Photo: Jonathan Bird/Getty
Not three metres from where I’m standing on the starboard side of the sailboat, six very large female sperm whales are doing something few humans have ever witnessed.
The captain of our 40-foot cutter is Dalhousie University biologist Hal Whitehead, one of the pre-eminent experts on sperm whales. It’s mid-afternoon on a sunny day in Mexico’s Gulf of California, a 1,000-kilometre-long body of water famous for its biodiversity. The gulf’s strong tides create a cool upwelling of nutrients that support countless species of marine life, such as snappers, sardines and sharks, as well as that fierce mass of tentacles known as the Humboldt squid. Sperm whales hunt these squid year-round—they dive kilometres under the surface, pinpoint the squid with their sonar and snap them into their large and toothy grins.
For the past five days, Whitehead and four crew members—including two Ph.D. students named Armando Manolo Álvarez Torres and Catalina Gomez—have been shadowing the sperm whales around the clock. They track their underwater echolocation pings on the hydrophone by night, and observe and photograph the animals by day. In many ways Whitehead’s approach is that of an old-fashioned behavioural scientist. While younger whale researchers tend to collect data using implants and satellite tracking, Whitehead still prefers following whales in person. By watching who spends time with whom doing what, he can extract insights about their social structure.
Until now, the whale behaviour on display during our trip has been pretty basic: They disappeared into the deep and—invisible to us—hunted. A bushy waterspout, often spotted from the crow’s nest, announced their return to the surface. Family units of half a dozen or so bobbed at the surface of the water, reoxygenating their blood and preparing for the next dive.
But on rare occasions the whales did something else: They socialized, squirming all over one another like a business of monster-size aquatic ferrets. “Whoa,” says Gomez, as the water in front of her churns with activity. One of the whales rolls onto her side—we can see the tender pink of her jaw, surprisingly slight and narrow against her large proboscis. Another whale rolls over her, twisting as she moves, while a third pokes her nose vertically out of the water, as if sniffing the air, before undulating sharply, bunching her back as she slides down and into the other bodies. The high-powered field camera whirls as Gomez shoots photo after photo while another crew member furiously fills out the behavioural log in the day’s workbook.