It is my first diving day of three weeks in the Azores and I look at the sea from the RIB in the harbour of Lajes do Pico. It is great to be here in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and she is dressed in sparkling silver this day. Joao is fixing something back in the boat like skippers always do. Marianne, my assistant, is rigging all the stuff and finding ways to set up all cameras and boxes safely for a trip to the big sea.
We are going out to search the blue where the surface is the main reference and where it is 2 km deep. In a sensible way it is almost an absurd endeavor. First to find them, then jump into the ocean with them and then try to spend time with one of mother earth’s superheroes. It is touching the border of the unreal and it is of course exactly what I want to do. I am wrestling to get into the ”open cell” free diving suit I will be wearing every day. It is a bugger to put on. Early morning in Pico is surprisingly cold and specially as I have covered my entire naked skin in soap. This makes it easier to enter a suit with raw neoprene rubber on the inside. Joao is smiling at me in his warm skippers ”survivor suit”.
During these WWoE assignments I have developed an expertise in the art of freezing. A little bit like the Eskimos and the snow, I have at least a hundred different expressions for freezing - simply because there is at least a hundred different ways to freeze. This morning it is the ”early morning-soap and oily harbour water-putting on the free diving suit” chill. I utter a squeaky ”iiiiiiiiaaaaa” rather than the more normal uncomfortable ”ouuuuhaaaa” when freezing.
My thoughts drift to the pods of social leviathans out there while I still battle with the suit. The sperm whale is the biggest toothed animal on earth. A gargantuan animal with close to supernatural powers but they also live in complex social groups and their ways are not yet fully understood. One thing is understood though - me, a human free diver, will try to photograph the greatest diver ever seen, in its own element. I smile at the fact that a sperm whale can dive to 3000 meters for duration of up to 90 minutes on one breath of air. This perspective is dismissed by my brain as not productive and I just keep getting into my suit. The struggle makes me a bit warmer.
We set out. The boat is fast and we get a report from our vigia, Sidonio, via mobile where the action is right now. He is sitting in a tower on Pico scanning the sea with his ultra sharp eyes in a pair of binoculars and Joao looks at me and just says “Sperms”. Joao and Sidonio are in constant contact for a while and we find the right area. At a first glance the sea seems vast, empty and endless. But in reality it is on the contrary. It is full of distractions like dolphins, baleen whales, flying fish, turtles, pelagic fish (maybe even in bait balls), the great sunfish, hunting birds and much more. We have to stay in focus with the main target – sperm whales.
The first pod, 8 or 9 whales, does not let us approach. We struggle this day and the sperm whales we find are wary. Joao reads their behavior before we approach closer. No pod seems to be ready for in-water encounter but we keep looking all day. It is almost time to go back after 6 hours in the waves when a group shows a change in their behavior. “Get ready” is like sweet music in my ears. I slip into the great wide-open sea and in just a few minutes I find myself in front of nine sperm whales. They are traveling slowly on the surface. I stop, quickly look at the boat far way. Joao, my eye in the sky, is showing the sign stop and looks ahead. 9 huge whales start to visualize at the border of visibility. They swim side by side straight at me. I stop my movements and relax in the water and enjoy the view through the viewfinder. They are 10 meters away, still cruising, 5 meters away, 4, 3, now they all dip down and pass in slow slow motion under me.
They are all close together and now they are looking at me, scanning the little flipper man, with those long fins and a big shiny eye in the front. They almost freeze, briefly, and then slowly continue to pass under me. I stay in place knowing that swimming after them is a waste of time. It was a big group, in tight formation, a big start and some really happy frames. A slow day had just turned into a great day. This is typical for blue water shoots. I always have to be more than ready and the peak of action is almost always sudden and in short bursts.
So we set out like this every morning with the suit wrestling in the harbour and good hope. - This will be the best sperm whale day in my life, was my every day mantra. I even got a couple of ”best sperm whale days in my life” and all the other days had some special and unique happenings. After 14 free diving days my gathered material was by far exceeding my expectations. I was done and everything was in the box and the time to proceed to Faial for one week of scuba diving for marine life images was there.
So why I decided to take that extra day before moving to Faial I am not sure. Maybe it was the opening weather, maybe it was the numbers of sperm whales very close to shore, maybe it was that fantastic espresso with cinnamon that evening, or maybe it was just a lucky gut feeling. Even if I was flat out tired I booked an extra day out at sea instead of packing and getting organized to transfer to the neighboring island.
That day turned out to be something that not even my vivid fantasy could create. The first two morning hours the surface was dead flat. A mirror. No relaxing sperms reported from the vigia tower so we found a huge school of pilot whales to work with. This day was different than the days before with them. The pilots were super relaxed. All animals (sperm whales, pilot whales and Risso’s and common dolphins) were close to shore and my theory is that they all had full stomachs after an early morning squid feast. Even the big pilot whale bulls let me swim close to the little ones. I spent hours in the water with them until my legs felt like two stiff logs and my camera started to blink ”full”.
I surfaced with a metallic taste in my mouth and it felt like I was spitting blood. Exhausted. It was almost a relief that the pod took off when I reloaded a new CF card in the boat. I drank a lot of water, caught my breath, re-rigged the UW-camera when the sperm whale bonanza started. Three whales surfaced dramatically ”out of the blue” next to the boat. They came in high speed from the deep creating a surprise burst of water. I almost dropped one camera as these big animals literally flew up in the air when surfacing. I got organized, got in and swam with these deep divers and they were relaxed, approachable and maybe happy with full stomachs. Joao signaled to me another big group not far away. Maybe 9 or 10 and their behavior told us straight away that they were relaxing big time and enjoying their time together. Socializing whales – let’s relocate!
They had for sure no feeding on their agenda. The wind was picking up a little bit and Joao put me in the water very far away from them, up wind. I slowly drifted towards the group. They had stopped moving at all and I drifted into a group of slumbering giants. Most of them standing head up, some head down. The biggest one, maybe 15 meters long, was now just two meters away looking at me. Minutes passed and her head-up position made her a bit more approachable. Then she closed her eye as if going to sleep. While eyes shut she surfaced in head up position and blew her lungs clean right beside me. The sound was just awesome and made all my limbs feel like jellyfish. Water sprinkled over me like rain.
I spent 50 minutes together with the whales. They were acting like they were resting in each other’s company. They were completely silent, most of them hovering, but some swam momentarily under me, up to me, away from me. And I swam around amongst them. They just let me be there. I ended up at some point far down current and quickly lost contact with the group. It was over. I left the bubble, the time capsule, their world. Straight away it felt like a dream. I have to admit it is my best-spent 50 minutes in a neoprene suit.
When Joao and Marianne picked me up they just smiled from ear to ear from the boat. I remember getting up and we all looked at each other. Nobody says anything for a moment. Then Joao goes – Magnus that was something! Then we just laughed. My arms were still a bit jellified but I managed to change CF card again and swapped to the fisheye lens to have a 180-degree diagonal coverage. I found the 12 mm I had on was not wide enough on some occasions. We waited for a while and then I did another drop almost ashamed to ask for more. We did the same thing, starting far way, and then drift in with the wind.
It was like deja vu with a turbo. They slept, relaxed, played and I was allowed in again. I fired away with the 10,5 mm fisheye lens. It was a deeper experience this time as I could take in the scene and enjoy, actually think, see and be constructive in a more aware way. They let me spend almost another hour with them. For a long period of time I let the camera fall to my right side and rest. This is an unusual Magnus behavior but I had to enjoy this privilege outside the viewfinder.
Overwhelming is not strong enough but I leave it there. Even if I assume it was for real, and I have many images to prove it to my left side of the brain, it is still distant like a dream. I am sorry to sound ”new age” but this experience changed me in some sort of way. As long as I can reach that feeling I had during these two hours through my memory I will always be able to smile.
I was able to make the sperm whale images with the help of very professional people. Serge, Joanna and Marianne and many more in their company were all a part of making this happen through top knowledge, skills and correct procedures. Most of all I have to give my regards to the whales, of course, but also to my fantastic skipper and friend Joao Quaresma. His ability to read the whales’ behavior and to make the shoot on their terms makes these images worth even more. You have my greatest respect for this. Thank You!
There will be two more blogs coming from the Azores. Next one, Blog 2, showing the other players of the pelagic zone – my distracters! The third one will be about the dynamic marine life around Faial and the outer bank Princesa Alice. They are coming soon. Hope you stay tuned.
Magnus Lundgren / Wild Wonders of Europe
Please note that blogs reflect our photographers' opinions and not necessarily those of the directors of Wild Wonders of Europe.