Life in a Heartbeat

This is a guest post by my partner, Claudia Jocher. Claudia is a former scuba diving instructor and photographer who began her photography career taking pictures of life under water.

In 2001 we were in a boat off Tonga, my parents and I, on vacation. We saw them from the boat: a mother whale and the calf. They were in shallower water, close to an island. The whale mum was just lying there in the water with the calf swimming around her. I was already wearing my snorkeling gear and dived into the turquoise water with my camera.

I drifted slowly towards the whales, the water pushing me in their direction. The boat stayed back. I was constantly paddling with my fins, pushing against the mild current to keep some distance.

My parents told me later, “There was this huge thing in the water and then there was this tiny dot and that was you.”

I didn’t want to get too close to the mother whale. I was trying to take photos of her and if you are too close it won’t work — you can’t fit anything in — except a piece of the side or the eye. I was keen to get the whole picture, the whole whale and the calf, if possible. The calf looked tiny in comparison to its mum but it was about the size of a sedan. When they’re born they’re about a tonne. If that one was a week old it might have been one and half tonnes already.

I was just hanging there in the water, paddling steadily to stay in the same place. I was on one side next to the mother whale. The calf was behind the mother. Just then, the calf came around its mother’s head towards me.

I used a fish-eye lens in an underwater camera housing. It had a dome-port, a curved covering made of glass over the lens. Sometimes it behaves like a mirror. Anyway, it’s shiny. Maybe that’s what attracted that calf. It came and started pushing with its head against the camera. I said, “Please, please go a little bit further away. You’re too close. I can’t take a photo of you.”

Picture by CLAUDIA JOCHER (C) 2014

Picture by CLAUDIA JOCHER (C) 2014

The calf continued to play with me. Then mum came up from below squeezing between the calf and me. The water ran off her in a wave pushing me away as she came up between me and her baby. The water was warmer close to her. I could actually feel waves like the vibration of the bass from a big speaker — and I could hear it too. It was very strong and very slow. I could feel it in my body. They do have quite a few earthquakes in this area, so I wasn’t sure what it was. But it was regular and rhythmic and constant. A beat, not a quake. It took me awhile to realise that it was the mother’s heartbeat.

The calf came around again and started to push its head against the camera. And then, mum did the same thing she did before: going down and coming up right between me and the calf. I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting, that game.” I was about half a metre away from them and didn’t move much, just hanging there watching them. She did it three or four times. Then the mother rested. She wasn’t worried about me and realized that I wasn’t a threat to the calf.

The calf kept swimming around me, going back to mum, coming back to me. It was really engaging. I lost track of time. It was probably more than an hour that I was able to watch them. I felt privileged.

Then mum went deeper in the water again and came up again between me and the calf. I thought, “Oh, that’s strange now. I wonder what she’s going to do?” And she came so close that I put my hand up to keep a distance. She kind of drifted against my hand, so I could feel her skin, like the tube of a tyre, except it was warm. Suddenly she began to move. Once whales start moving they can be very fast. Mum was about, say, fourteen metres long. I looked to the side and I saw her pectoral fin coming. The pectorals and the whole tail of a humpback are each about a third of the body length, so the fin was close to five metres long. I saw this thing approaching rapidly, this enormous pectoral fin at the height of my head. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get away. And I thought, “At least it’s an interesting way to go.” You know, not that boring thing when you don’t wake up one morning.

Then when it was about half a metre from me, the mother whale put the huge fin down and went past me. I thought, “Great!” And then I looked to my side again and saw half of her tail coming. And I thought, “Oh, maybe I’m not so lucky in the end.” But then again, when she was about half a metre away from me, she put her tail down and went past. She knew exactly where I was.

I wish I had that much control over my body when I walk through a ceramics shops or walk about with a back pack, trying not to hit people. Given how small the eye of the whale is compared to the rest of the whale, it’s impressive how much control they have. Until then I always assumed that their sonar worked 180 degrees around the front of the head or thereabouts. But she knew where I was. Maybe that sonar ability applies to their whole body length. Somehow she could see or feel or remember exactly where I was.

I’m glad it was the mother whale closest to me, because the calves are still learning. Their judgment of what is near them and how to move around it might not be so perfect. They might hurt you by accident. I have never felt fear around whales. Whales seem to know that I would never do anything bad to them. I never doubted that they are gentle.