Gray Whales de Jour
This time of year, thousands of gray whales migrate south from the Bering Sea to calving grounds in Baja California. Along the way they often pass within visible sight of land, and in some places hug very close to the California coastline. On this day, however, I was on my boat on the backside of Catalina Island which lies about 25-miles off shore. With overcast skies above and a bit of a wind chop blowing out of the south it wasn’t a particularly good day to go boating. In fact, I had been on the water for several hours and had not pulled the camera out of its gear bag to snap a single frame.
I was sitting dead in the water when unexpectedly two gray whales surfaced relatively close by, perhaps within 50-feet of the boat. Typically, these giants have their minds made up about going from point a. to point b. without so much as blinking an eye or lolly-gagging for something as insignificant as a human in a small boat. On this day, however, the whales didn’t seem to be in any particular hurry. They surfaced again and instead of resuming their mission they began swimming more or less in a circular pattern around the boat.
With the advent of photography’s digital age I no longer have much occasion to reach for film cameras. Mostly out of habit (and a touch of sentiment), however, I keep an old Nikonos V (underwater camera) tucked below decks for those rarest of rare situations when something ‘inspires’ me to get in the water -- and that ain’t too often these days especially in the dead of winter when sea temperatures can hover in the fifties. Plus, when I’m boating alone leaving the confines of the boat for the equivalent of a wild goose chase is not something I ponder lightly.
The visibility of the water was poor. There was so much planktonic matter in the water it looked like the whales were swimming through a thick pea soup. Nevertheless, after 3-5 minutes the pair surfaced again. I may be middle-aged and getting out of the boat in the middle of the ocean is no longer the adrenaline rush it used to be, but these leviathans were practically daring me to join them--so I figured what the heck. After all, I’m supposed to be a marine mammal photographer and any wildlife shooter worth his salt would seize the moment (at least that’s the nonsensical bravado that whirls through your head after prolonged exposure to boredom and sea air).
At the point I hit the water I figured the whales would hear me flailing on the surface and would simply bug out (nautical speak for ‘hasta la vista, baby). Moreover, by the time I donned mask, fins, and snorkel and grabbed my trusty Nikonos several minutes had elapsed. Sure enough, the whales had sounded and were nowhere in sight. What seemed like a perfectly constructive idea just seconds earlier suddenly seemed shockingly stupid, aided by a unique kind of clarity that jumping into a biting-cold Pacific Ocean can provide.
Perhaps disoriented by the on-set of brain freeze (think gulping down a milkshake too fast) I decided to free dive into the murk. If I didn’t have the film to back me up, to this day I’m not sure if what happened next actually happened, it was so surreal. As I kicked, my fins propelled me downward. At about 20 feet below the surface I could sort of make out the shape of something hovering in the soup. Indeed, in a stroke of luck usually reserved for Lottery winners it was the pair of gray whales. But they weren’t alone. There were actually TWO pairs of whales. At that point I was probably no more than 20-feet from one of the most awesome sights I’ve ever witnessed. Two of the whales were using their heads to gently stroke the sides of the other two whales. Was I witnessing whale foreplay? Suddenly, I felt like some kind of freakish voyeur, but managed to compose myself long enough to get off a couple of frames. Feeling the effects of oxygen debt I headed for the surface. Because lighting conditions and water visibility were so bad I didn’t think the film could possibly render anything to show for my amazing encounter. Well, Flick’r friends, there must be a God.