What I Saw When I Came Eye to Eye with a Whale
Sperm whales are extraordinarily intelligent animals with deep family traditions and the ability to communicate across oceans with sonic clicks. But when Rowan Jacobsen had a close encounter with one in the Caribbean, he saw a creature far stranger than he'd ever imagined.
Three miles off the coast of Dominica, on a flat blue Caribbean sea, Pernell Francis lowers a hydrophone into the water and slides a pair of headphones over his ears. Captain Jerry kills the engines on the Southern Cross, his sportfishing boat, and the other two people on board, the marine scientist Gaelin Rosenwaks and her mother, Stacy, get superstitiously quiet.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning on November 21, and we’re listening for the sounds of the world’s brainiest and most charismatic megafauna.
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Dominica is one of the best places in the world to interact with sperm whales, and each year the government grants a handful of permits that allow scientists and photographers to get in the water with them. Gaelin’s permit is for Visual Assessment of Potential Stressors on Physeter macrocephalus. Her goal is to produce a photographic record of Dominica’s whales, looking for signs of injury incurred from things like ships and fishing gear. She’s also hoping to make a film about our species’ complicated relationship with sperm whales. Pernell, a local Dominican who’s been called the whale whisperer for his uncanny ability to find them, is our guide.
Sperm whales communicate across miles of ocean using a complex language of sonic clicks. By listening to the hydrophone, Pernell can tell if they are near or far, diving or surfacing, feeding or cruising. He rotates the pole, pointing the device in every direction, face tight with concentration.
Behind Pernell, Dominica looms. A precipitative pile of rainforest, with countless waterfalls cascading down its 4,000-foot flanks, it has almost no natural harbors, very little nautical traffic, and deep underwater canyons teeming with large squid. It’s an ideal place for sperm whales.
But they don’t always show. Just ask Gaelin, who is standing beside me with crossed fingers and is whispering whales, whales, whales. At more than $3,000 a day for the boat, guide, and other appurtenances, the project is a major gamble. To raise the full funding for the film, she needs some killer footage, and for that she needs whales. In 2018, she secured a permit, hired Pernell, and got skunked—five days on the water, a whole lot of silence in the hydrophones. The island’s parting gift was a flash flood at the airport that nearly swept Gaelin, Stacy, and their camera cases out to sea. Now she’s back for one more try.
But as Pernell pulls off his headphones, the early verdict is not encouraging. “It’s quiet,” he says. “Nothing within three miles. We gotta keep going.”
I feel Gaelin deflate a little. Trained in coastal environmental management, she now describes herself as both a scientist and a storyteller. She tagged Atlantic bluefin tuna in graduate school, but after watching her research subjects slide toward extinction, with the population declining some 75 percent between 1957 and 2007, she shifted to advocacy. In 2008, she founded Global Ocean Exploration, which organizes research expeditions and documents the work of scientists through photography and video. More than a decade later, she has partnered with scientists in the Arctic, Antarctic, and many places in between. “It’s about bringing back stories of expeditions that people can relate to,” she says, “as opposed to just writing scientific papers.” Recent trips have taken her to Palau, to make a short film about climate-resilient corals, and to the bottom of Belize’s Blue Hole with Richard Branson and Fabien Cousteau, a grandson of Jacques.
Gaelin’s film concept is inspired by a close encounter she had with a sperm whale as a child, which helped set her life’s course. Physty (pronounced “feisty,” a play on Physeter macrocephalus) was a young sperm whale that tried to beach himself on Coney Island in 1981. Sick with a mystery illness and being battered by waves, Physty was towed to a nearby boat basin for rehab.
At the time, well over a thousand sperm whales were still being killed by humans each year, and Physty made their plight personal. Floating on his side in the basin, weak and disoriented, he became a national sensation. Thousands of people traveled to the harbor to root for his recovery.
Among them was Stacy Rosenwaks and her young son and daughter. “We went every other day to watch the vets take care of him,” Stacy says. “We were right there next to him. You could smell his breath, see his spray.”
“I remember being so close and seeing his eye,” says Gaelin. “I wasn’t quite two years old yet, but that moment of interaction was really powerful.”
As Physty neared death, the vets swabbed his blowhole and determined that he had pneumonia. A Navy veteran named Michael Sandlofer spent days in the water with the whale, gently touching him to gain his confidence, and was finally able to get Physty to take an antibiotics-laced squid from his hand. Then another. And another. Within days, Physty had improved enough to be released into the sea, escorted by a flotilla organized by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It was the first time a sperm whale had ever survived captivity, and it energized the growing Save the Whales movement. The following year, the International Whaling Commission passed its historic moratorium on commercial whaling.
Physty also energized Gaelin, who moved her toys into the family sauna, which had a porthole window. She called it her submarine and pretended she was exploring the ocean. Gaelin’s been at it pretty much ever since, though the toys have grown considerably more expensive and the subs are now real.
Though Physty may have initiated Gaelin’s affair with the ocean, Gaelin gives her mother most of the credit for where she’s ended up. “She played a huge role,” Gaelin says. “She taught me to fish and to pull a seine net. We’d dissect the catch together.” They remain tight, fishing the rips out of Montauk in conditions that would turn a fair-weather angler green. At 67, Stacy’s still strong in the water, and offers a seasoned pair of hands to steer a boat or hold a camera. In a few days, the cinematographer Stephani Gordon will arrive to shoot more footage for the film project, but for now the video work is up to Stacy and Gaelin, and I’m doing my best to capture some behind-the-scenes material.
The whale does not love you. At best, it’s looking for a little entertainment on an otherwise humdrum day. At worst, it wishes you would go away.
I’d met Gaelin several months earlier, at an ocean-plastics summit. She was a skilled freediver with a deep understanding of marine science and a profound respect for aquatic species great and small. We kept in touch, and she soon mentioned her upcoming trip to document sperm whales and asked if I wanted to come.
Swim with Moby Dick? I knew that jumping in the water with dolphins and whales was increasingly popular, and that those who did it often reported life-changing epiphanies. But I had no such delusions. I thought of an old New Yorker cartoon showing two dolphins swimming in the sea as one says to the other, “If I could do only one thing before I died, it would be to swim with a middle-aged couple from Connecticut.”
Right. The dolphin is not there to heal you. The whale does not love you. At best, it’s looking for a little entertainment on an otherwise humdrum day. At worst, it wishes you would go away. Conservationists are more and more concerned about the explosion of tour operators taking tourists to swim with whales and dolphins, since the presence of humans can alter the animals’ feeding and resting behavior.
I wasn’t looking for love, and frankly, if it had been anything other than a scientific expedition to study sperm whales, I wouldn’t have been interested. But this was the creature with the largest brain of any animal that has ever lived—five times the size of my own. I didn’t need an epiphany to realize that it might know something worth learning.
My own fascination with sperm whales began when I powered through all 700 pages of Moby Dick as a teenager with a hankering after the sea. Melville lays out “the pre-eminent tremendousness of the great Sperm Whale” in loving detail, and like most modern readers, I rooted for the whale, and was elated when he sunk the Pequod and got away.
Later I learned that the book was inspired by a real incident: the scuttling of the whale ship Essex by an 85-foot sperm whale. As the whalers harpooned smaller specimens, a bull rammed the ship so hard it knocked everyone on board off their feet. Then it circled and charged at full speed, smashing through the hull and driving the 238-ton ship backward. In less than ten minutes, the Essex sank. Only eight of the 20 crew members made it home.
More than one whaling ship was destroyed by sperm whales during the whaling era, and it’s easy to see how the animals got their reputation for ferociousness—“the most formidable of all whales to encounter,” in Melville’s words, “the most majestic in aspect.” Other great whales have baleen mouths used to strain plankton from the sea, and they work the ocean with all the ferocity of grazing cows, but sperm whales are apex predators with eight-inch teeth. They hunt squid of all sizes, including 30-foot giants. The ultimate freedivers, they can descend thousands of feet in pursuit of their prey, spending close to an hour below the surface, then doing it all again 15 minutes later. It’s one of the great athletic feats on the planet.
To catch all that squid in perfect darkness, they use echolocation. Their nose is a giant sonic cannon—longer than 15 feet in some specimens—filled with an unusual oil that allows them to amplify and project some of the loudest sounds in the animal kingdom. A lion’s roar can hit 114 decibels, a rock concert 120. Sperm whales have been known to ping at up to 236 decibels.
Sperm whales were not the original targets of Yankee whalers. That honor belongs to right whales, the slow and blubbery giants that cruise off the New England coast. But near the beginning of the eighteenth century, Nantucketers encountered a new kind of whale farther out to sea. It was harder to catch, but in addition to blubber, it contained hundreds of gallons of a miraculous new liquid oil in its head. Spermaceti (named for its resemblance to semen) burned bright and smokeless. It could also be made into the perfect lubricant. Once processed, the oil had low viscosity and didn’t break down at high temperatures; it was used in everything from rifles and cosmetics to mills and locomotives. It greased the industrial revolution. Sperm whales were found throughout the world, and the whalers pursued them everywhere, including Dominica.
The carnage increased in the 20th century with the advent of modern ships, peaking in the 1960s, when whalers from numerous countries killed more than 20,000 sperm whales a year. By the turn of the millennium, a pre-whaling population of more than a million had been slashed by roughly two-thirds. Their numbers seem to have stabilized following the 1982 moratorium, but because they tend to hunt in deep waters far offshore, little hard evidence regarding their overall population exists.
Dominica is one of the few places with near-shore canyons deep enough to draw sperm whales, making it one of the best places to study them, and there the news is grim: a 2016 study coauthored by behavioral ecologist Shane Gero, founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, estimated the local population was declining at about 4.5 percent per year. “If overall trends continue,” the researchers wrote, “by 2030 there will be very few animals left.” Across the oceans, the culprits are many. Freighters run them down. Fishing gear entangles them. Plastic clogs their bellies. While I’m in Dominica, a 46-foot sperm whale washes up dead on a Scottish beach with 220 pounds of plastic bags, netting, and rope in its bloated stomach.
But the most insidious threat may be ocean noise. As anyone with a hydrophone can detect, the seas are ringing with the sounds of ships, drilling, seismic surveys, and sonar. The intensity has been doubling every ten years. Loud noises can harm whales because they use sound for feeding and communicating. It can cause hearing loss and brain hemorrhages. Even background noise has been shown to raise whales’ stress levels. Many initiatives are underway to reduce the clamor, from legislation passed by the European Union to a lawsuit launched by a coalition of environmental groups to stop seismic blasting in U.S. waters. Yet marine din continues to rise.
What makes this particularly troubling for sperm whales is that communication and relationships are everything to them. Not only do the animals have the planet’s largest brains, but the parts of those brains devoted to things like language, emotion, and social interaction are especially well-developed. They live in extended family groups: grandmothers, mothers, aunties, kids. Males leave in their teens to roam the oceans, visiting other groups only to mate, but females remain for life. Each group has its own traditions of hunting and socializing, much like human families. They communicate with their sonic clicks, staying in touch across oceans through what I’ve come to think of as the Whale Wide Web. There are several hundred sperm whales in the eastern Caribbean, and scientists believe they all belong to one of two clans. Each speaks its own dialect of codas—click combinations that sound like Morse code and are passed down to offspring. Individual whales even have their own variations of a coda—almost like their name—which they broadcast while socializing.
They like to be together. They sleep in clusters, hanging vertically beneath the surface like a grove of sequoias. They babysit and even nurse one another’s calves. Between hunts they hang out at the surface, coasting in parallel, banking oxygen for the next dive and catching up on the latest clicks. During their brief idylls, these giants can be surprisingly approachable. Like dolphins, they’re sometimes curious about humans.
Swimming with sperm whales in Dominica requires a permit, which allows a maximum of three people plus a guide to be in the water with the whales at a time. Many of the permits funnel through Pernell, who over the past few years has been the fixer for some of the most profound images of sperm whales ever shot, photographs that have started to bring sperm whales to life in the public’s imagination, just as Physty did a generation ago, and Melville long before that. If there was a chance to contribute to that tradition, well, call me Ishmael.
Three miles north, Pernell lowers the hydrophone again. Whales, whales, whales.
There are fancy commercial hydrophones on the market, but Pernell rigged his own setup by wrapping neoprene around a metal salad bowl, drilling a hole in the center for the microphone, and bolting it to an aluminum painter’s pole. “I wouldn’t trade that hydrophone for the world,” he says. “That salad bowl has pinpoint accuracy.”
He plugs the device’s cord into a seafoam Aquatone amp, which in turn feeds into his headphones, and bends his head in concentration. He’s been at this since 2006, when he was in his early twenties and lucked into a position at the local dive shop. His first day on the job, in walks Shane Gero of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project. Gero needed a boat to look for whales, but the shop’s senior guides were holding out for diving gigs with big-tipping cruise-ship tours, so Pernell got stuck with the scientist. He loved the work, and Gero soon trained him to identify individual whales by telltale marks on their fins and flukes, and to keep track of which whales he encountered during the dive shop’s whale-watching tours.
He discovered that he had an uncanny ability to distinguish the distant clicks of sperm whales from the background crackle of the sea. Later he began running his own trips, and as word spread about the whale whisperer, he developed a client list of some of the world’s top wildlife photographers. He was even inducted into New York’s rarefied Explorers Club, which is how he met Gaelin.
Now he looks up, dark eyes twinkling. “I got ’em.” He microtunes the hydrophone. “West. West-northwest. It’s faint. At least three miles from us. We’ll have to listen again when we get close.”
“Let’s go,” says Captain Jerry, goosing the Southern Cross forward as flying fish skip out of our path.
Six miles offshore, a third listen. Thunder is tumbling over the ridges of the island, a train of showers rolling across the horizon. “Clicks from the west,” Pernell says. “Multiple animals. They’re getting louder.”
The art of finding sperm whales begins with listening, but it always comes down to Thar She Blows. While Gaelin and Stacy leap into action, zipping up wetsuits, triple-checking the seal on their Nauticam housing, adjusting ISO and aperture settings for the morning light, Pernell and I join Jerry on the flybridge, scanning the horizon for the white choo choo puff of a sperm whale’s breath.
“How far away can you spot a blow?” I ask Jerry.
“One mile,” he says. “That’s about the max.” Behind him, Pernell catches my eye, points at himself, and holds up two fingers. It’s not that he’s cocky so much as pleasantly surprised at the gift that has been bestowed on him.
Sure enough, before I’ve spotted anything, Pernell points. “Whale up!”
I’ve seen a lot of humpbacks in my life. This looks nothing like that. Two neoprene-gray cylinders glide just beneath the surface like U-boats, the bulbs of their blowholes rising and falling as they swim. Jerry passes them in the Southern Cross, careful not to cut across their path, then throws the engines into neutral. “Go, go, go!”
Gaelin lifts the two-handled housing on her Nikon, leaps off the stern, and heads for the whales, camera out front. Stacy drops behind, shooting 4K video. I yank on my fins and mask and flop over the side with a GoPro to get video of the women at work. It’s not lost on me that the story of these intensely matrilineal whale communities is being told by a mother and daughter who have been best buds for decades.
Pernell has briefed us on the etiquette of swimming with whales. Their needs come first. If whales actively avoid swimmers, we leave them alone. Most of the time, they’ve got shit to do. Kids to take care of, messages to check, squid to catch. When they see you, they’ll turn and speed past. Do not chase them. It might spook them. Besides, they’ll leave you in the dust. If they want to interact, they’ll come over. Be ready.
I’m kicking to catch up and double-checking that the GoPro is recording when I look ahead and, good God, 15 tons of gargantuan weirdness is coming at me with purpose. Its head is a wedge for cutting through the deep, its toothy jaw is impossibly underslung, its back half is a colossal tail grooved with deep furrows that make the whole whale look like a 30-foot dill pickle. And there’s no getting out of the way. Call me fishmeal.
Just as I’m bracing for collision, a wall of whale shoots past, so close I feel shock waves. The giant eye, the crackle of intelligence, the heft, then it’s gone, and I’m left bobbing in the blue with an urge to find the nearest cave wall so I can paint its image again and again by torchlight.
Back on the boat, Pernell is stoked. “I know these whales!” he says. “We’ve been seeing them for the past month. They aren’t named yet. I just call them the Strangers. And these are two of the most interactive whales in their group.”
He pulls out his notebook and jots down the date, coordinates, and individual identities of our sighting. He does this for every encounter, adding photos of flukes and fins, and provides much of his data to the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, which has become one of the world’s most comprehensive studies of sperm whale society. Over the years, Pernell has come to know the whales personally. Pinchy, who likes to cruise around with her mouth open. Snow Woman, who has three nicks on her dorsal fin. Fruit Salad, her daughter Soursop, and Soursop’s new calf, Ariel—three generations swimming side by side.
Each group is an extended family unit. The Atwood Collective includes Lady Oracle, her daughters Aurora and Rounder, son Allan, and grandchild Accra. The Utensils group (named for their distinctive marks) includes Knife, Fork, and Canopener. The Group of Seven is helmed by Fingers (mother of Digit and Thumb) and Pinchy (mother of Tweak and Scar). When the Group of Seven was first identified in 2005, it had that many members. But at some point in the early 2010s, the family suffered a mysterious tragedy and was reduced to three: Fingers, Pinchy, and Digit, and Pinchy had been injured by a small boat.
Although he is just beginning to decipher the family dynamics of the Strangers, Pernell has already noticed the bulging sides on the whale who checked us out: “She’s pregnant.” Last month, he says, his group of swimmers included a pregnant woman. “I was curious how the whales would react, and we encountered this same whale. It was like the whale knew she was pregnant and thought, OK, we’re on the same page. I’m gonna hang with you.”
Forty minutes from the time our whales dived, Pernell positions us about a mile from where they went down, in the same direction they were headed. He lowers his hydrophone and hits pay dirt. “I’ve got codas southwest of us.” He keeps listening. “Clicks!” The clicks are loud and close, and Pernell looks perplexed. “Jerry, no whales on the surface?”
He scrunches his eyebrows. “Well, I got clicks. Right here.”
Suddenly, there’s an explosion of water behind the boat and a big whale blow. The pregnant Stranger has come calling.
“Get in the water!” Jerry shouts. “She’s coming to the boat!”
No joke. By the time we pull on fins and flop over the side, she’s waiting for us, broadcasting her clan’s coda like a greeting: Click, click, clickclickclick. Click, click, clickclickclick. It sounds like a spinning bicycle wheel.
She parks beside the boat and lets us swim around her like otters. Gaelin is photographing her preeminent tremendousness, Stacy is shooting Gaelin, Pernell is tooling around with a selfie stick, and I’m trying to capture them all.
With a half-spin, the Stranger twists her giant body with exquisite grace, careful not to smack any of us with her ten-foot flukes. She goes vertical and opens her mouth.
Gaelin is floating directly above her, shooting down. It looks eerily like the classic Jaws poster, and suddenly I remember that this creature eats things for lunch that are a lot bigger than Gaelin. Her teeth are the size of a T. rex’s, and Gaelin is practically in her mouth already, photographing scars left from battles with monster squid. It should be terrifying—would have been for Melville—but it’s abundantly clear that she’s going out of her way not to hurt us. In fact, I couldn’t find a single recorded incident of a sperm whale attacking a person who wasn’t trying to harpoon it.
The Stranger pirouettes again, and the water fills with rapid-fire clicks, as if someone is waving a Geiger counter around my head. She’s scanning us. She can probably see our bones. Can probably tell what we had for breakfast. Can conceivably discern if we’re scared or elated. I find myself wondering if she recognizes Pernell from other encounters. If she knows that Stacy and Gaelin are mother and daughter.
It’s easy to see how the animals got their reputation for ferociousness—“the most formidable of all whales to encounter,” in Melville’s words.
Eventually, the Stranger’s three-inch eye falls upon me, and again I feel that surge of primal fervor. I also feel humbled and privileged, like I’m being granted a gift I don’t deserve.
But it’s not a warm and fuzzy moment. In fact, it’s deeply unsettling. Does she know that we are the ones that put the plastic in the oceans? That drive the boats that ran her kind down? That we’re the descendants of the creatures that turned her ancestors into candles and engine grease?
Honestly, I have no idea. I sense nothing beyond profound intelligence and profound otherness. From three feet away, I feel the chasm between us, and I think she does, too. Why are you here? I want to ask. And from across the chasm, the question echoes back.
In the days to come, we’ll encounter dozens of whales. Pernell will get his data. Gaelin will get her footage. But those experiences won’t be like this one. Although some whales will come to hang out briefly, others will avoid us, turning or diving when we get too close, to the point where I see how it could get out of hand with a less conscientious group of divers. Even the Stranger will give us the cold shoulder in future encounters, which makes me wonder if I’m an underwhelming emissary for my species. Again I think of that New Yorker cartoon. Swimming with humans may have been on her bucket list, but whatever she saw apparently wasn’t life changing.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.