Star-Struck: Encounters With Neptune’s Superstars

I was 60 feet (18 m) deep in water off San Diego’s famed La Jolla district composing a photograph of a little-finger-long Spanish shawl nudibranch, a shell-less snail, when “the lights went out.” The water and sky were unusually clear that day, but all of a sudden things got strangely dark. As I was trying to figure out what was happening, I looked up to discover a 50-foot- (16-m-) long California gray whale hovering over me.


No wonder it had gotten so dark. The whale was blocking out the sun.


Until you have been close to a whale, or other huge creature, all of the statistics about how big they get are often just numbers on a page. But when you are right next to — or directly underneath — an animal that is 50 feet (16 m) long and weighs as much as 100,000 pounds (45,000 kg), the numbers take on a whole new meaning.

At first I was nothing short of star-struck. All I could do was stare and try to take in the scene in front of me. I had seen whales from the decks of boats, but this was the first time I had ever been eyeball to tennis ball-sized eyeball with a creature this size. I felt simultaneously overwhelmed and overjoyed!

The whale remained near me for about five minutes before gliding away into the distance.

Since that dive almost 30 years ago, I have enjoyed hundreds of dives with a variety of the oceans’ largest and most dramatic residents, a group that includes a variety of whales, dolphins, sharks, rays, seals, sea lions and manatees. Collectively, I refer to these creatures as “Neptune’s Superstars.” I am not about to suggest that any one animal is the ultimate creature, or that a dive with a whale or shark is better than one with nudibranchs or lobsters, but there is something special about diving with the stars.

Whale Encounters

Despite their enormous sizes, many species of whales are surprisingly skittish. On the whole, whales are much more likely to approach a snorkeler as opposed to a noisy, bubble-blowing scuba diver. In my experience, this is true with fin whales, gray whales, humpbacks, southern right whales, pilot whales, killer whales and even blue whales, the largest creatures to have roamed this planet. Of course, as my dive off La Jolla substantiates, there are exceptions to the theory that suggests noisy scuba divers scare whales away.

Whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (see sidebar), so if you do find yourself in their presence, the best thing to do is to hang in place or fin slowly and as unobtrusively as possible around the animals. In any case, the less noise and splashing the better.

Certainly that is the case with the humpback whales of the Silver Bank in the Caribbean waters of the Dominican Republic. Permits allow snorkelers to swim with these behemoths, and while you cannot be guaranteed an intimate encounter, I once had a lengthy encounter with a humpback female and her escorts. These 60-foot- (18-m-) long whales were curious, gentle and extremely graceful.

Surprising to many, the animals we know as dolphins are actually types of toothed whales. Many species appear to be wary of humans, but there are times when pods of dolphins readily approach divers, especially snorkelers. One of the best ways to take your chances for a dolphin encounter is to join a live-aboard boat expedition that visits the Little Bahama Bank in the northeastern end of the Bahamas chain. These dolphins can be amazingly curious and playful.

Whale Sharks

The whale shark is the largest of all fishes, reaching proportions of close to 60 feet (18 m) and 30,000 pounds (13,500 kg). Like so many of the oceans’ larger creatures, whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning they prey upon plankton and other very small organisms.

Until a couple of decades ago, encounters with whale sharks were extremely rare, but fortunately for divers in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez and Revillagigedos Islands, Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, Thailand, Australia, Honduras and a variety of other tropical and subtropical locales, experts have learned where and how to find these gentle giants on a reasonably regular basis.

Once encountered, whale sharks are often curious about scuba divers and snorkelers, and if not grabbed, poked, ridden or otherwise harassed, they have been known to spend hours in the same area where divers often enjoy prolonged encounters.

The “Other” Sharks

“Divers in cages at all times” is typically the rule when joining expeditions that hope to put you face to face with species such as great white sharks and blue sharks. Bait, usually pieces of fish, is used to attract the sharks. One can certainly make the case that the bait causes the sharks to be in non-natural surroundings, but there is little argument that the encounters are often “in your face.”

The biggest difference between white shark and blue shark expeditions is that white shark trips are usually conducted in the lee, or protected side, of an island, while blue shark (and sometimes mako shark) expeditions often occur in the vast expanse of the open sea.

The popular shark encounters in the Bahamas and other locales that involve Caribbean reef sharks and blacktip sharks generally do not use protective cages. Instead, divers settle onto the sea floor and bait is used to attract the sharks to the area. The sharks have been acclimated to the feeding pattern and often swim around the baiting areas even when the bait is not around. But like many sharks, such as the gray reef sharks and silvertips that inhabit many Indo-Pacific reefs, the Caribbean species can be surprisingly difficult to get close to without the use of bait.

With some other sharks, such as the schooling scalloped hammerheads that are often seen in the Sea of Cortez, Revillagigedos Islands, Cocos and Galapagos, no bait is needed. In fact, the schools of hammerheads do not seem to respond to bait at all. Scalloped hammerheads, one of eight species of hammerheads found worldwide, gather around seamounts and islets during the day where cleaner fishes such as king angelfish, wrasses and barberfish routinely rid them of ectoparasites. Often the best place to get a close look at one of these 7- to 11-foot- (2.2- to 3.5-m-) long sharks is at an active cleaning station.

Rays

As animals whose skeletons lack bones, rays are close relatives of sharks. While some might argue that squadrons of spotted eagle rays and cownose rays are the most stunning sight in the world of rays, manta rays would get the votes of many divers as the most spectacular of the rays. A big manta ray can have a “wingspan” of 20 feet (6 m), but most divers marvel more at their combination of grace, power, marvelous hydrodynamic design and gentle nature than just their sheer size.

Scuba divers commonly swim with mantas at several noteworthy destinations including the Sea of Cortez, at Cocos Island, the Galapagos Islands, Yap (Micronesia) and Kona, Hawaii.

While it is very tempting to chase after a manta ray as soon as you see one, over the years I have often had my best luck if I allowed these gentle beauties to get comfortable with my presence and then come to me. Once they get comfortable with the setting, manta rays will often circle repeatedly from very close range.

At Kona, the strategy is a bit different. Powerful lights are used to attract dense concentrations of plankton that the rays feed on. Divers gather around the lights and wait for the rays to come in and feed. When feeding, the mantas open their big mouths as wide as they can to take in the nutritious plankton soup by funneling great quantities into their gaping maws.

Manatees

Snorkeling with Florida’s manatees is great fun. The rule is “allow the manatees to approach you, not vice versa.” Despite their size, these plant eaters can be wary, but if you move slowly and don’t rush them, they may swim right up to you. Encounters with manatees can last throughout a dive especially if you avoid getting between a calf and its mother, and you don’t chase, grab or hang onto these adorable sausage-shaped creatures.

The best time of year to swim with manatees is on the coldest, clearest days of winter when the water in the Florida springs is warmer than the nearby ocean water.

Not every dive outing will include an appearance by one of Neptune’s stars. The encounters are mostly up to the wildlife we hope to see. Take your patience along and try your best to do what the divemasters and other local experts suggest, as no one knows the animals any better. Whatever happens, enjoy being out in the wilderness where the stars reside.

Stellar Photos

Photographing whales, sharks, manta rays and other big marine creatures offers challenges. It is often difficult to get close enough to fill your frame, and even if you do, the moment of opportunity doesn’t last long.

Try to get within 8 feet (2.4 m) of the subject to benefit from the use of a strobe. If you can’t get close, don’t overlook the power of a silhouette. To create a silhouette, get below your subject and shoot just as it passes between you and the sun.

If you are not shooting a silhouette, frame your subject against blue water instead of reef. This will help make your subject “jump out” of your frame.

If there is a diver in your frame, try to put the animal in the foreground and the diver in the background. Doing so will help emphasize the animal while the diver provides a size reference.

And whatever you do, don’t take any animal for granted. Don’t put yourself at risk in order to get a photo.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

(MMPA) was most recently reauthorized in 1994. The MMPA established a moratorium, with some exceptions, on the taking of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, and on the importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the United States.

The term “take” is statutorily defined to mean “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.”

The term “harassment” means any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which:

• Level A — has the potential to injure a marine mammal in the wild; or

• Level B — has the potential to disturb a marine mammal in the wild by causing disruption or behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering.

For more information on the MMPA, visit  http://www.fws.gov/laws/lawsdigest/marmam.html

Story and photos by Marty Snyderman