Sheer Joy: In the Company of Whales

The water there is as blue as anywhere on earth. The underwater visibility is routinely 150 feet (45 m) or more. In fact, the water is so clear that even for a veteran diver it can be hard to accurately estimate sizes and distances underwater. Sometimes other divers and animals like manta rays and green sea turtles look like miniatures because you can see them so clearly from such great underwater distances.

I am talking about Hawaii. The volcanic islands of our 50th state are the most isolated island group in the world. These mountain peaks that we know as islands drop quickly into the depths of the Pacific and the area is  picture No matter what the species, a whale encounter not only makes a dive memorable, but the encounter can be a life-affirming experience. Picture  full page of a whale  bathed by blue, clear, oceanic waters. Over the years I have explored waters from the southern Caribbean to Indonesia and from Canada to Argentina, and of all the places I have ever dived, Hawaii’s waters consistently have the greatest visibility. The water is often so clear and blue that even for experienced divers it is a big thrill to stare out into the distance looking at nothing in particular just to try to figure out how far you can see. Of course, it is also fun to see a manta ray, turtle, Hawaiian monk seal, big school of jacks cruising your way or shimmering streaks of sunlight illuminating a lava tube in cathedral-like fashion. Sometimes, when the seas are flat and conditions are favorable, Hawaiian dive charter boats take sport divers out into the blue during their surface interval between dives so folks can hop in for a deep-ocean snorkel. On those dives I have seen pods of pilot whales, oceanic whitetip sharks and tiny sargassum frogfish, but most of the time I have just stared down in awe watching rays of sunlight reach into the blue. Last February I enjoyed the opportunity once again to visit Hawaii’s waters. In addition to the favorable water conditions, green turtles, manta rays and about 139 species of endemic fishes that divers enjoy year-round, this time the buzz among Hawaiian divers and their visitors centers on the humpback whales that visit the state’s waters during the winter months. Figuratively speaking, the whales appear everywhere. You can see pods of whales frolicking on the surface from lookout points along coastal highways, from boat decks, and sometimes from the window seats of airplanes.

Natural Wonder

As divers it is only natural to wonder what your chances are to see a whale during a dive. After all, the whales seem to be all over the place and the water is crystal-clear. Imagine the thrill of seeing a 60-foot-long (18-m-long), 100,000- pound (45,454-kg) humpback whale approach you out of the blue. I have dived with humpbacks and several other species of great whales over the years, and on several occasions I have enjoyed dives that lasted for an hour or more while swimming with one or more whales. I have always found the moments shared with whales to be exhilarating, humbling and awe-inspiring. And difficult to write about. As a writer I always feel pushed to my limits to adequately describe the range and depth of emotions that I experience both during the dive and afterward as I reflect upon my good fortune of being in the wilderness in the presence of these massive creatures. No matter what the species, a whale encounter not only makes a dive memorable, but the encounter can be a life-affirming experience.  Several times I have watched a whale cruise within a few yards of me and give me a once-over with a tennis-ballsized eye. While I want to be careful not to anthropomorphize whales, I have always felt their intelligence, gentleness and curiosity, and have always wondered if they felt any of the same qualities from little ol’ me. On my most recent Hawaiian trip I visited the island of Maui. On my first dive I went to Molokini Crater with Captain Steve Hogan, a longtime friend in the film business. About 2.5 miles (4 km) off Maui’s south coast, Molokini is an extinct, bowl-shaped volcano that is designated as a marine life and bird conservation sanctuary. It is also the island’s most visited dive site. Within minutes of clearing the breakwater en route to Molokini we saw a pod of humpback whales. We stopped and watched for a few minutes as a calf rolled on the surface with its mother by its side. The show was a “day-maker” and we had not even arrived at the dive site. I certainly did not expect to see a whale during a dive even in the 150- to 200-foot (46- to 62-m) visibility. I have spent close to 30 years photographing marine wildlife and one of the things that you learn early on and are often reminded of is that as big as whales are, the ocean is a very, very big place.

Drunk on Whalesong

I saw no whales underwater that day or during my trip. That came as no surprise. But on most dives we were treated to a serenade by humpback whales. As soon as we hit the water on every dive we made throughout the week we could hear the long, melodious, magical whoooop, whoooop sounds of the whales communicating with each other. Of course, as soon as I heard them I turned to look even though I knew better than to expect to see a whale, but often the sounds were so loud and clear that I could not help but think that a whale was swimming right next to me. Diving is generally thought of as a visual experience, and because I work as an underwater photographer and filmmaker you might think that I would be bitterly disappointed at being close enough to hear whales but never close enough to see one even in Hawaii’s clear waters. While I admit that I love to see and photograph whales, I can honestly say that rather than feel any sense of disappointment I was perfectly content to hover in mid-water close to the anchor line and listen to the cacophony of mesmerizing sounds produced by the whales. After the dive our boat was abuzz about the sounds of the whales. I watched as several adults, people who had not met each other until that day, were trying to “sing” like the whales for  one another. I listened to a law enforcement official, a small-business owner and an executive at a large bank all try to outdo one another with their version of humpback whale songs. Normally this kind of sing-song silliness is only witnessed at karaoke bars after everyone’s had a few too many rum punches, but these folks appeared intoxicated in an altogether different way: They were drunk on whalesong. I watched this boatload of adults turn into a bunch of big kids with raucous laughter, smiles and expressions of appreciation for their experience. There were no profound or deep thoughts, just joy. I think most would agree that we don’t see that kind of uninhibited exuberance and expressions of let-it-all-go happiness very often in our society when a group of adults meet for the first time. I think the behavior on the boat speaks volumes about the power of the experience and the magical quality of whales.

Pure Joy

That day, while standing on the boat deck, I thought that I might write a column about this experience, but I could only think one thought, and that was “pure joy.” It makes me happy to be on or in the water around whales, and time after time in my life I have seen whales affect so many other people in the same way. Upon first consideration, pure joy didn’t seem to be a big enough topic. But as I continued to watch the other divers on the boat and listen to their comments I realized that pure joy is a plenty big — and very important — topic to write about. After all, it’s the very essence of why we dive. Pure joy is a wonderful gift offered freely by an abundant ocean. As divers we are honored to receive it, whether from creatures as big as a whale or as small as a pygmy sea horse. To be “joy full” all we have to do is look, listen and let it all in.

Story and Photography by Marty Snyderman

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