Face to face with a pilot whale hanging just below the surface. Often these animals would turn belly-up, for better stereoscopic vision
EVEN AS THE ORCA SOUNDED, Andrew ‘AJ’ Pugsley was plunging after it, camera in hand. Seconds later, he broke the surface. Spitting out his snorkel and grinning widely, he yelled: “Got it!”
Filming killer whales under water was an unexpected prize. Our first diving documentary film was supposed to be all about pilot whales, but over three summers of shooting, our escalating marine life encounters showed that we had stumbled across a previously undiscovered and very special wildlife event – and pilots were just part of the story.
We were on location in the Gibraltar Straits, the spit of water through which the Atlantic Ocean flows into the Mediterranean basin.
And we may have chanced on Europe’s own Sardine Run.
Exped Gib’s success had its genesis in failure. AJ and I had flown to Gibraltar determined to bring blue sharks to our cameras in 2007.
The weather had turned against us after two hours of chumming, and with the sharking grounds blown out, skipper Nick Balban suggested that we try for pilot whales. A celebrated fisherman on the Rock, Nick had been my diving partner for 15 years.
The next day, 45 minutes after leaving port, we were under water with pilot whales for the first time.
A calf materialised through the 15m visibility and slowly approached AJ. Moments later, an adult broke through the haze and firmly led the inquisitive baby away. We had five more encounters that afternoon.
THE NEXT SUMMER, we returned with underwater adventurers Drew Sutton, Chris Walter and Danny Kessler, and spent three long days snorkelling with the pilots. Feeling more confident, Mark Koekemoer, AJ and I thought our experiences could support a film.
The main shooting was scheduled to last 15 working days (top-up footage was shot over the next two seasons). Mark would take stills and AJ and I would shoot underwater video.
To subsidise the costs of Blackfish Rising, invitations were extended to carefully selected friends. We needed people willing to gamble long odds for the remote chance of a handsome pay-off, who liked the thrill and accepted the risks of being close to big animals.
Back in 2001, AJ and I had been among the first sport divers to leave the protection of a shark cage and video and photograph great whites – with legendary South African shark wrangler Andre Hartmann helping us to pull this off in relative safety.
For Exped Gib we had no guide.
So many “exciting” diving experiences come pre-packaged, so to create our own adventure enriched the experience immeasurably – but also made it edgy.
A pilot whale, as Mark reported dryly after one run-in, “can be a very intimidating creature”.
PILOTS ARE NOT true whales, but among the largest of the dolphins.
They can reach 6m in length, and are named for their trait of following a single leader – even if that leader runs them all aground. Mass strandings of pilots are well known.
Otherwise, pilots are smart. The US Navy has used them for ferrying tools to aquanauts and for ordnance recovery from deep water.
In the wild, they prey on fish and squid. They may hunt hundreds of metres down, exceeding 20 knots in marathon chases as they bring down prey. There’s evidence that they even pursue Architeuthis, the giant squid.
Pilots are social animals, usually travelling in pods of six to eight when we see them. Normally the group includes one or two calves, a metre or so long. In 2012 we filmed tiny newborns still creased from being folded up in their mothers’ wombs.
From our first tentative dives with the whales, we had felt threatened. Their fixed grin is just a trait of nature and, like other dolphins, they can be aggressive towards one another.
We saw pilots violently tail-lash other pod members, and they carry scars from such in-fighting.
Sometimes we bore the brunt of their aggression, par for the course if you choose to work with big animals you know little about.
They would sometimes feign biting, or flail their tails in our direction. Those flukes can drive a three-ton whale clear of the water, so a tail slap would likely be fatal. But the whales had never followed up the threat.
Our problem was that we didn’t always know when we had crossed a line, or at which point a pilot whale will stop issuing warnings and hurt a diver.
In 2007 and 2008 the whales only occasionally reprimanded us, and the only real follow-up would be a return for a closer look. But 2009’s Exped Gib saw a change to the previous behaviour.
DROPPING IN ALONE, I duck-dived to line up my shot, and watched a big whale swim straight at me. The tail-slap cavitated the water, showering bubbles, moving me backwards and creating a distinctive loud “snap”.
Still videoing, I held my ground, and was charged again. I immediately signalled the boat that I wanted out RIGHT NOW!
The whale charged a third time, bringing the five-strong pod with it. Even after I had left the water, they surrounded the boat and spy-hopped.
AJ and Mark were buddied up when a pod forced them against the surface. With nowhere to go, they signalled to be picked up. The wait for the boat is barely a minute, but it always seems far longer when it’s you in the water.
Yet the whales can also be gentle and curious. I watched mesmerised through my monitor as an adult and calf slowly waltzed with Mike Jeffries.
Shooting through his fisheye lens, Mike edged back to try to keep them framed, but the whales danced ever closer around him, well within touching distance.
For that precious half-minute, human and whales regarded each other with calm interest. “That was a very special moment,” Mike said later.
Humans aren’t always so appreciative. In the Faeroe Islands, an autonomous province of Denmark, pilot whales are deliberately run into shallow bays, gaffed through the blow-hole and butchered using long knives.
Around 950 are killed annually. It’s a rite of passage, apparently.
Being risk-averse, Mark, AJ and I started looking for ways to reduce unfriendly interactions and increase the friendly ones. One idea was to drop into the water much farther away from the whales, giving them more time to detect us with their echo-location systems, and more space in which to evade us if they chose to.
By dropping in so close, we thought, we might be taking the whales by surprise and unnerving them.
To some extent the idea worked, but often the pilots would swim right up to the boat, cavort around it and let us enter the water right alongside them.
Once I stepped off Cri-Cri’s stern platform, accidentally, and almost on top of two calves hovering below.
DUCK-DIVING towards the pilots could also result in a show of irritation. AJ suggested that we dive away from the whales, then slowly circle nearer.
When we used this technique, the whales often closed with us first, their interest spiked. There are paradoxes in their behaviour we don’t understand.
When pilots make the decision to come near, it’s not an arm’s length away – it’s an elbow’s.
The heads would fill my monitor, and I’d watch as the stocky bodies passed through, waiting very still to see if the tails were going to be a problem, and knowing that I could do nothing about it anyway.
But the whales move very precisely, and even at such close quarters, they can manoeuvre around you, often turning belly-up for better stereoscopic vision, without making contact. Cetaceans in the Straits always control the encounter.
FROM THE FLYING BRIDGE, Nick Balban began to piece together a different view of the whales’ threat displays. “You’re safer than you think – there are no near-misses,” he told us. “They know exactly where their tail is. They’re inch-perfect”.
But he conceded that “they look a lot more in control from the boat than they must do through the viewfinder!”
We depended not only on Nick’s uncanny skill to locate marine life for our cameras, including mola mola (sunfish) and loggerhead turtles, but also for our safety as we swam in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
Safaris are always planned around Nick and his brother Shaun’s availability. Cri-Cri is a 9m Draco family cruiser stripped out and converted for fishing.
She’s spartan, but fast and safe, with ample deck space for a small team.
Normally, we put only two divers in the water at a time. Freediving was the only practical way to photograph the whales. Scuba would have been too clumsy and we’d have had to be in radio contact with the boat while submerged, because the divers have to be able to board Cri-Cri at a moment’s notice if shipping is approaching.
And thunderflashes would have been unthinkable around cetaceans.
Many of the best images were taken at the surface, where a tank would have hindered us. And the drag under water would have slowed us down too much.
Mark, AJ and I all came through the ranks when snorkel training was a precursor to learning scuba. The competitive freediver’s techniques of “breathing up” weren’t viable for us – the encounters happen too fast and you must work to the beat of the animals.
We would dive on a half-breath, sometimes breaching with the whales and desperately trying to snatch a lungful of air (though we couldn’t – the whales exchange breaths in a second).
Sometimes we would hold a shot as long as we could, then look up to find that we had sunk.
Normally we’d work in the first 6-8m, but occasionally we’d find ourselves at 15m. We were all ready to ditch our weightbelts if we had the slightest doubt about regaining the surface!
THE BALBANS READ THE OCEAN. There had been a kill. Shaun had seen seabirds feeding in the far distance, and nosed Cri-Cri towards them. Nearing the spot, he scented fish-guts on the breeze, the shreds of a baitball. And below us on the echo-sounder he saw the cause: “Tuna!”
We hurried overboard. Treading water, I saw nothing. Then AJ duck-dived. Following him down, I found myself encircled by Atlantic bluefin tuna.
Bluefins are the largest tuna, and highly prized. On the Tokyo fish markets, one specimen fetched more than US $700,000. The Balbans have landed bluefin 3.5m long and weighing more than 270kg.
While my breath lasted I held the shot, as AJ swam through the shoal shooting point-of-view sequences.
I surfaced, caught my breath and found that the tuna had vanished. And that my camera had malfunctioned. I’d lost the shot.
Common, striped and bottlenose dolphins also patrol the Straits. As we cruised we saw a school of 100 dolphins cleave the water in a single precisely choreographed bound. But although more playful before Cri-Cri’s bow than the pilots, these dolphins are often much less interested in people.
Time and again we would get in when they were gambolling all around the boat and catch, at best, a glimpse.
Even slipping the tips of my fins into the water sent them diving out of sight. Shaun suggested that I should hang off the stern and be towed on a long rope: “Maybe that’ll interest them.”
It didn’t. Cold water ran up my sleeve, and I found out later that Danny was offering good money to be allowed to push the throttles all the way forward.
Finally seeing a school of striped dolphins pass by under water was amazing – it’s the sheer speed that impresses. But one bottlenose encounter was heart-wrenching.
Nick spotted dolphins behaving strangely on the surface and, as we approached, we realised that a calf had died. Another dolphin, presumably its mother, was desperately trying to get a response by pushing the corpse. “She’s trying to keep the calf’s blowhole clear of the water,” said Nick flatly.
Another photographer and I slipped over the transom. Mortality rate is high among infant dolphins, and this scene is replayed time and again. It’s absolutely natural. But we were seeing it for the first time. Neither of us really had the stomach for filming, and soon left.
I consider myself fairly dispassionate about animals, but to my eyes this was intruding on absolute and inconsolable grief. Spanish fishermen, I was told, are less emotional. They consider dolphins vermin, and will cut off the fins of those they catch and throw them back alive to scare off others.
AS WE TRAWLED THE STRAITS on a day when whale sightings were few and far between, a call came over the VHF: Tiburon blanco!
A great white shark had been reported cruising past a packed beach.
Nick gunned Cri-Cri’s engines and we sped back towards the Rock. As if in a scene from Jaws, police boats were criss-crossing the coastline.
Red flags had been raised along the shore; entering the water from the beach would be breaking the law. I wondered out loud if I could afford the fine.
“It only bans swimming from the beach,” said Nick, dripping fish-oil over the stern.”No problem jumping in from the boat...”
White sharks are documented in Gibraltar waters, although confirmed sightings are rare. There was no sign of the shark. Surface footage shot by a beach-goer on his phone was shaky and inconclusive – the fin can be whatever you want it to be.
I want it to be a great white. With the water thick with plankton and local spearfishermen and others identifying it as a basking shark, the evidence against it being a white mounts.
BACK ON THE HIGH SEAS, it has really kicked off. On the horizon orcas surge through the Straits, man-high dorsal fins standing proud, backs slick as oil as they part the water, exhaling loudly.
They are majestic, powerful and move with clear purpose.
Orcas are the world’s largest dolphins. We had tried unsuccessfully to find and film them under water in Norway in 2008. Around the globe, orcas tend to specialise in their choice of prey. In some seas it’s other mammals, off Norway it’s herring. In the summer in the Gibraltar Straits, they hunt bluefin tuna.
And they’ve learned to snatch them from the lines of Moroccan fishermen who fight one on one to bring the giant fish to their skiffs.
The orcas are moving fast, and we trail them, trying to pull ahead to drop our divers in front of the pack. The orcas are sly. Even when we position our boat a long way away, but so that the whales’ path will cross ours, they change direction while under water.
Nick feeds waypoints into the GPS, trying to find a pattern so that we can be in the right place when they resurface, but the whales vary their course.
They pause, having found a sting ray with which to play “toss”.
But they still evade us, taking their dying toy with them.
Several times I drop into the water, but see nothing. On the transom, AJ spots something black and white below. Even as we have been following the main pack, one orca has been shadowing Cri-Cri. AJ literally falls in on top of it and snatches a couple of seconds of video of the startled whale.
Ibrahim Roushdie employs the same technique, and is rewarded with a motor-driven sequence of a pair diving away.
Taking my turn I leap outwards, only to see an orca rapidly disappear uselessly out of frame as my bubbles clear.
Eventually, we find orcas that are more relaxed, and they rest near the boat, occasionally coming close enough for a few sequences to be shot with polecam.
I gently slip into the water and swim towards them. The whales move off slowly. Then Nick suddenly yells “dive” and I plunge instinctively to see, for the briefest of moments, barely long enough to keep a memory, a pod of six orcas alongside me.
AS THE EXPEDITION neared its end, the Straits gave up a true cetacean spectacular – a superpod.
Nearly 50 pilot whales had gathered. Hooked dorsal fins surrounded us.
Grabbing our cameras, we slipped overboard. A dozen bottlenose dolphins had joined the pilots, and it became our “Blue Planet” moment. Dolphins buzzed us, powering through the frame in twos and threes as we worked the whales.
The pilots are more stately than dolphins, less impetuous and playful. So I’m fascinated by a pilot-whale calf that is racing around imitating the dolphins.
It’s hard to capture the scale of the event. On the monitor I watch groups of pilots swim into view and join others, while all around me and out of shot I can see more and more whales and dolphins moving in.
The animals are packed so tightly that from the surface it looks as if you could walk across their backs like a lumberjack crossing floating logs.
I track AJ as he drops into position to shoot another sequence. For an instant I have him, dolphins and pilots in shot simultaneously. Reviewing the footage afterwards, I find it hard to believe that I was actually there behind the camera.
THE STRAITS ARE REWARDING and frustrating by turns. The pilot whales and dolphins have provided animal interactions we could not have dared hope for. Orcas and tuna had teased us with brief encounters, but at least we had something on tape.
Other animals, seen only from the boat, like a hammerhead, schooling white marlin and fin and sperm whales are a half-promise for the future. We’ll take those odds and return to run the gauntlet of the Gibraltar Straits again.
On the last day, I drop in solo, with the pilots still far off. A large adult swims swiftly towards me. Apprehensive, I beam “I come in peace” thoughts at it.
A metre away, it stops dead in the water. Slowly it lifts its head above the surface, so slowly and so gently that I can follow it with my camera. We drop back under water and gaze at each other.
Two more whales join the first, and then they slowly sound and swim away. It’s my own special moment.