“The water here is only 900m deep, you are in the middle of one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the whales can be unpredictable and show threat displays. What are you worried about?!! They are only big dolphins, after all!” Steve Warren, of Ocean Optics told me, just before I slipped off the back of the duck board to snorkel with the second largest toothed whale species, Short Finned Pilot Whales.
I had been invited by Steve to join a small private charter, along with the famous award winning photographer, Doug Perrine, to go out into the Straits of Gibraltar to snorkel with Pilot Whales, and, if we were lucky, Orcas.
At 7.30am on the dot, I was picked up from my hotel by Nick Balban, one of four Gibraltarian brothers who owned a small cruiser docked in Queens Marina. The brothers are electricians by trade, but use their boat for fishing charters and, for the last six years, to take Steve out into the Straits for this unique experience, two weeks each summer.We were met at the boat by Nick’s brother, Sean, Doug, and Ludwik who would be trying to use a Go Pro in the new dive housing, and on a pole cam, to try to get footage of the whales. Steve and Doug had been out trying to photograph whales for the past week, but with little success as the weather had been against them. That morning had dawned bright and clear, with little wind and fairly flat seas. It seemed like perfect weather to go whale hunting.Nick and Sean, through their experiences fishing, had found the Pilot whales like to hang out around 10 to 15 miles to the west of Gibraltar, nearer to the Moroccan side of the
Straits. We were to leave early as the whale watching boats start their ‘research’ trips at around 10am. These trips pack on between 100-150 passengers all paying to view the whales, in three hour round trips, usually doing 3 trips a day. The boats can be quite territorial, not letting smaller boats near if whales are found. There are usually three or four whale watching boats, who take it in turns to stay with the whales, making it impossible to get close. By arriving by 8.30am, we had a very good chance of encountering the whales and being able to get in the water with them before several more boats arrived. This short time slot was lessened even more by the possibility of a huge tanker wanting to pass through the Strait.
After years of experience, Nick had decided nobody could be in the water if a boat was a mile or less away.
Being one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, with, on average 200 tankers passing through every day, this didn’t leave much time. We kitted up on the way to the area the whales were most commonly seen in, so we would be ready to jump in when we spotted a pod. Unfortunately for me, I had travelled straight from Indonesia to Gibraltar, where I had had a camera flood. I had managed to get a back up camera, but wasn’t sure how well my housing was working. I knew the viewfinder was flooded, so put my camera into live view mode so I could compose an image on the screen on the camera.
After around 45 minutes on the boat, I heard a shout of ‘whales ahead!’. Excitement mixed with trepidation coursed through me. It had been decided that Steve and Doug were to go in first, whilst Ludwik and I stayed on board as lookouts. As we approached a small pod of around 5 whales, Steve and Doug quietly slipped into the water and the boat moved away. They hung on the surface for a minute or two then both duck dived under the water and disappeared for what seemed like an eternity. The whales had spotted them, and started to approach where they had been a few seconds earlier. The whales then disappeared below the surface, leaving us on the boat tense and nervous as to the outcome. Pilot whales have been known to display threat tactics to snorkelers. Normally, they would approach very quickly and give a tail slap very close to the person. Being up to 6.5m long, this tail slap could be potentially fatal. The whales have also been known to ‘play’ with snorkelers, by biting biting their fins and dragging them down to the depths before letting them go. All these thoughts ran through my mind as I waited for Steve and Doug to surface.
When they finally came up for air, smiling, Nick quickly manoeuvred the boat to pick them up. The Pilots had passed right by them, curiously examining them for a short while before passing below them. Steve told me it was my turn next. Nick moved the boat ahead of the pod and gave us the signal to get in the water. As I slipped in, my heart was beating ten to the dozen. I stayed close to Steve, ducked my head under the water, and peered with baited breath into the murky water. Unfortunately for us, the visibility was particularly bad, only about 8-10m. When you know you might have a 6.5m whale approaching you, it can be quite intimidating to say the least! As I busied myself turning my camera on and making sure live view was working, I could hear the whales singing. All of a sudden, out of the murk, I could see a black shape approaching, followed by several more indistinct black shapes. I forgot about looking into my camera completely, and just held it in front of me as a kind of shield. The Pilots approached fairly slowly, coming to a virtual standstill in front of me, standing on their tails in the water and bobbing up and down.
Their faces, with their grinning mouths full of teeth, didn’t fool me for one moment!
They cooed and sang for a few moments before making several clicking sounds. As suddenly as they appeared, they were gone, swimming below me as one, within touching distance of my fins. As I raised my head above the surface, I could see them surface a short distance away, I realised I hadn’t taken any photos. Nick came to pick us up, and we went in search of the whales again. When it was my turn to get in the water again, I was with Ludwik. He wanted to film me being approached by the Pilot whales, so kept behind me. Again, Nick dropped us just in front of the whales. As I put my head under, I saw there was one solitary whale hanging just a few metres in front of me.
The whale studied me for several minutes, swimming back and forth, standing on it’s tail, and even spy hopping me. All the time it was singing in a calm and peaceful way. I managed to remember to take a few shots, although in a more point and click manner rather than looking through the live view screen, as I was captivated by the whale.Suddenly, it made a squeak and swam away from me in the opposite direction. I hung there in the 900m deep water, peering to see if he returned, when all of a sudden a large female whale swam very quickly at me, about turned and swished her tail with a mighty swot missing my legs by mere centimetres. Then she started thrashing her tail about causing huge balls of tiny air bubbles and big splashes on the surface. Both Ludwik and I back peddled as fast as we could, as I shouted to the boat to pick us up quickly. Both our hearts were racing so quickly.By this time, the whale watching boats were approaching, so we decided to go in search of Orcas, who could be found another 10 miles to the west. The Orcas are normally found when the small Moroccan fishing boats line fish for blue fin tuna. They have cleverly figured they have an easy meal by waiting until a fish is caught, and, as the fishing men pull in the line, steal it in one bite.
As we got to the fishing grounds, there were no fishing boats in sight, meaning the tuna were not there and, likewise, the Orcas. We cruised around for a while when I spotted a fin protruding straight up from the water. I was told that sunfish, or mola mola, were seen frequently in the Straits. Steve asked whether I would like to go in to snorkel with them. As they seemed much smaller, and, as I had been told, much shyer, I thought I would be safe. It had been a standing joke that whenever Steve got in the water with sunfish, they disappeared immediately, and he was never able to get any footage of them. Maybe that worked for me, as one swam right by me an arms length away, whilst he had difficulty chasing after another one. I had tried to see sunfish in Bali, the place known for them, on several occasions, but had never been lucky enough to see one. Here I was, in Europe, at last, and very unexpectedly, swimming with one of the weirdest looking fish in the oceans!
That evening, Ludwik showed us the footage he had taken on his Go Pro. It showed the female that had shown me a threat display, had recently given birth. The Straits are known as birthing grounds for the whales. We had seen several very small calves, still with birth wrinkles. I hadn’t realised how near the whale had got to hitting me - the precision in the flick of it’s tail was amazing! It had certainly awakened my senses and I was very wary over the next few days about getting in the water with the whales. Over the next couple of days we had more interaction with the whales. Steve and Ludwik were both shown threat displays, but no real aggression. On the final afternoon, we decided to try again for the Orcas. As we approached the fishing grounds, in flat calm seas, we could see many fishing boats. We stopped a short distance from one, where two Orcas were trying to wrestling a blue fin tuna off the fishing line. The fishing men were throwing small stones at the whales and shouting in anger at them. Finally, they managed to haul the large tuna onto their tiny boat, albeit with a large chunk missing.
They were cheering and laughing and waving their fists at the whales, as, for once, they had beaten them.
As we were watching the display, Steve was quietly getting ready, then turned to me and said, “come on then!”. “What?!”, I exclaimed. “Don’t you want to snorkel with Orcas?”, he replied. Well, I didn’t know what to say. On the one hand the experience would be one of a kind and absolutely amazing, but, on the other hand, I had a family at home expecting me to return in one piece! I decided to watch him first, before getting in myself. Nick got us fairly close to the Orcas, then Steve slipped into the water. The Orcas swam immediately away, being extremely shy. Steve got back on the boat and after Nick re- positioned the boat, he tried again. This time he got slightly nearer, but again they swam away. At this point, I decided I would be fine to get in the water. Unfortunately, even though they swam very close to the boat, and, at one point, actually right under the boat, every time we tried to get in the water with them, they were tantalisingly just that little bit too far away to see, only to hear!
Ludwik had a lot more luck leaning far over the bow of the boat, holding a home made pole cam with the Go Pro stuck on the end. In fact, he was the only one to get any footage of the Orcas! Maybe that is a lesson for us.......