Swimming with Humpback Whales

By Matthew Essex

By Matthew Essex

Salty Swims Co Founder

A Swim Guide's Story

September 13, 2019 – The most memorable day of my career and although it was Friday the Thirteenth, it happened to be my luckiest day on the open ocean I’ve had so far. One mile from shore, with a boat full of excited customers, we spot a young female Humpback meandering in the bay. She was relaxed, with seemingly no-place to be and heading in no particular direction. She was just out, enjoying her morning swim.

We quietly entered the water not wanting to disturb her, calming our hearts and steadying our breath. She circled the boat and turned straight for us, coming within an arm’s reach and then dived down directly below us, taking centre stage. We laid motionless, floating as we watched her dance graciously below, twisting and turning as she stared back with intense and curious eyes. It was as if she was making sure we were all watching, like a child putting on a performance. The next choreography was just for two – The pace slowed, she moved in close and we began to dance together. Matching each other’s movements, twirling in-turn over and over. This behaviour I had only ever read about before and couldn’t believe what was happening. We finished our dance belly-to-belly, I politely bowed and waved goodbye and her response left me stunned – She raised her huge 3-meter pectoral fin and with a subtle and elegant twist, she seemed to wave straight back.

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to swim with a Humpback whale. Many mention how it changes your life and alters your perception of what it is to be human, but to describe the feeling is more difficult. I would liken it to being reunited with a loved one after a long time apart – you feel happiness but of the highest possible level, the level where your diaphragm squeezes uncontrollably to fight back the welling tears, you’re instantly stripped of your ability to breathe and in that moment, in their embrace, there’s nothing in the world but joy and relief.

Interacting with Humpback whales is made that much more special by the fact that it doesn’t happen every day. They are, after all, wild animals and as intelligent mammals, they have individual personalities and temperaments, just like us.

Other days, it wasn’t their lack of interest that prevented a swim, but an adrenaline fuelled surface display, but no-one would complain. Forty tonnes of whale rising completely out of the water and crashing back down in an explosive finish, is a dramatic sight – One day, my swimmers and I were sat on the back deck ready to enter the water, when a young calf broke through the surface with such tenacity, his whole body was air born. To our amazement, his mother followed suit, then another member of the pod, then another and another, going off like well-planned fireworks right in front of our eyes. A short pause – I’m not sure anyone on board could believe what they had just seen – followed by a thunderous applause.

The true show of their strength and power, however, is during their mating rituals, with males fighting for the affection of a female in what’s called ‘a heat run’. It starts off slow, with a female slapping the surface of the water with their enormous pectoral fins, this booming sound travels through the water alerting all the males in the area of a race that’s soon to begin. The female sets the pace and the males follow close behind, fighting each other for pole position by trying to sink their opponent or by colliding and hitting each other. It was during a more relaxed heat run, one harder to recognise, that I found myself in the water with customers. As I looked down and ahead, I witnessed 2 males collide head-to-head, I could feel the pain as if it was my own and the thud that followed was disturbingly loud. It was on this same swim that I first felt the noise of whale song move through me.

You don’t often think to listen out for whales singing; there are so many variables and so much responsibility as a guide that it can be distracting, plus, this is coupled with listening out for orders from the crew and the heavy breathing through a snorkel cancelling out most noise, but when you do, it’s harmonic and beautiful! Apart from on that fateful day, swimming alongside a heat run. As one of the big males passed me, he let out a deep, grumbly murmur and as much as it was loud, it shook me more – I felt it! It vibrated through my bones and through my organs, shaking my heart. For the first time, I was scared but not for something dreadful happening, I’ve always felt very safe with Humpback whales but for feeling something that I hadn’t felt before. It was scary but exhilarating at the same time!

As a job, of course it’s not all fun and games and the job description certainly doesn’t prepare you for the pressure of searching for whales or the countless miles swam day after day. Not to mention the times I’ve witnessed a fully-grown human throw-up all over themselves – BUT we don’t need to get into that. I would consider myself one of the luckiest people on earth for having the opportunity to swim with Humpback whales and I’m so grateful for being in a position where I can help people to experience the same.

I write this blog with thanks to the team that I had the privilege of working alongside, I have vivid and wonderful memories of you all.

I’ll leave you with this tune that haunted our whale seasons.

The Outhere Brothers – Boom Boom Boom 

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