The first time I visited Tenerife, I was captivated by the idea of shooting the resident pilot whales – a protected species requiring the permission of the Spanish government to swim with. It was a dream that seemed impossible.

Back home, I could not abandon the thought, so I busied myself researching how to gain approval from the Spanish government. I was determined to shoot these wonderful creatures that found their home around the Canary Islands.

Nine months later, I found myself in a small boat at the coastline of Tenerife Island, 1000 metres of water beneath me, waiting for the moment where I could finally meet the pilot whales. The weather conditions were ideal – calm waters, a slight breeze, with warm rays of the sun beating on our backs. At first, the whales were travelling too fast; we could only take surface pictures, or dip our cameras
into the water. Even that in itself was a wonderful feeling: They were so close we even got a whiff of their breath – not a pleasant smell I must admit!

Suddenly, Sergio Hanquet, our guide, turned the boat and told us to get ready to slip into the water. I put my mask and fins on and sat at the edge of the boat, holding my camera tight. And then I heard the magic word, “Go!”

Immediately, I let myself slip into the water as quietly as possible. My husband did the same. We carefully swam in the direction of the pod – wow, what a feeling! The whales kept a distance, then turned and swam away. It was breathtaking.

Photo by Claudia Weber-Gebert

Back on the small boat, we repeated this procedure several times; Sergio would look for the best opportunities, watching the small groups of pilot whales in the ocean, and then advancing toward them. As we spotted a huge dorsal fin, Sergio once again instructed us to be prepared. I was already sitting on the edge of the rocking boat when I heard the “Go”.

I jumped into the water and found myself directly in front of a huge male adult. This one was huge, really huge, and it was coming closer. At that moment, a thousand thoughts were running through my head: “He must have seen me”, “Did he really see me? I hope not…”, “Is this dangerous?” The story of a woman pulled down 40 metres by a pilot whale came to mind. I was snapped back to reality, realising that I should be taking pictures. I put my camera in front of my body, as if that tiny thing could protect me against a whale, and pushed the trigger.

When I finally made eye contact with the whale, I was suddenly overcome with emotion. This majestic creature noticed me. He drifted past, keeping me in his field of view before disappearing into the blue. I will never forget those eyes, gentle and a little sad, and the strength I felt from them – what a moving moment!

When I lifted my head out of the water again, the two men on the boat were laughing. “That was a huge one, wasn’t it?” Sergio chuckled.

Photo by Claudia Weber-Gebert

Once, a young adult male with a newborn calf placed himself between his group and us. He started communicating with his group; we could hear the whistles of that male and the answers from the group behind. He gave us clear signs not to come closer to the pod so we swam back to the boat. It was obvious that he was not at ease with us in the water.

On the last day, the pilot whales bade us goodbye with a spectacle. A pod of 24 approached us, all in one line, passing under us as they neared. I could feel their strength through the water, the inherent sociability of whales suddenly so apparent. Being able to witness that moment, it breaks my heart to think of how whalers profit from this beautiful trait through slaughter.

Once, a young adult male with a newborn calf placed himself between his group and us. He started communicating with his group; we could hear the whistles of that male and the answers from the group behind. He gave us clear signs not to come closer to the pod so we swam back to the boat. It was obvious that he was not at ease with us in the water.

Photo by Claudia Weber-Gebert

On the last day, the pilot whales bade us goodbye with a spectacle. A pod of 24 approached us, all in one line, passing under us as they neared. I could feel their strength through the water, the inherent sociability of whales suddenly so apparent. Being able to witness that moment, it breaks my heart to think of how whalers profit from this beautiful trait through slaughter.

Read the rest of this article in No.110 Issue 4/2017 of Scuba Diver magazine by subscribing here or check out all of our publications here.

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