Imagine if you will, standing on a highway. You’re facing the oncoming traffic. That traffic consists of several huge trucks. You can’t see the drivers so you have no idea if they can see you standing there, alone on the highway. They’re moving fast and you have no time to get off the road. Your only hope is that they do notice you and turn away at the last second. You have absolutely no control of the situation.
That was a fair summary of my situation. Except for the fact that I couldn’t breathe because I was free diving. I was out in front of the most heavyweight courtship ritual on our planet, the humpback heat run, where – fresh from a several thousand mile journey from their summer Antarctic feeding grounds –multiple 50 tonne male humpback whales were battling it out in a high speed all-action race to become the likely mate of the lucky female whale out front.
I felt all alone down there but we had a pretty big team on hand. We were filming the heat run for the BBC’s eight-part natural history series “Life.” The tagline was ‘Planet Earth set the stage, Life is about the actors’ and our actors were of course the humpback whales. The team consisted of ScubaZoo’s Jason Isley (safety diver and photographer), Nick Guy (topside cameraman), Simon Blakeney (assistant producer) and myself (underwater cameraman). Handling the boat and on-land logistics was former-fireman Al Coldrick of Dolphin Pacific Diving.
We also had air support from a chopper, flown over to our base in Vava’u, Tonga from the nearby kingdom of Fiji. The helicopter was fitted out with a gyroscopic Cineflex camera in order to get rock solid shots even zoomed in from hundreds of metres away. So we had all angles covered and the action was on but it hadn’t always been that way. This was day 17 of a 21-day shoot. The previous 16 days had been a story of small pockets of excitement but mostly frustration.
Conditions for the first few days were set fair and we ploughed the edge of the fringing reef looking for action. Our first good encounter was with a mother and calf. Humpback whales can move at speeds of up to 20 knots, making interactions rather fleeting, but a mother and calf move much slower due to the calf’s small size, lack of stamina, and need to breathe more often. We found this mother and calf inside the reef in one of the sheltered bays that make Tonga so attractive to whales, and had a nice interaction with both animals. Neither were particularly bothered by us so it was a great chance to film the start of our story, setting the stage and explaining why humpbacks came to these waters in such large numbers, to give birth, nurse and of course mate.
Other than that, during the start of the shoot we mostly encountered females with a single escort. All female whales travel with at least one male escort who hopes to take advantage when the female is ready to mate. The whales we saw were generally on the move and in no mood to perform for my camera. To get me close the boat had to manoeuvre several hundred metres ahead of the spot we last saw the whales surface. We’d keep our eyes peeled and if we saw them again, and we were in their direct path I would jump in the water with Jason and swim in the direction that the spotters on the boat were pointing. Then, if I was lucky, a shape would emerge from the blue only to barrel past us and disappear again. Quickly, we’d dash back to the boat, get back on board and head off in pursuit again.
Often we’d drop in on the same whale 10 or 15 times before we got a couple of good shots. It became almost like a military exercise with orders being shouted to us as we sat on the back swim step facing the stern. We had various states of readiness depending on how recently there had been a sighting. Defcon One was fins and mask on, hand on the camera; Defcon Two was camera on the floor, masks around neck, Defcon Three was sunhat on, head lolling around; Defcon Four was laid out on the floor, hat on face, shifting in and out of an uneasy sleep!
Soon after, the weather turned rough. For several days we continued to head out to sea in choppy water with overcast and sometimes stormy conditions. It was fruitless really but when you’re on a deadline you have to make the most of the time you have. There was still a slim chance of a sighting so we endured some tough times in the hope of a miracle. Finally on our eighth day the storm broke and the sun shone on the Tongan waters once again. Almost immediately on heading out we happened on a juvenile whale shark. Normally we’d have jumped in to get some shots but we had our mission and we stayed focused. It wasn’t long after that when we had our first taste of a heat run.
There were several other whale watching boats out with tourists and our captain had got word from a fellow skipper of some activity on the edge of the reef. We were on the spot in minutes and found a mother and calf being pursued by four males. This was it. At a combined weight of around 250 tonnes it was a ‘small’ heat run but my heart was pounding from the adrenaline in my system. It was on.
Jason reluctantly left his camera behind on the boat at the request of the director who was worried for my safety (thanks Simon!) and we dropped smoothly in ahead of the pack. I swam straight down to the reef at about 10 metres and as I looked up there were two whales tearing after the female and her calf. While I filmed them, another whale passed right behind me. It was great action and I was right in the thick of it. We did several dives as the chase continued around the inshore islands until it eventually petered out in the open ocean. It had been a great start but still nothing like what we had hoped for. Still, with some “footage in the can” we had a more relaxed evening and looked forward to the next day with confidence.
The Little One
To change things up we started heading 40 nautical miles offshore. An island called Toku was rumoured to have a large congregation of whales. It took two hours each way and reduced our filming time but this location proved a good bet when things were quieter around Vava’u. On one occasion, Al spotted a mother and calf, and given that it had been a slow day up to that point, we decided to slip in and take a look. Nothing up to that point, not even the mini-heat run, prepared me for what we experienced there. The calf swam (bounded is probably a better description) straight up to us and began to show off his complete repertoire of spins and tumble turns! I swear he’d have given us a big sloppy lick if he’d thought long enough about it. We played with him for over an hour, always with the mother watching twenty metres below us.
Although he was friendly he didn’t quite know his own strength so we had to be ultra careful to not get too close to this elephant-sized baby with the mind of a puppy dog. It wasn’t a heat run but it was by far and away the most beautiful animal encounter I’d ever had in my diving and filming career.
With that pleasant distraction behind us we continued our search over the next few days. On the 16th day our helicopter arrived for a five-day stint and it brought with it some luck. The next morning, as they mounted the Cineflex camera to the front of the chopper, the radio crackled with Al’s voice – “Get up in the air guys, it’s on!”
A Mighty Battle
We’d found a heat run. Another boat had alerted us to a building heat run and by the time we reached it there were 11 males chasing a female. The juggernaut was heading out into the open ocean and we repeatedly dived in ahead of them to have them race past us. Eventually the helicopter found us and we continued working as spotters for them for the next few hours until they had to return to land.
It was a mighty battle with flukes and pectoral fins smashing the waters surface, full-grown males launching themselves out of the water onto the backs of their rivals and even blowing bubbles in each others face to create a disorienting ‘smoke screen’. It was a royal rumble extraordinaire! Back underwater the whale armada crashed past me a final time. I tried to suppress my urge to breathe as the one whale above moved over me and I kicked hard for the surface. We’d got what we came for. I felt suitably insignificant and humbled.
Taken from ScubaDiver Australasia Issue 03/2012