Where When How — March/April 2017
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Whale Watching
Philip Shearer

THE SOUNDS OF THE DEEP: Whale Watching

WE LOVE TO TRAVEL. HUMANS ARE ON THE MOVE, NOT always by choice of course. Nevertheless, we can jump in a car and cross the united States following roads and signs from start to finish. Board a flight in london and twelve hours later step off in Cape Town. We rarely think how the pilots are using high tech navigation systems following flight paths across the skies, day and night. We are visual animals, relying heavily on the sense that allows us to see stars millions of miles away.

On the clearest day underwater, we’d be lucky to see more than a hundred and fifty feet. Which brings into sharp focus, the incredible vision or sensory perception that is required by Humpback Whales and other cetaceans to travel through and across our oceans. One has to really stop and think about this to even begin to comprehend the enormity of swimming thousands of miles to the same area at the same time year in year out, while moving through a vast oceanic expanse of dense liquid.

And yet like many beings, Humpbacks, the world over, all partake in massive annual North-South migrations in both hemispheres. In winter, those in the north swim south, leaving their summer feeding grounds to head for their tropical winter breeding season. While pods in the Southern hemisphere depart similar tropical winter breeding grounds and head southwards toward the Antarctic to feed and vice versa six months later.

How? Yes, indeed how. How do the whales navigate and find their way back to places like the Turks and Caicos? While whales have highly adapted eyes to see underwater, light, which normally travels at nearly 300,000,000 metres per second in air, comes to a near standstill underwater; inhibiting mammalian eyesight regardless of sensory capability.

Although light may be easily absorbed and reduced by water’s density, sound acts like quite the opposite, and can travel much further underwater, taking on a whole new dimension. Depending on its frequency it can travel the globe, literally. The longest recorded distance of sound was captured in the north west of the Pacific, made by a noise-emitting device in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That’s halfway around the world. The sensitivity of sound underwater is easily experienced while snorkelling for example, where you can often hear a vessel far sooner than you can see it.

The underwater world is a world of sound and the ocean is the domain of the great leviathans. Sound is the tool they use to see each other, to see other species and to very likely see the sea floor. It is also the tool they use to hear each other. Highly evolved internal navigation systems manifest themselves through songs and all manner of sounds, both bizarre and beautiful. Sailors, in the olden days, would lie below deck listening, either paralysed through fear or captivated by these haunting songs, oblivious to their source.

Once upon a time the ocean blue was a myriad of sounds and songs, as whales crisscrossed the seas in search of food and mates while calling out dangers. Only occasional deepwater eruptions perhaps punctuated this world. A good voice requires a good ear and no doubt whales rely on their ears to hear the information being passed. Today, however, as our cities and country succumb to light pollution, so to in the ocean new sound is polluting the world beneath the ocean waves. Ships, drilling rigs and seismic testing, just to name a few, have littered the waters with uninterrupted sound of all types of volume and frequencies. For navigators, relying on acoustic clues and information, the relentless ocean noise they can’t turn off must be seriously intense, more so in places of concentrated activity, like shipping lanes, ports and oil fields.

Arrival to the Turks and Caicos then, as well as other island civilisations like Tonga and Hawaii, must be a welcome relief to the whales, posing somewhat of a chance to relax and perhaps escape a little of the noise. The return of our Humpbacks between January and March is indeed special. If you’re lucky enough to be in the right place and the right time, you might get to see them as they pass through. It is their song, however, that often first marks their return, gratefully listened to by scuba divers suspended on the edge of our coral reefs. The closer they are the louder it gets. Get close enough, and you’ll not hear them any more. You will feel them; with vibrations so strong they reverberate through your chest, shaking one to the very core. It is truly awesome.

Choose wisely. Very few guides and captains know how to approach these mammals safely and properly, even fewer can get you in the water with them. Expect nothing. The whales are not here for us. Anticipate. Be ready for anything. ??

Philip Shearer is an underwater photographer and head whale guide at Big Blue Unlimited | Website: bigblueunlimited.com | Instagram: @philipshearer @bigblueunlimited
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