Skjervoy, Norway. Winter Herring migration and Orca and Humpback whale feeding (Photo: Pete McBride)
The Daily Rally

Pete McBride Listens for the Sound of Wild Silence

On an expedition to the arctic, the adventure photographer got a lesson from an orca on what happens when we really tune into nature

Pete McBride

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Pete McBride told his story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.

This giant male orca with a six-foot-high dorsal fin, taller than I am, swims at me. We lock eyes, about eight feet away. And I get a thwack.

Most people call me Pedro. My grandfather was born in Guatemala, and I have an affinity for all things Latin culture.
I am a visual storyteller. I also do a lot of public speaking and some writing.

The scene is March 20th, 2020. I was sitting on South Georgia Island, which is the Galapagos of Antarctica, surrounded by 200,000 squawking penguins that were making more noise than you can imagine. Penguins, interestingly, identify their young and their mates through sound, not sight. So they’re trying to stay safe, and they have this amazing little haven and habitat at the bottom of the world.

I had gone down there to be a speaker on a boat, but the minute we got there, we were told we better come back as all ports are closing, the world’s locking down.

So we turned around into what is called the Mount Everest of ocean crossings, and powered into the big 40-foot swells, and went back to the tip of Argentina to then get on planes, trains, and automobiles.

I was getting on my fifth flight to get home where I live in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, and I arrived at Chicago and noticed that I’m the only person in security, in passport control, the whole thing. I’m like, Wow, I knew things had been changing with COVID but suddenly everything came screeching to a halt. And I had been in the middle of nowhere listening to penguins, so I’d kind of missed the memo. So had the penguins.

I’m walking to my gate, and as I’m approaching the gate, I hear the loudspeaker come on. “Passenger McBride, passenger McBride, please report to Gate 29.” I was like, Oh, great, great they’re gonna tell me they’ve got a voucher for me to stay at the weird, creepy hotel with nobody in it.

I walk over there and the lady looks up and goes, “Passenger McBride?” I was like, “Yeah, that’s me.” She goes, “Congratulations, you will be the only passenger on this flight.”

So I got on the flight, flew back to Colorado, and we went into global pandemic lockdown. It sucked for humans on many levels. But it was an amazing moment for nature because we have created a very noisy planet, wildlife suddenly were like, “Oh my God, I couldn’t hear in that party. How are you doing?”

And that made me really start thinking about it, and collating all my imagery over 20 years, to do a project called Seeing Silence.

I was able to pitch a story and go into the polar night, when the sun doesn’t come above the horizon and get into the very inky, cold, arctic sea in a very thick wetsuit with my cameras and try if I was lucky to see and hear the orca that were coming for their mass migration, because researchers have been telling me that they have been having more conversations with themselves in the water. And that was because all the shipping lanes had gone quiet.

So it’s like one in the afternoon. It’s dark, sunset light, and my cameras barely work. The water temperature is 36 degrees Fahrenheit. This pod we’ve been following very peacefully and not disturbing them. They were relaxed. They were starting to feed on herring. And I see a female below me just sort of hanging, and then I suddenly pull my head up, and above the horizon is a giant dorsal fin coming my way.

I take the biggest breath I can and I dive down with my long flippers, and I’ve got my camera and I’m diving into this abyss of darkness. This giant male orca swims at me and we lock eyes and right as we lock eyes, I get a thwack.

It’s a silent thwack, and my heart just goes thump-thump, and I realize that he is trying to identify me and check me out with his best communication device, which is sonar. Sonar is quiet. But it’s really powerful, especially when it comes from a 25-foot-long, 12-ton orca.

Their brain is 33 percent larger than ours, which is the frontal cortex, which enables them to have sonar and communicate so well. They’re really remarkable, and we don’t know very much about them. But to see that ballet underwater and to hear it, I think we have completely forgotten about that side. We have turned nature into a backdrop for our social media, and we forget how much mother nature actually can say or sing if we stop and listen.

I will make sure I stop and put my cameras down and take a memory photo as I call them. I convince my friends around me to take a moment of silence and listen. It’s amazing how hard it is at first, and then how everyone loves it and talks about it later.

If we can go into our wild places and take back just a little bit of silence, just a little jar of silence that we keep inside our heart or our head, or wherever you need to. I think it’s an important healing metaphor tool to remind us to stop and listen.

Pete McBride has traveled to over 75 countries on assignment for publications including Outside, National Geographic, and Esquire. He has produced a number of documentaries and films detailing the rivers of the American Southwest. His most recent book, Seeing Sound, was selected as one of the top photo books of 2021. Learn more about Pete and his

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