At about this time last year I visited the little island nation of Sri Lanka with ambitious intent. To photograph a blue whale underwater. From the perspective of a photographer aiming for a particular image, the journey was a complete failure. I managed to get three dim, indistinct images of a blur that was somewhat shaped like a whale. I was dejected. But I kept my eyes open and in the end the ocean, as always, revealed other gems well worth remembering.
Ironically, the search for the largest life form on the planet initially yielded more dead creatures than live ones. The Trincomalee coastline was littered with the carcasses of dead fish – mostly porcupinefish, pufferfish, boxfish and cowfish.
A dead cowfish
A porcupinefish carcass on the Trincomalee beach
Our first days out at sea proved empty. A discarded wooden pallet provided refuge for many little fish and crabs – a tiny, fleeting bit of security in a vast and otherwise seemingly barren sea. A passing fishing boat had a manta ray tied off the stern. The bleeding, exhausted animal was too large and heavy to haul on board. Furthermore, keeping the ray in the water and dragging it back to the fish-landing jetties ensured that the meat remained fresh until the fishermen reached shore.
A manta ray caught by fishermen is dragged back to shore tied to the rear of the boat
Manta rays are still actively hunted across Sri Lanka
The largest creature in the history of the world proved absurdly difficult to find and photograph. Over eight days out at sea, for nine hours every day, we spotted just two individuals. And therein lies some perspective. Blue Whales can grow to approximately 30 meters in length, with the larger measured specimens topping out at 33 meters! They weigh anywhere between 150 – 180 metric tons, nearly double the weight of the largest known dinosaurs. So even average sized blues are bigger than the biggest buses that ply the streets of Trincomalee. They reach the surface with loud exhalations that can be heard quite a distance downwind, emitting a vertical spout anywhere between 7 – 9 meters high. One would think that spotting a blue whale would be easy enough.
But then this behemoth slips quietly away into the vast ocean space, and a creature that makes us feel very tiny becomes a miniscule needle in an unfathomably large haystack. Perspective.
Blue whales generally cruise along at about 18 – 20 kilometers per hour, speeding up to 50 kmph over short bursts and slowing down when feeding. Along the surface, if their exhalations are shallower, one often sees little more than a sliver of grey breaking through the water. The individuals we observed off Trincomalee disappeared for 8 – 10 minutes on shorter dives and 17 – 19 minutes on longer dives. These factors, combined with the minor detail that just 3 or 4 fin-strokes allow these giants to traverse an entire football field, pose a significant problem to anybody trying to keep track of the giant miniscule needle in the ocean-sized haystack. And more so if those doing the tracking are on a little 15-foot-long fiberglass boat with a 40hp outboard engine. And so one quickly began to realize just how easy it was to lose a giant blue whale.
The marine giant presents only a sliver of itself above the surface
So began an exercise that borders on insanity and near-futility, with a healthy dose of blind faith, good timing and a modicum of despair thrown in for good measure. Add a very low chance of success and the realities of trying to swim with a blue whale become a little clearer. As the despair of spending hours on an endless sea with nary a blue in sight began to kick in, one of us was lucky enough to spot the exhalation spout of a whale in the distance. The mood on the boat shifted instantly from morose to manic. The boat driver gunned the 40hp outboard, which screamed its objections to the wind. As we picked up speed our little fiberglass boat – fondly christened The Ballbanger – bounced along the surface of the sea, its hull slamming up and down on the choppy water. Trying to keep one eye on the blue whale’s next exhalation spout and one hand on the back of our seats hanging on for dear life, we simultaneously attempted to don mask, snorkel and fins while also positioning ourselves and our cameras for an entry into the sea. I quickly gave up all hope of fathering any children.
The morose that progressed to manic then progressed to madness. As we barely managed to catch up with the whale, each of the four of us on the boat half-stood, pressing the front of our thighs on the side of the boat closest to us. Gripping my camera with one hand and pretty much anything else on the boat with the other to ensure that I was not ejected from the bouncing craft, I was then supposed to relax my breathing and prepare my body for a free dive. Our boat driver managed to maneuver us into the path of the swimming giant and each of us – masks on and snorkels in our mouths – watched this largest of earth’s inhabitants bearing down upon our little boat. Our time in the water with this creature depended quite significantly on where exactly we stopped our boat and on timing our entry into the water. Too early and the whale would simply veer off slightly and pass beyond our range of visibility. Too late and the diving whale would be too deep. I tuned out the screaming engine, the slapping of the boat on the water, the yammering of my mind that went something like, “oh shit blue whale coming blue whale coming” and began a long, slow exhalation. The shoulders and blowhole of the whale emerged from the water about 40 meters away. I timed my long inhalation with his and slid – camera first, seal-like – into the water. The whale was aware of our presence all along and, shy as these giants can be, began its dive away from the surface as soon as we entered the water. Finning downwards into the bottomless blue I got my first glimpse of a blue whale underwater.
Nothing and nobody in the world could have prepared me for this moment. Prior conversations with my friend Joshua – who has done this many times before – covered camera settings, entry techniques and all manner of warnings about how quickly one had to react. But I happily left all that information behind on the surface.
The long, sleek body that emerged from the blue water in front of me was enormous. The odd U-shaped front with twin blowholes – now closed against the surrounding swirling water – came into full view as the whale hunched its back and dipped its head in preparation for its dive. In retrospect I now realize that I had frozen. There was a distinct passing of time in which my mind was simply struggling for comprehension. If words had to be put to what one cannot even properly define as full-fledged thought, they would be – HOLY CRAP, enormous, OHMYGODHOMYGOD, alien, really?, WHAT?!!
The massive creature barreled its way towards the deep without so much as a whisper. All the expected sounds of rushing, swirling, churning water – the Hollywood studio whooshes and swooshes – gave way to stillness. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, still about 8 meters underwater and holding my breath I suddenly realized that I had a camera in my hand. I jammed down on the shutter, but the ah-ha moment had long since passed. The whale had turned its side to me and was sinking fast, merging into the darker blue waters below.
In February 2013, that moment was my moment with a blue whale. As a photographer I failed miserably at capturing anything I would consider usable. As a sentient being sharing this planet with this animal I was overflowing with mental images, thoughts and sensations that little of this verbose blogpost can fully describe. I emerged from that dive and for a few moments was unable to react to anybody or anything around me. I was still processing and would continue to do so for a few days hence.
Blue whales are shy, reclusive creatures that can disappear easily into the vastness of the ocean
The photographer in me has never given topmost priority to an image above everything else. Perhaps this makes me less likely to get a job with National Geographic, but it is the way I prefer to interact with the natural world that inspires me. Animal, moment, and mutual energies first. Image second. But every earnest wildlife photographer has a mental list of the missed opportunities. And the human mind being what it is, these missed opportunities can sometimes play themselves over and over in one’s head. We did not get any more time in the water with a blue whale for the remainder of our trip to Trincomalee. And nine hours out at sea, day after day, is a long time for the mind to dwell upon missed opportunities. And so I found myself hoping fervently for another chance, and watching the reality of that slip slowly away as one hour of floating on the sea many kilometers off Trincomalee became one day. One day became three, five, seven and soon it was our last day out – our last chance to find another blue whale for this trip.
We did spot our second whale on the surface that day, but he would have none of it. No brief encounter with crazy fans eager to get a fleeting glimpse of him underwater. With a second exhalation spout that emerged way off near the horizon after an 18-minute dive, the blue simply disappeared. And that was that. Blue. All of us.
Over the preceding days we had got into the water to check out drifting fishing buoys, debris that formed islands of refuge for fish and crabs, and anything else that was of interest – anything that broke the monotony of a soundless sea, searing sunshine and silence. On this last day we took turns half-heartedly scanning the water. We ate sandwiches and applied sunscreen and spoke to a couple of passing fishermen. Inwardly I knew that my time with the whales of Trincomalee was done. Sometimes you just know. And then a movement in the distance caught our attention. Terns hovered over a patch of disturbed water. Fish thrashed about and leaped out of the sea in the rising-crescendo dance between predator and prey. And then, from the midst of the liquid flurry the grey, sleek body of a spinner dolphin emerged. It somersaulted, twisted and splashed back into the water with the giddy exuberance that only a spinner dolphin can muster.
Spinner dolphins. 60 kgs of sheer exuberance
The rest of the afternoon was spent playing tag with the dolphins. They rushed to the bow of our boat from all directions and rode the bow wave as we cruised along. Jumping out of the water in front of us they twisted their bodies to get a better look at the people leaning over the front of the boat. They would then get distracted by a passing fishing boat and go chasing after fish that were being hauled up by the fishermen. Then they would return to play with our boat. After some time spent photographing them leaping and twisting out of the sea we tried to get into the water with them. But the dolphins in this part of the world are wary of human beings. The spinners immediately increased their distance from us, staying just outside our visibility. We could hear them squeaking and clicking, using their sonar to “look” at us. But we couldn’t see them.
The moment we got back on the boat and began to move along, they returned to playing on the bow wave and jumping out to look at us. This was behaviour that all of us were familiar with. Unlike places like Kona, Hawaii where the spinners come right up to snorkelers and divers, the dolphins around India and Sri Lanka are shy of people in the water. I’d like to ask them why. They seem to have no problem coming within a few feet of a person sitting on the front of a moving boat, legs dangling in the water. But jump in the water and more often than not the dolphins will retreat just out of sight. Joshua – an unorthodox photographer friend with much whale expedition experience – had brought along a rock-climbing harness that he had wanted to try specifically in this sort of situation. To see the dolphins in the water we would have to keep the boat moving. And so we took turns getting strapped into the harness and being dragged along the side of the boat. And what do you know! It worked. The dolphins didn’t come right up to the bow wave because of this new bobbing, gasping creature by the side of the boat. Instead they came in for close, quick passes madly squeaking away at us. As long as the boat was moving, they seemed comfortable enough to allow their curiosity to get the better of them. With my mask and snorkel shuddering in the rushing water and the precarious positioning of one knee against the side-bottom of the moving boat (not nearly as far from the propeller as I would have liked) it took some time to get comfortable.
And then a cinema of dreams began. In the clear deep blue waters off the Sri Lankan continental shelf shafts of sunlight danced down towards the depth. Against this ethereal backdrop dolphins swam through the water, their blue-grey bodies pulsating with a runaway delight that matched their smiles. Some swam in groups, the smaller ones shadowing the adults closely. Others swam alone or in pairs. But all of them spoke to each other constantly, and all of them were keenly aware of our eyes watching them as they watched us back. They snatched quick breaths at the surface and then dived down, angling themselves slightly below the boat and then turning on their sides to look at us. Some dived deep below the boat and we could see them as much as 50 meters beneath us in the clear water, sunlight dancing off their backs.
Spinner dolphins off Trincomalee
Dolphins and sunlight
Back on the boat it took some time to catch our breaths from all the saltwater we had gagged on with our feeble grips on our vibrating snorkels. But all discomfort aside, the dolphins had done what they always seem able to do. Elicit a smile. It is difficult to watch a free-swimming dolphin in the wild and not share an inward smile for its seemingly constant joy in simply being a dolphin swimming in the sea. And therein too lies some perspective.
Looking west from Trincomalee. There are blue whales out there somewhere
I went to the little island nation of Sri Lanka at about this time last year. I swam with dolphins that made me smile. I saw a manta ray on the way to its death that made me sad. I snorkeled with a blue whale – briefly – and failed to photograph it. And I came away with a hole in my wallet, some photos of beautiful spinners and an image of a blue whale in my head that I would have to wait another year to try my hands at again.