks to codas as they ascend. By listening to these subtle shifts in click patterns, and the volume and clarity of the clicks, he has taught himself to predict the location and moment that the whales will surface, with startling accuracy. I ask him: How accurate? Then he demonstrates.

“They are two kilometers that way,” he says, pointing west. “They are coming up. They will be here in two minutes.” We sit, staring westward. “Thirty seconds...” he says. “They are moving to the east, and... right...”

Exactly on cue, a pod of five whales surfaces about fifteen hundred feet from our boat, each exhaling a magnificent blow. He grins, obviously proud of himself, takes off the headphones, and throws the strainer and broomstick in the bow. I give him a high-five. The boat captain looks dumbfounded.

“Okay, now,” says Schnöller. “Who wants to go in?”

After dinner, Schnöller, Gazzo, and Ghislain are sitting around the patio table going over the day’s footage. The clips are hypnotizing. Each of us had short encounters with half a dozen different whales. Schnöller and Gazzo recorded the interactions in 3-D high-definition video. He says this is the first time some of these behaviors have been documented at such at close range. The most impressive footage, he says, comes from the dive that Guy Gazzo and I took at the beginning of the day.

A pod of about five whales turned and approached our boat. Schnöller told me to grab my mask and follow Gazzo, who was carrying the 3-D camera, into the water. At first the whales were moving away from the boat, but as we swam out farther they changed direction to meet us face to face. Some two hundred feet in front of us, a shadow expanded, then separated into two forms—two enormous whales, perhaps thirty-five feet long. One whale, a bull, came directly at us but then unexpectedly spun around so that its belly was facing us. We couldn’t see its eyes or the top of its head. As it approached, it dove just beneath our fins and let out a rapid burst of coda clicks so powerful that I could feel them in my chest and skull. The bull, still upside down, released a plume of black feces, like a smoke screen, and disappeared. The entire encounter lasted less than thirty seconds.

Schnöller boots up the video on his laptop and plays it back for me. This time, he turns up the volume on his laptop speakers.

“You hear that?” he says, then reverses the video again, and again. I listen closely. The clicks sound harsh and violent, like machine-gun fire. “That’s not a coda.” Schnöller laughs. He plays the clicks back again. “And he’s not talking to you.”

What Gazzo and I heard and felt was a creak—the echolocation click train that sperm whales use when they’re homing in on prey. The whale flipped on its back so it could process the echolocation clicks more easily in its upper jaw, much as a human might cock his head to focus on a sound. Schnöller plays the video again and again, laughing.

“He was looking at you to see if he could eat you!” he says. “Lucky for you, I guess you didn’t look too delicious.”

But this brings up a question I’ve had ever since we first boarded the boats. Why didn’t they eat us? We’re certainly easy prey.

Schnöller believes that, when the whales echolocate our bodies, they perceive that we have hair, big lungs, a large brain—a combination of characteristics they don’t see in the ocean. Perhaps they recognize that we’re fellow mammals, that we have the potential for intelligence. If this theory is correct, then sperm whales are smarter than us in one crucial way: they see the similarities between our two species more readily than we do.

He then brings up another file on his computer, a ten-second audio loop he recorded with the hydrophones earlier in the day. He clicks Play.

“Well?” He looks at me. I tell him the only thing I hear is distant echolocation clicks, which sound like random emanations from a drum machine. He orders me to put on his headphones, turns up the volume, and blasts me with what sounds like an enormous bomb exploding from miles away.

“I think this is something big,” he says. I ask him if the hydrophone just bumped into the side of the boat. “No, impossible,” he says. “This is something important. I promise you, this is big.”

Excerpted from James Nestor's DEEP: Freediving Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (An Eamon Dolan Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Available Tuesday, June 24, 2014.

On June 23, 2014, Schnöller took his sperm whale research public. He launched a crowd-funding campaign, called THINK!, to raise funds for four sperm whale research expeditions over the next year. High-level contributors to the campaign will be able to join the expeditions at research points around the globe—Oman, Sri Lanka, Guadaloupe, and more—and swim face-to-face with sperm whales as Schnöller and his crew document the encounters. All proceeds go to sperm whale research, specifically, to cracking the cetacean language code.

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Top 8 Ultra-Long Distance Adventure Runs

Trail-running is exploding in popularity, and for good reason. What’s not to like about a sport that requires virtually no equipment—except (maybe) shorts and trail running shoes—and allows you to explore vast mountain ranges and terrain that most people will never experience? Even better, our country has some of the most beautiful and remote lines in the world.

Here are our picks for the best long-distance adventure trail-running routes in the country.

Wonderland Trail

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Mount Rainier National Park, Washington (93 miles, 24,000 feet of ascent)

It doesn’t get much better than running around the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. The active volcano is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Phase change is visibly and audibly evident as you cross over sculpted valleys and moraines along the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. The 360-degree view of Mount Rainier starts at Longmire Visitor Center traveling counter-clockwise to Mowich Lake, then White River Campground before arriving back at Longmire. These are also the vehicle accessible locations where you can drop food and water if you’d prefer to break the route up into manageable chunks. Vast and remote in scope, the well-worn trail—often wide enough to run side by side—traverses through peaceful old-growth forests and subalpine meadows of wildflowers.

The Fastest Known Time: Kyle Skaggs; 20 hours, 53 minutes; September 23, 2006

Zion Traverse

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Zion National Park, Utah (48 miles, 9,000 feet of ascent)

This 48-mile route takes you on a tour of massive red cliffs and lush green valley floors as you run across the entire National Park. Just six years ago, this challenging point-to-point was virtually unknown. Then, two of ultrarunning’s hardmen revived the route and brought it into the sport’s consciousness. Most choose to run west, getting the big climb out of Zion Canyon over with early in their adventure. The views from the West Rim are breathtaking, but what makes this route amazing is its diversity: slot canyons with flash flood potential, switchbacks up sheer cliffs, jagged peaks, expansive sandstone slabs, improbable mounds of earth, sandy creek beds, and valley floors. The trail out of Zion Canyon uses about half of the Angel’s Landing hike, which you should include as an out-and-back add-on because it’s one of the best hikes on earth.

The Fastest Known Time: Mike Foote & Justin Yates, 7 hours 22 minutes, May 26, 2013

Softrock

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Silverton-Telluride-Ouray, Colorado (100 miles, 34,000 feet of ascent)

One race has captured the attention of the best mountain runners in the world—the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. It’s so coveted, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to gain entry (first-time applicants have about a 1.4 percent chance). A popular way to experience the majestic 100-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains is to break it into three days ranging from 28-45 miles—a so-called “Softrock.” This ultra-tour of the iconic towns of Telluride and Ouray averages over 11,000 feet in elevation, with a total of 34,000 feet of uphill. Lacking the requisite oxygen to move anywhere near your sea-level potential (the race’s nickname is the “Hardwalk”), your rewards for the pain are plenty: alpine lakes, alpine meadows, remote mountain passes (Virginius pass is only as wide as a VW bus), gnarly scree fields, and the highest point on the course—14,048 feet Handies Peak. By the time you finish this one you will either swear off ultrarunning or throw your name into the lottery.

The Fastest Known Time: Kyle Skaggs; 23 hours, 23 minutes; August 5, 2008

Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim to Rim

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Arizona (42 miles, 10,700 feet of ascent)

Dropping into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail is a quasi-religious experience. However, the sheer immensity of it all won’t hit home until you arrive at the North Rim—21 miles from where you started—and realize you now have to run back. Running into and out of the six-million-year-old hole has become a rite of passage for North American ultrarunners. There are some miles of mellow flat running along the Colorado River, but this route is defined by its two massive climbs through millions of years of rock sediment. If you under-hydrate or under-fuel the final 4,860 foot ascent will turn into a death-march (and you’ll understand why entire books have been written about deaths in the Grand Canyon).

The Fastest Known Time: Rob Krar, 6 hours, 21 minutes, May 11, 2013

Teton Circ

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Jackson, Wyoming (34 miles, 8,200 feet of ascent)

Starting at String Lake and following Cascade Canyon the well-maintained trail quickly covers 10,700 foot Hurricane Pass, where you will literally be stopped in your tracks by the view of the South, Middle, and Grand Teton mountains. Circling the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains is not for the faint of heart. The snowy steep descent from Static Peak divide is “no fall terrain,” and this adventure run is almost always a solitary endeavor. Bull moose and black bears will be your only company as you travel over lingering snowfields, past turquoise alpine lakes and paintbrush floral arrangements.

The Fastest Known Time: Evan Honeyfield, 5 hours, 34 minutes, September 17, 2009

Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

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Aspen, Colorado (27 miles, 8,000 feet of ascent)

If the three-day Softrock is a bit more than you want to bite off, the Four Pass Loop is a more reasonable portion of big Colorado mountain running. Located just outside of Aspen, in the Elk Mountains, the loop starts at 9,500 feet and is the easily the best one-day ultra-run in all of Colorado. The 27-mile journey is an altitude runner’s dreamscape, with 8,000 feet of climbing and four passes over 12,000 feet in elevation (Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air, and West Maroon passes). If you have the lungs, almost every step is runnable (hence the blindingly fast FKT). Those fit enough to complete the loop are rewarded with some of Colorado’s world-class terrain, with impossibly clear lakes, waterfalls, bald mountains, and endless ridges framing the route.

The Fastest Known Time: Sage Canaday, 4 hours, 27 minutes, September 5, 2013
*Lance Armstrong ran the loop in 5 hours, 40 minutes, August 26, 2012.

Kalalau Trail

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NaPali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (22 miles, 10,000 feet of ascent)

This 11-mile out-and-back on the northern shore of the island of Kauai feels like you are running along the edge of a deserted island. Dramatic 4,000-foot cliffs shoot out of the Pacific Ocean, covered in nothing but dark green vegetation and broken only by dark brown rock. From the Ke‘e trailhead most tourists only venture as far as Hanakapiai beach, just two miles along the route. Those who continue are treated to three of the seven Na Pali (which means “high cliffs”) valleys, each barricaded from the next by sheer cliffs. When the trail isn’t engulfed in vegetation, it provides stunning views of the coastline. Switchbacks take you from beach, over high cliffs, to high ridges and back again, until you are dropped onto the remote Kalalau beach. There is no road access to this beach, so to enjoy its tranquility you have to earn it on foot (or cheat by boat).

The Fastest Known Time: Max King, 4 hours, 59 minutes, January 22, 2012

Presidential Traverse

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Gorham, New Hampshire (26 miles, 9,600 feet of ascent)

What the “Presi-Traverse” lacks in feet-above-sea-level it more than makes up for in rugged rocky terrain. This is “peak-baggin’” at its best, a point-to-point route from Pinkham to Crawford Notch that summits the nine mountains of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The traverse is so technical that it’s hard to get into a rhythm or to feel like you are running for any significant length of time. “Running” through the most extensive above tree line area in the East means conditions can be harsh. Mount Washington, the highest peak on the route (and in New Hampshire) at 6,288 feet, has had some of the highest winds in recorded history, and has killed hikers of hypothermia in the summertime. Although not an official “ultra-distance” this route runs more like a mountain 50k than a trail marathon.

The Fastest Known Time: Ben Nephew, 4 hours, 34 minutes, September 7, 2013

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10 Rules to Detox Your Digital Life

Remember the dire Y2K technological apocalypse predictions? If only they had come true. Without sermonizing, here are 10 ways to disconnect the broadband flow of digitized scheiße that's drowning our souls.

#1: Smell a Book

Hey, iPad readers: Do you remember what a book smells like? Especially an old book that everyone in your family has read a few times? As an 11-year-old, I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, plus The Hobbit, and, verily, even The Silmarillion at least four times. Call me a creep, but sometimes I'd walk by, pick up one of the tattered, coverless paperbacks, and smell it.

I won't attempt to describe the aroma—it's too personal—but it made me feel good. Books are tactile and sensory. Like candlelight, they're intimate and calming. And a book won't knock your teeth out when you fall asleep reading one—if you can sleep at all after reading on an iPad. Experts say the light your iPad or phone emits is jacking with your melatonin. Not so with books.

#2: Ditch the Smartphone Alarm Clock

One of the only smart features I actually use on my phone is the alarm clock. This is a trap. Alarm clocks go next to the bed, so your phone goes next to the bed. My latest software update makes a wee light flash blue (Facebook), white (text), or green (email) every time a message arrives. What's that? Somebody tagged me? Oh, it's an irate reader calling me a douche at 11:00 p.m.

Now I'm angry, or stressed, or annoyed, or distracted, and perhaps worse, I'm looking at a bright white light (more on that later). Recently, I moved my angry alarm phone to the kitchen and replaced it with a large wall clock at my bedside. It ticks like a school clock and somehow reminds me of my late grandfather—and the heartbeats of my sleeping dogs. Studies have found that our constant connectivity affects our mental health and frequent cellphone use can lead to insomnia.

#3: Talk to Your Coworkers

We hire and train a few interns at my office each year. Important parts of the job entail checking facts, connecting with sources, and asking for photo-shoot gear. Invariably an intern—a journalism student, mind you—will enter my office and hopelessly explain that a source hasn't gotten back to them. "Did you call?" I ask. "Uh, no," they reply, shaken by the thought.

It has been reported that the generation currently in high school send upwards of 1,300 text messages a month, and they're seven times more likely to text than to call. Email and text are marvelous tools, but they work best in place of otherwise guttural vocalizations like "got it" and "on the way." Texting while you drive is a thumb stroke away from a negligent homicide charge. A poorly worded email can get you fired. Easily articulated nuances like mirth, sarcasm, facetiousness, or just the right amount of displeasure do not cross over to hastily typed digital communication. Pick up the phone. Unless you're driving. In which case, shut up.

#4: Put Down the Camera

Recent studies have shown that aggregating pixels is not the same as observing and reflecting upon the world. It's called the "photo-taking impairment effect," and although you may feel like you're documenting wondrous existence, mostly you're just operating a chintzy camera and not paying attention.

This means that unless you're carefully framing the subject and noting the light and composition of the impending image, you're not really absorbing the experience into your memory. As Socrates once wrote on a wildly popular Athenian bumper sticker (it bombed in Sparta), The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living. Your daughter's dance recital. Skiing with your son. Mountain biking with friends. Put your camera phone down and be there. Socrates didn't take selfies. #drinkinghemlock 

#5: Join the Dark Side

I interviewed a sleep-disorder specialist a few years ago. For the most common form of insomnia, his advice was stupid simple. Don't drink coffee after 3:00 p.m., and get your television, laptop, tablet, and smartphone out of your bedroom. It sounds like hippie science, but biorhythms are real. Staring at a bright box late at night tricks the body into thinking it's morning. The effect is so powerful it can make you hungry for breakfast, which is why it has been linked to obesity. Unless your insomnia is entrenched, it's probably fine to read a book made of paper by a dim light. Otherwise, the bedroom is for sleeping—and "wrestling." 

#6: Bring Back Cursive

Like art and gym class, handwriting has largely been dropped by our education system—not that adults are writing by hand much these days, either. It's a bigger loss than we thought. A series of studies have shown what we intuitively knew all along. Like creating art, the act of writing lights up the brain in ways that typing decidedly does not. There has even been conjecture that the very act of writing cursive may instill "functional specialization" (focus, control), help us compose our thoughts, and even treat dyslexia. We aren't going to stop typing anytime soon, but when paired with just the right fedora and skinny jeans, perhaps bringing a journal on vacation and a legal pad to a meeting might pass as hip.

#7: Turn Off Your Alerts

The end of the world is coming. Check this box if you'd like to be notified by email or text message. Last winter, I downloaded an NFL app, thinking—as advertised—I would be able to watch a playoff game as I flew to Utah. Naturally, it didn't work. But then, many months later, during the far-superior hockey playoffs, my phone alerted me no less than 20 times about the endlessly fascinating and life-affirming results of the NFL draft, an event that now competes with the birth of a British royal for pure idiotic spectacle.

With the exception of reverse 911 updates, turn off all your phone notifications. Yes, including Facebook. And adjust your computer settings. Do you really need the little pop-up and accompanying chime when an email arrives? Has instant messaging ever benefited you? They seem petty when isolated, but systemic distractions are a big deal. NASA big. There's even a field of research devoted to it called "interruption science." For the humans among us, no matter what kind of work you do, true creativity or even just workaday focus comes in brief bursts. The masterful novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once told the Paris Review that, at his best, he could write a worthy paragraph in a six-hour workday—and most of the time he'd tear up those lines the next morning. The breaking news that Johnny Football went to the Browns might have completely derailed him.

#8: Unplug from the Data

I wear a brilliant GPS watch in the backcountry. My mountain bike is kitted out with a touch-screen computer that tells me my location, route, speed, heart rate, and pedaling cadence. My Strava-connected road-cycling friends speak the strange language of power meters. For them, riding isn't about mileage but wattage.

I enjoy my outdoorsy gadgets: The watch once saved me from a night wandering the high country in search of my tent. The bike computer lets me gauge my effort so I don't blow up before the final climb. Power meters have taken the guessing out of training regimens. But sometimes we rely upon tech too much. A map or even just a look around tells me that if I follow the creek, I'll hit the pond. And there are times when you should listen to your body instead of your power meter.

"Athletes sometimes have to separate themselves from their data analysis," says Jason Hilimire, director of coaching at FasCat Coaching in Boulder, Colorado. "As coaches, we can spot it in their written comments. 'I'm tired. I'm hungry. I can't sleep.' They're cooked from training or their jobs or their family life. We tell them to unplug and ride with no prescribed goals. Hit the mental reset. Have fun."

#9: Forget About Facebook

Unless it's to notify you that their 27-year-old dog died, nobody goes on Facebook and tells the world about their downfalls: Can't afford new snow tires. The kid has lice! Dead-end job. Drinking too much lately! No, those aren't good posts. Facebook is about gloating and pretense, not the harsh realities of life that actual friends help with. The showing off is especially prevalent with outdoorsy types—and I'm as culpable as anyone. Nothing but sunshine, gleaming choppers, and powder on my page. Nobody's life is that perfect. One small study hinted that the more participants interacted with Facebook, the unhappier they became. Sometimes, when I'm feeling alienated from society and nauseated by being, Facebook makes me feel a whole lot worse. For those days, what we need is a social media site composed of morose French existentialists chain-smoking Gauloises. "We refuse to like your post," they would say. "At the most, we'll recognize that behind the veil of your public presence, you too also suffer."

#10: Share the Music

In Empire of the Summer Moon, author S.C. Gwyne spends a few lines telling the reader how Comanche would wake up singing. That passage resonated with me. And then, last night, my 12-year-old son said he didn't listen to as much music as his peers who spend their days isolated in their private soundtracks. He seemed almost dejected. Music is part of our family life, but earphones and portable music are not. In the car or at home, we listen to music together. We share music, just as I did with my parents and teenage friends. And when we wake up, we wake up singing.

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The Top Ten Spots to Hang Ten

There are certain challenges any surfers worth their salt water have to take on. Some are blissfully isolated, others are crowded but iconic, and several lie somewhere in between. With summertime looming, what follows—in no particular order—are ten must-surf spots that will keep you busy at least until Labor Day, and possibly for the rest of your life.

Frisco and Cape Point Beaches, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

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Few places along this shifting, storm-battered strip of barrier-island sand are as pretty, or offer such a welcome combo of waves and remote escape, as Frisco—which breaks well on south swells and whose Gulf Stream–strafed waters are warmer than beaches to the north—and Cape Point, whose iconic lighthouse beach breaks on any swell. The town of Buxton offers basic services: stop at Scott Busbey’s Natural Art Surf Shop for gear, and at the Orange Blossom Bakery for apple and peach fritters. The Park Service’s Frisco campground is the most secluded, while the Cape Hatteras campground is closest to the waves. Check beforehand for beach-access restrictions, which are dictated by piping plover nesting.

Montauk, New York

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One of the most offbeat beach scenes—and some of the best waves—in the East. During the summer, the area around Montauk’s Ditch Plains teems with crusty locals, hedge fund billionaires, supermodels, fashion designers, celebrities (Jimmy Buffett and Coldplay’s Chris Martin are regulars), and visiting California pros. They’re drawn to the beautiful bluffs, the clear water, and the consistent cobblestone reefs that focus Atlantic energy into everything from mellow longboard waves to punchy beach breaks along Ditch’s inner bay. Summer weekends can be a zoo, midweek days can be pleasant, and in the off-season, Montauk’s a ghost town. Spread out to the south, aiming for the less-crowded beach breaks near Hither Hills State Park, which also has some of the most sought-after camping in the state. At Surf Bar and Surf Lodge (around $300 per night during the summer), you’ll find a perfect representation of Montauk’s interesting Malibu-meets-Manhattan vibe. 

New Smyrna Beach, Florida

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The renovation of New Smyrna’s historic Canal and Flagler streets has created a pedestrian-friendly area filled with bars, galleries, restaurants, and shops. And the empty 24 miles of beaches at the Canaveral National Seashore lie right next door. New Smyrna and the Cape’s wide-open beaches break on pretty much any swell the western Atlantic can dish out, from nor’easter-spawned groundswells, to trade wind–driven southerlies, to hurricane-generated eastern swells. The waters are warm, and you’ll find plenty of peaks to spread the crowds. This is also one of the best spots in the world to fish for snook.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Michigan

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Tahoe-blue water, 400-foot-tall dunes, and charming villages that resemble a hybrid between Cape Cod and Newfoundland make this stretch of Michigan’s Northwest Lower Peninsula a little-known American paradise. During late summer and early fall, cold fronts churn up strong southwest-veering north winds, but the waters can still be quite warm. Join wetsuit-clad Michigan freshwater surfers in front of the Platte River Campground, or head to the protected lee of the Frankfort Jetty, 20 miles south. If the waves are flat, this whole area is simply insane for a stand-up paddleboard cruise. Either Third Coast or Sleeping Bear Surf and Kayak can get you going.

Second and Third Beaches, La Push, Olympic National Park, Washington

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Wondrous coves of soaring cliffs and craggy offshore islands sacred to the adjacent Quileute Indian Nation make this a must-surf. Pick up a backcountry permit from the Olympic National Park Ranger office for $5. Camping fees are $2 per person per night, and you’ll need to either rent or bring a bear can for camping. Tip: The hike in is a little longer (1.4 versus .7 miles), but campsites along Third Beach offer privacy by way of huge boulders—and there’s a beautiful waterfall at the cove’s south end. The beach-break surf ranges from giant North Pacific monsters to head-high wind swell groomed by downsloping morning offshore winds. The water is damn cold, but the location makes it worth the hike and the paddle. 

Ogunquit Beach, Maine

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Though summertime swells come from a tropical source, you’ll be lucky to find water warmer than mid-sixties temps at the gorgeous breaks along the mouth of the Ogunquit River. The river mouth holds a long right- and short left-hand wave. If it gets crowded here, plenty of empty peaks can be found along the broad, sandy beach that runs to the north. This place can especially pump in late summer and early fall, when tropical swells and nor’easters become the norm. Local surfers talk story over morning coffee and pastries at the Village Food Market.

The Beachmere Inn is a classic, beachfront New England retreat that’s been welcoming visitors for more than 70 years. 

San Onofre State Beach, Trestles to Trails, California

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This five-mile stretch is a SoCal time warp that has some of the most consistent cobblestone reef break and sandy beach break in the state. Trestles begins just south of San Clemente, with juicy left-handers at Cotton’s Point. A few blocks south lie the more fickle Barbwires and the tapered right-handers of Upper Trestles. Another mile south, remarkable right and left A-frames make Lower Trestles one of best (and most crowded) high-performance waves on the planet. But just to the south lie the mellower and more spread-out lineups of Middles and Church’s Point. Further south is San Onofre Beach, a classic, Gidget-style “drive-on” beach replete with woodies, VW vans, barbecues, bocce ball, old-school longboarders, and very friendly vibes. For a secluded beach break, hike down Trail 3, south of the defunct San Onofre nuclear plant. San Clemente abounds in food and nightlife, while San Onofre’s San Mateo Campground is a beautiful mile-long hike or bike to the beach. 

Jalama County Park, California

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A winding 14-mile drive through vintage California ranchland drops you off at this tiny, well-run 22-acre park—one of the few public access points on 40 miles of wild and spectacular coastline. Jalama is wide-open to swells from the south to the north. Waves can range from fun, head-high beach-break peaks to the heaving reef-break A-frame bombs three-quarters of a mile south at a reef called Tarantulas. Recently, Santa Barbara County launched an online reservation system for the campground, and the beachfront campsites are heaven, with #64 offering the most seclusion. From there, it’s an easy shoreside hike down to Tarantulas—or trek northward, along an epic sweep of beach.

Waikiki, Hawaii

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Sure it’s crowded, sure it’s touristy, but just the fact that Duke Kahanamoku made this beach one of surfing’s ancestral homes means you need to catch a wave here. Waikiki’s blue-water spots break all year long, but are best on summertime south swells. Queens and Canoes are the easiest for beginners, while the farther-offshore Populars, Threes, Fours, and Kaisers are a long paddle (nearly a half-mile)—and can be filled with experienced locals. Respect for the lineup, a smile, and a greeting can go a long way toward breaking the ice and fetching you a wave. If these “town” spots are too packed, you can often find much less crowded conditions by driving east to the beaches below Diamond Head. It’s more exposed to the breezes and incredibly consistent, thanks to swells generated by the easterly trade winds. Treat yourself to a night at the Royal Hawaiian, the classic, pink landmark that dates back to 1927.

Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii

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The beaches around Lahaina offer year-round waves from the south and north. Right in town, the Breakwall can offer up fun beginner longboard waves on the inside and rippable-to-bombing rights and lefts on the outside, depending on the swell direction. But it can be crowded. Best summertime bets are the breaks just to the south and west of town like Launiupoko Park and Thousand Peaks, which both offer spectacular, rainbow-bathed views of the West Maui Mountains. Ten miles north of Lahaina, the fantastical, gin-clear right-handers of Honolua Bay reel off against a Tolkien-esque jungle-and-cliff backdrop. If summer trade winds blow very hard, a sneaker wind swell will wrap into Honolua, and you can catch it head-high and empty. Score an after-surf burrito at Ono Tacos.For lodging, consider Puamana, a quiet, beachfront neighborhood along Lahaina’s south side. Plenty of options are available via VRBO.

Chris Dixon is the author of Ghost Wave: The Discovery of Cortes Bank and the Biggest Wave on Earth. He’s surfed all over America, but would never drop in at Cortes Bank.

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