In 2009 Kate Miller made a documentary for the Marine Mammal Conservation through the Arts organisation about underwater photographer Bryant Austin and his project to take the first high-resolution life-size photographs of whales.
Austin’s are the largest and most detailed images of whales ever produced, and they are a powerful tool in the study of whales in their natural habitat, since our ability to comprehend and communicate with these awesome animals is limited. As more and more species become critically endangered, Austin’s huge, arresting visual work demands that we take into consideration the lives of the planet’s giants and their importance in our shared eco-system. Their humbling size fills the viewer with wonder.
I admire not only the mission of Austin’s work, but especially the ethics of what he does. He free-dives with select groups of whales for a long time before he photographs them, getting to know them and their every movement, expression, pattern of behaviour. Then, when he is ready to photograph them, he never gets more than 6 ft. close to them with equipment; the whales respond by carefully avoiding crashing into him and ensuring their fins and flukes don’t put him at risk. He only ever touches them they ask him to - as he explains in the film. It’s work that combines a deep passion for both the subject of his enquiry and his own production, with respect and care for the environment and the individuals who operate in it.
The story of how and why he dropped everything to devote himself to this project is told in the film. It’s incredibly touching, and given my recent experiences with whales, I find it totally understandable. God knows I’m tempted to do the same right now.
Gray Whale Studies series: 1. pregnant gray whale; 2. gray whale mother with newborn calf; 3. grey whale mother with weeks old calf - photo via NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center
I have been reading - surprise, surprise - a rather good popular science book about whale behaviour, unusually written from the perspective of a female author and mother. A few select bits from the current chapter fit today’s celebrations of motherhood rather well:
Once she is sexually mature, a gray whale gives birth to a calf every other year. Which means that in every twenty-four-month cycle, she’s pregnant or lactating 80 percent of the time. Despite the impressive caloric demand, she virtually fasts (or eats very little) from the time she begins her migration south until she returns to the northern feeding grounds six months later. So a pregnant female arriving in the Baja Mexico lagoons in the first part of January won’t get back to food until May. She will fast that whole time and deliver a one-ton baby and feed it with milk that is 50 percent fat. The energy demands are staggering. (…)
The ocean is not an easy place to be a baby - or a single mother. Cetaceans are the only group of mammals to evolve in a habitat where there are so few places to hide. Individuals of some dolphin or whale species try to escape particular predators by swimming close to the shore or diving deep, but for most cetaceans, the only refuge from predators is found in group living. Gray whale mothers gather in the thousands along the Baja Peninsula’s four major calvin lagoons - Laguna Guerrero Negro, Laguna Ojo de Liebre (formerly known as Scammon’s Lagoon), Laguna San Ignacio, and Bahia de Magdalena - to give birth, presumably because these bays offer protection from bad weather and from sharks and other large predators. (…)
Gray whale mothers and their calves stay in the lagoons for two months so that the babies can grow strong enough to migrate back. (…)
A gray whale calf depends entirely on its mother. She is the one who will nurse it, show it how to navigate one of the world’s busiest coastlines (Baja California) to the northern feeding grounds, and eventually, how to feed on its own.”
(Elin Kelsey, Watching Giants: The Secret Lives of Whales)
Motherhood in the ocean may be no easy feat, but motherhood on earth is no joke either. So happy mother’s day to all mothers, and to all mothers-to-be! As I look forward to being a mother one day soon, I admire your courage, dedication, and love more and more.
The only way my first whale-watching experience could have been better is an encounter like this one (photographed by Brian Skerry). Short of that, today exceed even my wildest expectations.
This morning there was so much freezing fog around Cape Cod bay that the cruise we were originally booked on was cancelled. We were told that the fog would lift around noon and that we could go on a later boat. I was skeptical because I had no idea that the weather in New England can change so dramatically and so quickly: at 11.45am a mild wind cleared the sky revealing a scorching sun, and we set off.
I expected that we would get to see a couple of whales, maybe two or three of the extremely endangered Northern Rights that, amazingly, came to graze on the local plankton in droves over the past few days. There are 436 Northern Right whales in the world: around 200 of them have been spotted in the waters of the Stellwagen Marine Sanctuary and feeding just a few hundred metres away from the shore (yesterday we saw about a dozen of them in the distance). Today from the boat I saw 37 of them, and one of the even breached - the professional researchers and consummate whale-watchers in our party said they had never seen a sight like that.
At that point my first-time whale-watcher’s wishes had already been well and truly satisfied, but there was more to come: two Minke whales appeared - lean and fast, they accompanied the grazing Northern Rights up and down along the coastal line. And then four Humpbacks - the most playful and spectacular whales to behold - dived and sounded deep, jumping up in a massive splash of water, and descending with a show of mighty black and white flukes. But the greatest and most impressive sight of all were two Finbacks, mother and calf: the second largest animals on the planet (after the blue whale) made an incredible showing. The mother was huge, slow, considerate; she swam along just to make sure the calf didn’t get into trouble. The calf was exuberant and fearless: with a few frolicsome moves he lunged so close to the boat and so near the surface that we could see his full length before he dived underneath us. It took my breath away.
After this experience I can totally see why some people drop everything and devote themselves to the study and preservation of whales. I myself felt seriously tempted. I know from reading a lot about whales that they are amazing and mysterious creatures, but the whole human range of linguistic superlatives rather fails to translate the feeling of an encounter with them. I had the clearest sense that we thought we were watching them, but really they were watching us.
There are only a few hundred right whales in the North Atlantic, but this year beachgoers in Cape Cod have been treated to a rare sight — at least 100 of the endangered creatures have been counted in the area, grazing in mass just off the shoreline.
"The current must be piling the plankton up," said Charles "Stormy" Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies. "[There’s] a patch of food, of unbelievable richness that’s just stretching right along this edge."
The unusually high abundance of plankton this year, numbering in the tens of thousands, is making for a delicious feast for the whales and a special sight for enthusiasts of this rare mammal.
We saw dozens of these guys last night, spouting, breaching, flapping their enormous black flukes on the water just yards off the coast at Race Point Beach, Cape Cod, MA.
They were my first whales, and the sheer emotion of it can’t be put into words.