Tony Wu Photography

"That is the beginning of knowledge—the discovery of something we do not understand."

- God Emperor of Dune, Frank Herbert

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The first whale I ever spent extended quality time with was a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), in September 2000. It hit me with loud bio-sonar, swam straight into me, placed me on its head, took my leg in its mouth. I thought it would eat me.

The entire tale is long, but the upshot is that we became the best of friends and spent over three hours together. In that time, fear—which stemmed from ignorance—was displaced by experience, contemplation, then understanding. I now know that the actions of the whale were not a manifestation of aggression, but of curiosity, of welcoming.

It was quite literally the whale that changed my life.

 
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First Contact

This is the whale that took my leg in its mouth It was young, around 9m in length. There was a longline hook embedded in the right side of its jaw. This photo was taken on a film camera (do you know what that is?) and the photo was the Grand Prize winner of the 2001 Blue Earth Underwater Photo contest in Japan. Shortly thereafter, it appeared on the front page of the Asahi Shimbun.

 

Almost as if I had been marked by that initial encounter, sperm whales have been extraordinarily kind to me over the years. They have let me witness social activities, swimming amidst the frenzy of activity and cacophony of sound. They have shown me Architeuthis dux giant squid, brought up to the surface from hundreds of metres below. They have let me babysit their young. They have pooped all over me (that's not a bad thing in sperm whale society). And they have let me witness a jaw-dropping multi-day gathering of giants—an event that defies every attempt at description.

The photo above from that great gathering was the winner of the Behaviour: Mammals category of the 53rd Wildlife Photographer of the Year award (#WPY53) in 2017, organised by the Natural History Museum in London. (Read blog post about the award event.)

There were hundreds—perhaps thousands—of whales in the area. The party lasted for nearly three days. If you'd like to read more about that experience and see additional photographs, please refer to my article A Gathering of Giants that I prepared for Biographic, the excellent online publication run by the California Academy of Sciences.

You might think that it'd be easy to take photographs with so many whales around. You'd be wrong though. Chaos was the only constant. Pulling visual order out of pandemonium was a physical and photographic challenge. Below are a few more scenes from that gathering.


 

Whale poop has been a fascination for some time, especially with sperm whales, because they tend to poop often at the ocean surface, and poop in large quantity. On top of that, they group-poop too, which is really quite spectacular if you find yourself in the midst of it. You just have to remember not to swallow.

Turns out, whale poop is environmentally significant. Researcher Joe Roman and colleagues described how this likely works in a 2014 paper titled Whales as Marine Ecosystem Engineers.

"Whales facilitate the transfer of nutrients by releasing fecal plumes near the surface after feeding at depth and by moving nutrients from highly productive, high-latitude feeding areas to low-latitude calving areas"

Please refer to my blog post for more background.

 
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"You're a whale poop magnet."

    - Joe Roman, in email correspondence


 

One thing that might seem obvious in hindsight, but I don't think is well-documented is that sperm whales often pass gas, as seen below.

 

Social etiquette demands that you leave the group when you need to fart

 

I've often wondered whether this happens near the surface because reduced ambient pressure makes it easier, or if they fart down deep too?

I would think that any gas passed down deep would expand to such an extent (Boyle's Law) that by the time it reached the surface, the bubbles would be humongous. Since I've never seen spontaneous eruptions of gigantic, ship-engulfing gas bubbles at the ocean surface, I'm inclined to think that farting is a near-surface event, but who knows?

Do other people think about this kind of stuff?

 

Miscellaneous fun facts: Sperm whales communicate with a vast repertoire of sounds, just as other odontocetes, or toothed cetaceans do. Their clicks and clacks not only help them to locate prey and keep in contact, but quite likely provide the basis for identifying individuals, social units, and even extended kin, so to speak. Sound is the basis for exchanging information, and there is increasing evidence to suggest that this is the foundation for sperm whale culture. (Book recommendation: The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell)

Although sperm whales are the largest living toothed carnivores, they only have teeth in their lower jaws, and most probably don't chew their mostly-cephalopod prey much, if at all.

Also, sperm whales exhibit sexual dimorphism, meaning mature males are much larger than females. An adult female is around 11-12m long. Sexually mature males come in a range of sizes, since they continue growing post-puberty. There are reports of individuals of monstrous proportions from whaling days, though the mature males I've come across have tended to be in the range of 15-17m.

I have met a couple that were bigger, one that I am certain exceeded 20m. Adult females swimming alongside were half his length, give or take. He was...gigantic. When he hit me with bio-sonar at close range, my lungs pulsed (such an understatement) and my ears cleared, even though they didn't need clearing. It was like standing inside one of the ringing bells of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Some photos to illustrate various aspects of sperm whale life...


 

I'll wrap up the sperm whale gallery with this final image. It is an adult female sperm whale with Architeuthis dux giant squid in her mouth. This moment was certainly a highlight—having the chance to see something that I'd dreamt about since I was a kid.

Of course, the old yarns of vicious battles raging between bloodthirsty tentacled sea monsters and enormous sperm whales with chomping jaws were exaggerated. We now know that giant squids are quick and nimble, but sperm whales can catch them without too much drama.

In real life, sperm whales eat many more species of squids (and other things) than just Architeuthis, and most of the time, they consume their prey at depth.

The possible reason that the adult whale brought the squid up from 800m or more is that she and the other adults may have been weaning the calf (pictured here alongside and slightly behind the adult), introducing the youngster to the yumminess of king-sized calamari.

 

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) with giant squid (Architeuthis dux)