Hobknobbing With Sperm Whales in the Azores

A sperm whale calf with either its mother or an auntie. Sperm whales care for their young communally. Photos by Wade Hughes
A sperm whale calf with either its mother or an auntie. Sperm whales care for their young communally. Photos by Wade Hughes

Hobknobbing With Sperm Whales in the Azores

By Wade Hughes, FRGS

Choppy water, scuffed up by the stiff offshore early morning breeze, made snorkeling on the surface difficult. The whales were somewhere ahead of me – I could distinctly hear them clicking – but they were wallowing on the lumpy surface, up-sun, and even when I could snatch a quick glance in their general direction from the top of a tumbling wavelet, they were hidden in the dazzling brassy glare.

There were two of them. We’d seen them from the inflatable Zodiac minutes after the excited cry from the vigia had come over the radio. “Ohhhhhh! Cachalot! Cachalot!” Through powerful binoculars, from within his aerie on the flanks of dormant Pico – the volcano that gives this island in the Azores its name – he’d seen the angled spouts of vapor that clearly distinguish sperm whales from other whales.

With precision honed sharp by years as a whaling lookout, and speaking in the native Portuguese, he quickly relayed distance and bearing to Michael, our guide and skipper.

“Cachalot… sperm whales,” Michael explained. The outboard bit deep as he spun the wheel, pushed the throttle lever forward, and sent the orange Zodiac pontoon boat zipping and bouncing in a froth of white on blue towards the seaward horizon.

“There!” Robyn, my wife, her windblown hair haloed by the low sun, was first to see them. Once again, the whale was given away by the puff of vapor that issues low, forward and to the side from its left nostril. We were about three and a half miles (six km) out to sea and they were several hundred yards (meters) dead ahead.

Gently Converging

Michael pushed the Zodiac off to the right in a wide curve, to take it far behind, and away from the track of the whales. When he’d put us well to seaward of them he killed the revs and the Zodiac whispered along on a course that gently converged with that of the whales.

This is what Robyn and I, and Wayne and Pam Osborn had come for. We’d applied for and been granted permission by the Azorean authorities to enter the water to observe and record behavior of these enigmatic mammals, the largest of the toothed whales.

A coastal village in the Azores
A coastal village in the Azores

The Azores are spectacular volcanic peaks erupting from the same mid-Atlantic Ridge that creates Iceland, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. They lie on the same latitude as New York and Lisbon. Surrounded by deep oceanic water, they are one of the best locations on Earth to observe sperm whales close to shore.

Frank Wirth, ebullient German born filmmaker, expert in natural history, and owner of Pico Dive in Madelena had provided us with the Zodiac and his two best whale-spotting guides, Michael Costa and Artur Hörner.

Now, in close quarters, we all watched intently the two whales on the surface. Two gray-black backs, sloshing and awash like a low reef at mid-tide. Downwind as we were, we could clearly hear their periodic exhalations: “Phwaaaah! Pohh!”

“They’ve been up for a while so they’re probably going to dive anytime now,” Michael declared.

Tons and Tons of Cephalopods

Sperm whales, super predators that they are, make their living catching their prey, principally squid, far away from prying human eyes in the blackness of the abyss at depth of up to perhaps 10,000 feet (3048 m). Researcher Hal Whitehead calculates that the world’s estimated 300,000 sperm whales gulp down about 75 million metric tons of squid and other cephalopods annually!

The members of the author's diving expedition
The members of the author’s diving expedition

That’s about as much as the weight of edible fish that the entire human population drags out of the sea every year. How they’re able to actually do that – in the dark, faced with prey that are far more agile and speedy swimmers than they – is not yet fully understood, but they spend far more time at depth, chasing food, than they do on the surface.

Typically, they’ll be underwater working hard for around 45 minutes at a time. Consequently, the ten or 12 minutes that they spend on the surface between dives is critically important for them. In that time they replenish their lungs with air, and their blood – up to three metric tons of it in larger whales – with oxygen. It was a period of recuperation that we did not want to interrupt.

Joining the Party

But, after watching them for a few minutes more Michael changed his mind. “They’re not going to dive for a while. They’re socializing. You can go in. Be careful. Be quiet”

The author prepares to submerge.
The author prepares to submerge.

I’d been ready to slip over the side from the time we’d inched carefully to within swimming range – about 100 yards (90 m). We only allowed one diver in the water at any one time, and it was my turn. My thin wetsuit brupped against the inflated rubbery pontoon of the Zodiac as I eased myself into water.

Chilly rivulets of water wriggled their way past my collar, down between my shoulder blades and sent an involuntary shiver through me. Wayne ran his eye over my camera housing to confirm that it was properly sealed, and then lowered it into the water. With a little wave towards Robyn, I pushed away from the Zodiac to begin the long slog towards the whales.

In conditions like this, against the wind and the water and the drag of a large underwater camera housing, with ankles weighted to eliminate the risk of fins splashing on the surface, it was a slog. In water as deep as this, somewhere around 1,000 yards (900 m), there is no hope of judging progress by watching the seabed pass below.

Every time we swam here it was in water so deep and startlingly clear that we felt as though we were invisibly anchored in the center of an inverted blue liquid hemisphere, pounding away with our fins, with lactic acid burning in our aching legs, seemingly all to no avail – until the looming mass of a sperm whale materialized out of the blue haze. This morning was no different.

Communication and Echo-Location

I kicked hard and downwards a couple of times to raise my head as high out of the water as I could, in an effort to get a bearing on the two whales, but without success. Instead, I glanced back to be guided by the outstretched and pointing arms of those in the Zodiac. I had no idea whether I was getting closer or not, although the sharp periodic “Click!… Click! Click!…Click” told me that they were still there and heightened the suspense and excited anticipation that was rising in me.

Pico, a dormant volcano
Pico, a dormant volcano.

In different combinations and frequencies those clicks serve as communication between whales and as a critical tool for echo-locating, and perhaps even stunning, the squid on which they depend. No other animal can rival the sound energy that a sperm whale is capable of producing. This is yet another aspect of sperm whale biology that is only partially understood.

If you can imagine an elephant with its trunk split, with the left nostril dedicated to breathing, and the right nostril trumpeting into a megaphone, then you have a reasonable analogy for the sperm whale’s sound system The megaphone is the spermaceti organ, the ponderous oil-filled cask from which the whale derives both its name (early whalers mistook the oil in this organ for semen), and its boxy head.

Finally, as a wavelet slopped me upwards, and the water fell away from my facemask, I caught sight of one of those emblematic heads, slightly raised above the surface about 130 feet (40m) away. From my position, it was lined up almost precisely with the cloud-wreathed conical peak of Pico, rearing 7,713 feet (2,351 m) up in the distance, so I finally had an easily visible mark to lead me forwards. I dug in with renewed effort.

First Encounter

Moment’s later, much sooner than I’d expected, I had a whale in sight. Just a purpling smudge in the blue at first. Ahead and slightly below me – about five yards (4.6 m) beneath the surface. It was sinking. Not diving, just sinking slowly, slowly on its side, watching me approach.

Sperm whales eat mainly squid and other cephalopods.
Sperm whales eat mainly squid and other cephalopods.

Its eye, and the almost comically little paddle-shaped pectoral fin, it’s white mouth, and a large gray-white patch on its side were all clearly visible. It was probably eight or nine yards (7-8 m) long.

These are wonderful, impressive, mysterious, massive creatures and I was mesmerized by it. Such a giant. Yet so timidly retreating into the depths. Seemingly curious enough to want to watch me as it went, but apparently not curious enough to stay. I swam until I was vertically over it, and lay staring vertically down at it until it disappeared.

Then I raised my head to look ahead again and jumped with surprise. There were not two whales here. There were five, just a few feet ahead: a socializing group, dominated by a 36-foot (11-meter) female and ranging through a variety of sizes down to a young calf.

The female lay just below the surface, horizontally, her side towards me, watching me. Arrayed around and below her, the smaller whales hung suspended in a variety of postures – upside down on their backs, head down, tail down – as though strewn carelessly by capricious liquid wind. One, inverted with its tail flukes casually flopped down like a relaxed hand on a limp wrist, had begun sinking slowly into deeper water.

Communal Calfcare

The calf sank a little too. In fact that’s how it first came into sight, dropping head down to peer at me from under the belly of the large female. Sperm whales, like elephants, care for their young communally so it was impossible to know whether this was a calf with its mother, or one under the temporary care of another female while the mother foraged in the blackness far below.

Sperm whales use sound to communicate and to locate squid in the darkest depths of the ocean.
Sperm whales use sound to communicate and to locate squid in the darkest depths of the ocean.

Whatever the relationship, finding myself in such intimate proximity to the calf triggered some fear in me. Before this expedition I’d found nothing in the literature to suggest that sperm whales would react aggressively towards humans in the water. But few animals will passively accept a perceived threat to their young.

Heart pounding, I stared intently at the large female. Tossing up and down on the choppy surface made it impossible for me to be completely still, but there was no reaction from the whale. She just floated there, her wrinkled bulk dominating my field of view.

One of the smaller whales – if any whale can be described as small by the humans they dwarf- rolled over onto its back and swam slightly closer – and added another ten beats a minute to my heart rate. This gave me the clearest view I’d yet had of the remarkable white mouth of the sperm whales. Closed, as this one was, the whiteness appeared like luminous lipstick delineating the long, spindly jaw.

What advantage is conferred on the whale by this coloration is uncertain: squid attractor or signaling device to other whales? No one knows. It is certainly one of the most immediately visible features as a sperm whale approaches underwater. On this occasion it didn’t seem to signal anything – except maybe a call for the small group to sink.

Massive Flukes

Sinking seemed to be the order of the day. From the Zodiac we’d seen many whales heaving their flukes up into the air as they began a vertical dive – the upraised “hand of God” cascading water and feared, with good reason, by open-boat whalers around the world. Today though, in this encounter, each of the whales I’d seen descending had been simply sinking rather than purposefully powering downwards with massive swipes of their flukes.

And so it was with the remaining whales in this group. Continuously clicking, in loose formation, they simply started to fall slowly from the surface. I filled my lungs and swam down in parallel with the large female and the calf. This immediately roused the curiosity of the calf and it leveled out of its own headfirst descent and turned toward me. In turn, this attracted the attention of one of the smaller whales. Like a watchful older sister reigning in a wandering toddler, it quickly but gently nudged the calf back into close formation with the matriarch.

For me, this was a period of elation tinged with frustration and sadness. Elation at the shoulder-rubbing closeness I’d been afforded by these animals. Frustration and sadness with my inability to follow them further. So far distant is their everyday world from our own, so difficult is it for humans to study their hidden lives in detail that they may as well have been heading for the dark side of the moon.

At 15 yards (14 m) I could go no further. Instead, I was forced to arrest my descent, frame one last photograph, and then watch as the three of them, as though with arms linked, continued their downward journey until they dissolved into the blue-black beneath me.

sperm whales
Wade Hughes
began diving as a 12-year-old in Australia and has since dived around the world. He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a Member of the Explorers Club. Read his latest book, The Thirteenth Beach.


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