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CLOSE CALL WITH A HUMPBACK WHALE
Rarely will a mother and calf be seen without an escort male that takes responsibility for shepherding the pair safely, but woe betide the diver who dares to annoy the escort with aggressive behaviour.
During his Navy diving days in 1971, Bret Gilliam had worked collecting data from fast attack nuclear submarines. It was in the superb visibility afforded by the waters off the US Virgin
Islands. During the long underwater decompression stops required, he had often seen humpback whales. He became an enthusiastic humpback spotter and this eventually led to 20 annual trips to the Silver Banks, an area between the Dominican Republic and Grand Turk. It’s now an area well-known among divers for encounters with humpback whales and their young calves.
“Standing on their tails and bobbing in the gentle evening sea, they positioned themselves with their heads turned, to present eyes the size of hockey pucks that seemed to look right through you. At that point, the experience of swimming with our military’s subs seemed pretty pale by comparison.”
It was common to see pregnant females disappear and reappear a day or so later with a calf in tow, but nobody has ever recorded a mother whale giving birth. Where they go to and how the birth is accomplished, is still one of life’s big mysteries.
It was February 1993. The weather was not too good and it was extremely windy. Diving out in the open ocean was out of the question and “for want of anything better to do”, Bret left the boat and went alone for a shallow dive in the lee of a coral reef, swimming among the coral pillars that punctuated the sandy bottom. Even here he could not escape the whales’ presence, with their haunting songs flowing over and around the underwater landscape and filling his ears as he swam.
He was very surprised indeed to round a coral head and come face to face with a mother whale and her calf. “I was fewer than 3 m (10 ft) from them,” he recalled. What an opportunity for an underwater photographer!
The whales were resting with the baby lying under its mother’s watchful gaze. It was the smallest calf Bret had ever seen at around only
2 m long (6 ft) and 110 kg (250 lb). In fact, he remembered thinking it was about the same size and weight as him.
“My mind was racing. Was this a newborn calf? Had I nearly stumbled on what every photographer in the world had sought for decades? Certainly, the calf was the right size and clearly was so young that he couldn’t hold his breath for more than few seconds. I cradled my camera and began to line up the shots.