Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast.
Michael Roberts (host): For a good number of travelers, the ultimate bucket list experience is swimming with whales. There’s something about the idea of being in the water—or under the water—with these enormous creatures that calls to people.
And if you talk to someone who has swam with whales, especially someone who just recently swam with whales -- there’s a good chance they’ll tell you it changed their life.
This is true even for veteran adventurers who’ve seen it all—people like Outside Magazine contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen, whose past assignments for us include a journey to the Amazon to seek out the source of the world’s greatest chocolate. Last fall, Rowan joined a small crew in the Caribbean that was filming and studying sperm whales by getting in the water with them. As he writes in his feature story in Outside’s June/July issue, he had no delusions that swimming with the animals would heal him, or transform him. But he was intensely curious and certain that he would learn… something from being very, very close to these legendary giants of the sea.
I’ll let Rowan take it from here.
Rowan Jacobsen: It’s an early November morning, and I’m in a sportfishing boat a few miles off the coast of Dominica, an island in the Caribbean between Martinique and Guadeloupe. It’s basically this giant mountain in the sea, super green, super beautiful, and right now the sun is rising above it, the air is calm, and the sea is crazy blue, and if all goes well, I’ll soon be in it with some of the sperm whales that live off of Dominica’s coast. I’m with Pernell Francis, a sperm whale expert from the island, and Gaelin Rosenwaks, who’s -- well, best to let her describe herself.
Gaelin Rosenwaks: I'm a Marine scientist, photographer, and filmmaker. Ocean storyteller. Explorer. Hard to define by one word.
Jacobsen: Gaelin has a company called Global Ocean Exploration that tells the stories of scientific expeditions through words, photographs, and video. She’s documented trips to the Arctic, she’s made a short film about corals in Palau, she’s been to the bottom of Belize’s Blue Hole in a submarine. She gets around.
Her new film project is about sperm whales, and Dominica is one of the best places on earth to find them. For that though, we’re counting on Pernell Francis, a local Dominican who has been tracking them in these waters for 16 years. To do that, he uses a hydrophone, which is an underwater microphone. It’s like a little satellite dish on the end of a long handle that you can lower into the water, and then you listen through your headphones.
Pernell Francis: (waves in the background) Okay, right now I’ve got the hydrophone in, and I’m trying to locate the echolocation sounds of the sperm whales. So it basically gives me the general direction of where the loudest sounds are coming from once I get them.
Jacobsen: Sperm whales communicate through a complex language of sonic clicks. They can hear each other across miles of ocean, and Pernell has actually been called the Whale Whisperer for his ability to distinguish these sounds from the background crackle of the sea.=
Rosenwaks: Basically, he’ll turn it every direction he thinks the whales could be. So we’re three miles offshore, so north-south-east-west, and if he hears whales, that’ll determine which direction we go.
Jacobsen: (to Rosenwaks) And how are you feeling? You feeling optimistic?
Rosenwaks: I’m feeling optimistic. I’m always optimistic. It’s a beautiful day, nice and calm, we’ll be able to see the whales on the surface, blowing with their blowholes. So I’m feeling optimistic. Not overly optimistic. To hear whales the first time would be too good to be true. So, you know, maybe the second time.
Jacobsen: So you’re not expecting anything this time?
Rosenwaks: Low expectations! Kind of like the saying, underpromise and overdeliver.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) So those tempered expectations are because of last year, when she first tried to make this film. She booked five days with Pernell and lined up the necessary permits, all of which runs 3,000 bucks a day and got skunked. It rained like hell, the whales just weren’t around.
I’d met Gaelin a few months earlier at an ocean plastics summit. She told me about this project, and I pretty much begged my way aboard. I’ve been fascinated by sperm whales since I read Moby Dick as a teenager. They just seem so extreme. They’re the largest toothed whales, more like giant dolphins than humpbacks, and the only ones to have ever sunk a ship. Moby Dick was based on a real incident in which a 85-foot sperm whale destroyed a whaling ship. They’re also the ultimate free divers. They can plunge a mile deep in search of squid, using their echolocation like sonar to find their prey in total darkness.
To help amplify those sounds, their heads are filled with a viscous oil called spermaceti oil. That’s what made them the prime target of whalers. It was the perfect lubricant, and it was used in mills, locomotives, sewing machines, you name it. It greased the industrial revolution, and sperm whales were hunted all the way into the 1980s, which greatly reduced their numbers.
Sperm whales also have the largest brains on the planet, five times the size of our own, and the parts devoted to things like language, emotion, and social interaction are really robust. They live in these close knit groups of grandmothers, mothers, aunties, and kids. The males leave the groups when they’re mature and roam the ocean. But the females stick with their families for life, and they’re pretty tight. They babysit each other’s kids. They even nurse nephews and nieces.
So instead of setting whalers after them, we probably should have sent anthropologists. And, in a way, that’s what the trip is about. Gaelen wants people to get to know them a little bit.
Now we just need to find them. I try to read Pernell’s face as he listens through the headphones, but he’s not giving anything away.
Finally he looks up, and the verdict isn’t good.
Rosenwaks: Alright fellas, what’s the word?
Francis: The first station seems to be quiet. There’s nothing within three and a half miles of the hydrophone. So we’re gonna keep going north, and we’re gonna do another station shortly.
Jacobsen: We all sag a little, but...hey, it’s still early.
We motor through the morning. Our captain, Jerry, is playing some reggae through the ship speakers, the day’s heating up, clouds are forming over the island’s peaks. Dominica is surrounded by these deep underwater canyons filled with squid. Which is the whales’ favorite food.
When they hunt, the whales stay down for nearly an hour, then they’ll come to the surface, catch their breath for ten or fifteen minutes, then do it all over again. Pernell has to track their sounds, then position the boat where he thinks they might come up.
(to Francis) And how did you get involved with all this to begin with?
Francis: Oh man. Crazy story. So before I started being out on the ocean, I worked at a local brewery and then I lost that job. And then I had a friend of mine that we used to hang out that worked at a dive shop and he's like, okay, I'm going to get you a job at the dive shop. So he got me an interview with the guy that was running the dive shop and the guy called me in and on my very first day, which I consider a blessing, here walks in Shane Gero, my very first day at the job.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) Shane Gero is the founder of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, which has been studying these whales since 2005.
Francis: And he wanted to charter the little Boston Whaler that the dive shop had, but none of the guys in the dive shop wanted to go out with him because they all wanted to do the cruise ship tours and get the tips. So the boss looked at me and he's like, okay, you are with Shane today.
Jacobsen: At that time, Pernell had never even driven a boat before. But Gero said, don’t worry, you’ll learn.
Francis: And we encountered a huge group of whales. Huge. Shane looked at me and he's like, Man, you're good luck.
Jacobsen: Pernell began working regularly with the Sperm Whale Project and learning research protocols. Eventually he became so well known for his whale whispering that he started his own guide service. Now, his client list is a Who’s Who of great marine photographers. He’s even become a member of New York’s Explorer’s Club, which is where he met Gaelin.
Gaelin herself had been obsessed with sperm whales since childhood, when a juvenile sperm whale tried to beach himself on Long Island, New York, where she lived. The whale was sick, so people towed it to a nearby boat basin and tried to rejuvenate it. The whale became a national sensation and got nicknamed Physty, which is short for Physeter macrocephalus, the scientific name for sperm whales.
Thousands of people came to see the whale, including Gaelin and her mom, Stacy, who is also on the boat with us and will be shooting a second camera for the film.
Stacy Rosenwaks: They had him in a pen, like a little blocked off area where they normally keep boats and things, but it was for Physty at this point. And you'd stand on the side, but you'd be right there next to him. I mean, you could see him, you could smell his breath, see his spray.
Jacobsen: At the time, there had never been a successful rescue of a sick whale, and the prognosis for Physty was not good.
S. Rosenwaks: They were trying to figure out what was wrong with it. They knew it had a problem, but they couldn't get a blood sample from it because they can retract their vein so they can't draw the blood. So finally they swabbed its blowhole and figured out that it had pneumonia. So they had to try to give it antibiotics. So what they did is they finally put the penicillin inside squid and tried to feed it, but it refused feeding at first. Finally, it got used to one of the vets that in a wetsuit was in the pen with it. And finally got it to start taking the squid with the penicillin. And then it worked. And Physty got better and got stronger. And as soon as he was strong enough, they let him back out to sea. And he swam away.
Jacobsen: That was in 1981, thousands of sperm whales were being harpooned and turned into engine grease. But The Save the Whales movement was gaining strength.
Today, like most other whale species, sperm whales protected by an international moratorium on commercial whaling, but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Many die from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglement, and an increasing number have been washing up worldwide with bellies full of plastic. Our relationship with them has definitely improved since the days of Moby Dick, but it’s still pretty dysfunctional.
Late in the morning, we stop so Pernell can get out the hydrophone, and I can’t help but notice that it’s homemade and seems to have a metal salad bowl for a dish?
Francis: I wouldn't trade that salad bowl hydrophone for the world. It's very well designed, I must say. So it's a paint pole, and there's like a frame, and the salad bowl is mounted on it. It's all covered in neoprene, the salad bowl, and there's a slot where the hydrophone actually slots in. What makes it so unique is that because it's not like very wide, it's pinpoint.
Jacobsen: (to Francis) Ahhhh. Yeah.
Is it very clear when you hear them?
Francis: It all depends how far they are away from me. The closer they are, the louder I’m going to pick them up on the hydrophone.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) Pernell lowers the hydrophone into the water and we all get real quiet.
(quiet waves in background)
Francis: Uh, I got them!
Jacobsen: To find sperm whales, you start off with hydrophones, but once you get close, it’s just good old-fashioned “thar she blows.”
We run a few miles and then Pernell spots these perfect white choo-choo puffs above the surface, and we close in. Most of the whales I’ve seen in my life up to now have been humpbacks, and these look nothing like that. They actually remind me of U-boats: two neoprene-gray cylinders gliding just beneath the surface, the bulbs of their blowholes rising and falling as they swim. Jerry passes them in the boat, a little off to the side.
(to Jerry): So what’s your strategy? Position yourself in front of the whale, but not directly in front of the whale?
Jerry: Not directly in front of it. Up to the side of it. I try to stay to the side of it. I try never to cut its path, you know?
Jacobsen: For the sake of the whale?
Jerry: Yeah. You don’t want it to change its course, you know?...Okay guys, go!
Jacobsen: Gaelin jumps off the back of the boat, camera out front. Stacy follows. I yank on my fins and mask and flop over the side with a GoPro.
Pernell has briefed us on whale etiquette. Don’t chase them. You might spook them. Besides, they’re way too fast. Let them come to you. Usually, they won’t. But every now and then, they get curious. Be ready....
So I guess I expect to see a couple of tails in the distance, waving goodbye, but instead I see a submarine headed straight toward Gaelin, and just when I think it’s going to ram into her, it slides by, and you can just tell they’re having some sort of a moment.
And then it heads for me. I’m frozen in the water. And it glides by like a silent freight train, close enough to touch. The huge eye settles on me, and I get this deep sense that I’m being checked out by this calm and confident intelligence...and then she flicks her tail and she’s gone....
Jacobsen: After our close-encounter with the whales, we get back on the boat, where Pernell is stoked. Turns out he knows these whales.
Francis: This is a group that we have been seeing here for the past month or two. I basically call them the strangers. They have not been named as yet individually. But the two animals that we just swam with,are two of the best animals in the unit. So what we're gonna do is we're gonna keep track of them.
Jacobsen: By “best,” Pernell means most interactive with humans. And he has another observation for us, too.
Francis: The one that was closest to us. She's pregnant.
Jacobsen: (to Francis) How can you tell?
Francis: You can see how, like, the belly area gets elongated in width.
Jacobsen: How many people out there can tell when a sperm whale’s pregnant?
Francis: Uh, I would say not very many.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) Part of the reason Pernell’s so excited about this particular whale is because he witnessed an amazing moment with her recently.
Francis: Earlier in the month we had a trip, and there was this pregnant lady on board the trip and I was really skeptical and curious at the same time as to how the whales were going to react to her being in the water. And we so happened to encounter this same group of whales that we presently have now, and that encounter with the pregnant lady was phenomenal. It was like, the whale knew that she was pregnant and she was like, okay, I'm going to hang with you because we're on the same page, and we're going to roll down the line together.
Jacobsen: The Sperm Whale Project keeps track of hundreds of individual whales, identifying them by marks on their flukes and fins. They even made an online Flukebook showing who’s related to whom. New whales will often be named for some defining physical feature, but honestly, the system’s pretty whimsical, as Pernell explained it to me during another part of our trip.
Francis: For example, in unit a, we have lady Auracle, Allen, which is a young male. We got Rounder. We got Aurora, which is a young calf. We got Acra as well, the young calf. We got Snow Woman. That's unit A. We got Fruit Salad as well in unit A. In the Group of Seven, we have like Pinchy, Fingers, Digit. In the Utensils we have Can Opener, Fork, Knife, okay? And, and they all have unique formations on the fluke. That's why we name them like that.
Jacobsen: (to Francis) What's Fruit Salad's unique formation?
Francis: Oh, well that one came from, uh, I guess the guys were having lunch on the boat. They were having a salad and they just named it Fruit Salad.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) All the whales have individual personalities. For example, Pernell never gets in the water with Fork or Knife, because they don’t like it. Digit, on the other hand, is a total cutup who loves to horse around.
An hour after the pregnant Stranger sounded, we position ourselves about a mile away in the direction she was headed. Pernell says she should be up any time. And sure enough, when he puts the hydrophone in the water he can hear her...somewhere.
Francis: I have a slow clicking whale. Codas. That is south of us. South southwest....Codas. Codas in shore of us. Clicks.
Jacobsen: Codas are combinations of clicks, almost like Morse code. Each clan of whales shares its own unique dialect of codas, which are passed down to their kids. It’s part of their identity.Based on the volume, the pregnant Stranger seem to be very close. Pernell hands me his headphones so I can listen.
(sound of Codas, clicking)
(to Francis) So it's like a little banging.
Francis: Okay. Yeah, there we go, there we go. Right on cue. Right on cue. Right on cue. Right on cue boy. Yeah.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) Suddenly, the Strangers pop out of the water right behind the boat.
(to Francis) You nailed it man.
Jerry: All right guys. Get ready let's get in the water. She's coming to the boat.
Jacobsen: (voiceover) No joke. She’s coming to the boat. We barely have time to hop in the water before she’s on us, and this time, she’s not going anywhere. She parks and lets the four of us swim around her. Ten minutes go by. Fifteen. Then she does a half spin, pirouetting in the water. Somehow she has such precise body control that she does it without smacking any of us. I definitely get the sense she’s being careful not to hurt us.
She goes vertical in the water, and opens her mouth. Gaelin is floating directly above her, shooting down.You know the classic poster of Jaws, with the woman on the surface and the giant shark shooting straight up at her, well, it kind of looks like that. She’s got teeth like a T. rex, and Gaelin is practically in her mouth, photographing scars left from battles with squid, and all I can think is that this whale eats things for breakfast that are a lot bigger than Gaelin.
But then the water fills with rapid-fire clicks, as if someone is waving a Geiger counter around my head.
She’s scanning us with her sonar. It’s like ultrasound. She can probably see our bones. Can conceivably tell if we’re scared or elated. Whatever’s going on, it feels...intimate.
Eventually, her huge eye falls on me, and we stare into each other. It is not a warm and fuzzy moment. From three feet away, I feel the chasm between us. I sense profound intelligence, yes, but also profound otherness. Why are you here, I want to ask her. And maybe she wants to ask me the same. However awkward this relationship, it feels like there’s something there. And it matters that we get it right.
Then again, I don’t know. In the days to come, we’ll encounter dozens of whales. Pernell will get his data. Gaelin will get her shots. But none of those experiences will be like this one. Most of those whales will swim away from us. Even the pregnant Stranger will give us the cold shoulder when we see her again, which feels kind of crushing, like not getting asked on a second date even though you thought the first went pretty well. I find myself rethinking our eye-to-eye moment. I was ready to give her my phone number, to get her Coda. I guess whatever she saw, she didn’t want a second look.
Michael Roberts: That’s Rowan Jacobsen, he produced this episode, which was also produced and edited by me, Michael Roberts, with music by Robbie Carver.
Rowan’s feature story about his journey to the waters off Dominica is in the June/July print issue of Outside Magazine. You can also read it online at outsideonline.com
Gaelin Rosenwaks is planning to complete her film this fall. You can learn more about her work at gaelinrosenwaks.com; that’s G-A-E-L-I-N-R-O-S-E-N-W-A-K-S DOT COM. Follow her on social media at @gaelingoexplore
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We’ll be back in two weeks.