A Life Among Whales

Forty feet below me she hovers quietly. She’s 45 feet long and 80,000 pounds, and her bulk hides her 15-foot-long calf. The calf makes his way out from under her chin to take a few breaths at the surface. On his way back to his mother, the young humpback spots me near the research boat and gives me a good look. After 35 years of photographing cetaceans professionally, situations like this still bring a smile to my face.

The lives of whales aren’t always serene, though. Only a few days after I spot the mother with her calf, our research team finds a dozen male humpbacks fighting over a female. The battle is brutal; many of the whales have open bloody scrapes on the tops of their bodies. Despite whales’ occasional reputation as “gentle giants,” I would never use the word “gentle” to describe these violent, occasionally fatal encounters in the winter breeding grounds off the coast of Hawaii.

Jason Sturgis, part of the research group Whale Trust, documents the behavior of a female humpback whale and yearling calf in Auau Channel, Maui, Hawaii (NMFS Research Permit #987). This image was shot as part of a 2007 National Geographic story.
Jason Sturgis, part of the research group Whale Trust, documents the behavior of a female humpback whale and yearling calf in Auau Channel, Maui, Hawaii (NMFS Research Permit #987). This image was shot as part of a 2007 National Geographic story.

The more we learn about whales, the more our perceptions of these complex creatures evolve. In human history, whales were first regarded as sea monsters, terrifying and dangerous. Over time they came to be seen as a commodity, hunted by daring men in hazardous conditions. In some cases, certain species were even brought to the brink of extinction. In the 1960s and ’70s, when interest in whale conservation began to take hold, these large sea mammals were seen as paragons of good behavior — they were gentle giants, feeding on microscopic plankton and demonstrating great intelligence. Eventually, the science of cetology changed its focus from examining deceased whales to more benign studies of living whales in their natural environments. After centuries of killing them and a period of idealizing and anthropomorphizing them, we are now learning to love whales in all their glorious complexity.

Erect beluga whale
Lone beluga whale, Jones Sound floe edge, Nunavet, Canada, 1994

In many ways my own family history reflects America’s evolving attitude toward whales. My great-great-grandfather went to San Diego on a whaling ship in 1845. In an 1887 newspaper interview in the San Diego Union, he noted the impact of the whaling industry in West Coast waters. According to him, when he first arrived in San Diego Bay, “so thick were the whales in the channel that men who went in canoes from La Playa to get water from this spring were frequently obliged to wait hours before they deemed it safe to cross.” By the time of his interview, many of these whales were already gone. The culprit in their disappearance was unrestrained whaling, which targeted migration routes, feeding grounds and breeding/calving lagoons.

When I was a child, whale watching was a popular pastime; I remember my family taking me out after Easter Sunday services in 1955, when I was only seven. We looked out from the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego and saw little puffs of what appeared to be smoke in the distance. These were the blows of whales migrating along the same routes that brought my great-great-grandfather there to hunt them a century earlier.

Only eight years after that Easter whale watch, my family would become inexorably tied up in the world of whales when my father, Chuck Nicklin, achieved notoriety for riding on a whale. In 1963 my family owned a dive shop in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. My father inherited a few underwater cameras from the late Conrad Limbaugh, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s first diving safety officer. While diving with friends, my father came upon a whale caught by its tail in the anchor line of a gillnet. He and his friends swam around the whale, filming and photographing it until at some point my father climbed onto the animal’s back. When photographs and footage of my father’s escapade reached the local — and later the national — news, they caused quite a hubbub, eventually taking him to New York to appear on the hit game show To Tell the Truth.

The story could have ended there, but of course it didn’t. Bates Littlehales, National Geographic magazine’s top underwater photographer, soon contacted my father to learn more about photographing whales underwater. All of a sudden my father was a whale expert. He had, after all, ridden on one. Littlehales and my dad became great friends, and it was through this friendship that my family began capturing whales on film, not with harpoons.

Aerial view of a blue whale
Blue whale near Santa Barbara, Calif., 2009

My own career photographing whales began in 1979 in Maui when I was hired to shoot production stills of humpbacks for the IMAX film Nomads of the Deep. It was here that Jim Darling, Ph.D., the film’s scientific liaison, gave me my first scientific-diving assignment. That March, Darling was recording a humpback whale’s song from a small boat. Until that day, everyone assumed that whales swam while they sang, but 50 feet below Darling’s boat one whale was hanging head down, perfectly still and singing away. Darling called the IMAX crew and asked me if I could freedive down to the whale, swim under it and photograph its genitals, but he didn’t tell me how loud it would be.

As I passed the tail I could feel the 160-decibel whale song in my sinuses and lungs, and as I took photos close to its belly I could see its tail rise above me. I curled up into a ball, sure that I would be whacked, but the whale just wanted to look back to see where the bubbles on his genitals were coming from. Fair enough, I thought.

At the time I assumed whale photography would be a one-time gig — somebody told me “whales had been done.” But everything changed for me when I met a dozen bright graduate students who were using new methods to study cetaceans without harming them. Their research was based on two important facts: First, it was possible to study whales without killing them, and second, there was no such thing as a “whale.” Not only were there no two species of whale that acted alike, there were no two populations or even individuals who did so either. As it turned out, I would spend the next 35 years following these researchers and their colleagues around the world, learning about and photographing whales, dolphins and porpoises. These adventures eventually produced 20 National Geographic stories, three National Geographic books and scores of great memories.

Above-ocean view of thousands of beluga whales
A thousand belugas in a small river mouth, Peel Sound, Nunavet, Canada, 1993

When I started shooting National Geographic stories, at first I simply focused on providing a clearer view of cetaceans. Whale research had begun as an attempt to understand the biology of a valuable economic resource. Early publications were mostly directed toward the management and study of dead specimens, but my photographs documented living whales. Today, cetacean research papers unrelated to fisheries management are published in a variety of traditional scientific journals, and marine mammals even have their own journals, such as Marine Mammal Science and Aquatic Mammals. As soon as I started photographing whales, I saw it as my challenge to ground my depictions of whales in science without losing the love and magic that contributed to whale preservation movements. I was actually as interested in the researchers as their subjects. Ultimately I’m a journalist, not a natural-history photographer.

As I continued shooting for National Geographic, my photography gradually improved. I acquired better gear and got help from researchers who were constantly learning more about living whales, dolphins and porpoises. Between 1982 and 1988 we did stories on humpback whales, orcas, krill, narwhal and sperm whales.

Several beluga whales poke their heads out of water
Beluga whales rubbing in the shallow, fresh water estuary of Cunningham Inlet, Nunavet, Canada, 1993

Both narwhal and sperm whales are notoriously difficult to shoot. After three months trying to shoot narwhal, for example, I still had nothing usable. Most of the story ended up being shot in seven hours during a single battle between male narwhals over a dying female. My work on sperm whales over the course of six months in Sri Lanka was impeded by a different set of issues: Separatist fighting was just beginning, and, all in all, I was only able to get about a half dozen rolls of underwater shots. Still, our work on underwater wildlife in the 1980s was enormously successful, and it eventually led to the magazine’s December 1988 centennial-edition story, “Whales: An Era of Discovery.”

My first whale expedition was 35 years ago. Back then many species and populations were threatened. Blue, bowhead and humpback whales were among the most threatened. When I began my career in 1979 I never expected to see a blue whale because the species was on the road to extinction. Now more than 3,000 blue whales swim off the West Coast of the United States. Bowhead whales are no longer considered endangered internationally. Humpback whales in the north Pacific, which once numbered fewer than 2,000, thrive with a growing population of more than 22,000 individuals.

There are whales still on the edge. Atlantic and North Pacific right whales remain among the most threatened; despite complete international protection, their numbers have not increased significantly. Luckily the southern right whale is faring much better; researchers estimate that they number in the low thousands and are demonstrating modest population growth. The vaquita, a harbor porpoise in the northern Gulf of California, is critically endangered, and it is unlikely that the species can be rescued. Still, the only way to know whether species such as the vaquita have any hope for the future is to do our best to protect them.

Two male narwhals fence with their tusks above water
Narwhal males with 7-foot tusks crossed over an injured and later dead female

Just this April, I stood on the Golden Gate Bridge with Jonathan Stern, Ph.D., of Golden Gate Cetacean Research. Below us a harbor porpoise swam out from the shadow of the bridge. For more than 60 years these small porpoises were gone from San Fransisco Bay, but in 2008 Stern noticed them again. Now they come into the bay regularly. Golden Gate Cetacean Research staff members have photographed the porpoises from the Golden Gate Bridge and identified more than 600 individuals. No one expected this was possible, but the recovery of these harbor porpoises gives us hope for other threatened whales.

Just as our view of whales has changed over time, their view of us has likewise changed. In calving lagoons in Baja California, a gray whale calf under our inflatable skiff plays peek-a-boo with us and even rubs the sides of our boat. In the 19th century humans exploited lagoons such as this one to hunt whales. Now the calf’s mother feels comfortable enough with our vessel to push her offspring toward us. This behavior was first documented in the 1970s, and it’s now a fairly common — and frankly wonderful — encounter.

The public’s role in wildlife preservation cannot be underestimated. The premiere of Flipper on television in 1964 followed 11 years later by the documentary Last Days of the Dolphins, which showed the killing of dolphins in tuna nets, prompted widespread outrage about canned tuna contributing to dolphin deaths. A groundswell of public fervor empowered the “Save the Dolphin” campaign, which led to the popularization of dolphin-safe tuna in the United States. Similar interactions between fisheries and other nontargeted marine species highlighted issues that led to the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972; the act made injuring, killing or harassing marine mammals a federal crime punishable by fines and/or imprisonment.

Ocean mud cloud forms because a whale is feeding in the ground
Gray whale feeding in the mud flats near Tofino, Canada, 1984

The haunting sounds of humpbacks singing in their breeding grounds were instrumental in capturing the public’s imagination and moving us toward today’s whale-conservation ethic. These sounds must have enchanted and frightened early mariners who heard the songs echoing off the hulls of their wooden ships. Researchers such as Roger Payne and Scott McVay brought the humpbacks’ songs to the public’s attention in 1967; now scientists such as my friend and colleague Jim Darling are working to determine the function of these songs. Such wonderful mysteries bolster popular and scientific support for conservation campaigns.

I photograph whales, but as a photojournalist I also document the researchers who study them. Photography has also become an important tool in the whale-researcher’s toolbox. High-quality images that document distinctive characteristics help researchers distinguish individual whales, which provides valuable information about populations. Not only can I help research efforts by taking photographs, I can also teach researchers to be better photographers; it is gratifying to me to further cetacean research in both direct and indirect ways.

Orca whale jumps out of water
An orca leaping on a sunny day near Telegraph Cove, Vancouver Island, Canada, 1981

Photographs are important tools in conservation efforts; the success of these efforts requires people to understand and appreciate aspects of the natural world that may not otherwise be accessible to them. Photographs provide an immediate method by which people can make a connection with a place or the creatures that inhabit it. Thus, underwater images of living whales — depicted not as bloated carcasses on beaches or slabs of meat cut up into steaks — serve as critical means to an end.

In Hawaii we stretch our singing-humpback study season into April, when the whales’ numbers thin and their behaviors last longer. I still sit in the front of the 24-foot skiff while Darling takes the helm, just as we did 35 years ago. Science drives our expeditions, and every so often we see something special to photograph. Last year we saw male whales dancing; this year we witnessed a tremendous battle. The simplistic view of whales as gentle giants is as incorrect as the one in which they are sea monsters or unfeeling commodities to be exploited. Although the transition from hunting whales to preserving them is an incontrovertibly positive change, there is no need to anthropomorphize them. They aren’t humans; they’re cetaceans, and they’re quite good at being what they are.

Two orca whales break for air above water while swimming
Orcas in southeast Alaska, 2013

© Alert Diver — Q3 Summer 2014