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In winter months, in the area of western part of the Californian Peninsula, in west Mexico, you can usually find two species of whales. The Grey Whale and the Humpback Whale. Although I was prepared more for the Grey Whales the circumstances were different and so I was taking photos of Humpbacks mainly.

When you see it emerging from the water you may notice that on the place at its back, where a dorsal fin should be, there is only a "hump". That's where its name originally came from - Humpback Whale, a whale with a hump.
The fact is when you see a gigantic Humpback break the surface, you may think of many things, but I doubt you would ponder if it has a hump or a dorsal fin.
Humpback Whale. 30 000 kilograms in air. Cabo San Lucas. Mexico. 2009


I went to see the whales and I expected giant creatures. They are after all big fish (because their name in Czech translates literally as “bigfish”). Since my childhood I have had an indefinite memory of that ‘enormous’ skeleton of a whale, hanging from a ceiling of one exposition in the Czech National Museum, a ceiling, which at that time still bore traces of AK-47 of “friendly” soviet armies.

When in the water, it did not seem that big, especially when it was copying a sinusoid – emerging of a small part of head with vents on, loud exhalation, inhalation and quick back under water. Small dorsal fin (more exactly knot) often did not showed at all.
I changed my mind, when I first saw the whale’s tail just before it went down. I realized that it is considerably bigger than I am, and I started to feel that those parts of it I hadn’t seen yet, would be really huge. Later I read somewhere that those tail fins can be 3 or 4 meters long…
Humpback Whale. Tail fin may have a length of about 4 m. Cabo San Lucas. Mexico. 2009.

Humpback is not the biggest of whales. It can be 12 – 16 meters long and weighs something between 15 and 40 tons. Young whale is born a little bit furry - it's a mammal after all, measures approximately 3 meters, weighs about one ton and quite quickly gains on weight, about 50 kilograms a day. This is caused by a high fat content (55%) in whale milk. For comparison – cow milk contains about 4% of fat.
Humpbacks along with Grey whales are probably the most able travellers of the mammals. On the average speed of 8 kmph they cover 19.000 kilometers every year, from the Bering to the Cortez Sea and back again. This migration course leads in distance of one or two kilometers from coast. The Cortez Sea at the western coast of Mexico, serves as their winter resort and a maternity, because of suitable water temperature and shallow waters, where shark and killer whale’s attacks are less common. The Whales move close to the coast between January and April, approximately 1 to 2 kilometers from the western coast of the Californian Peninsula.

I knew that when a whale is swimming normally it breathes in several times before it goes underwater, where it stays no more than five minutes. By the way, one breathing in means some 1000 liters of air and the legendary geysir, when breathing out is not water, but steam condensed while submerging, from the air humidity.
It did not work like that in California Bay. The whales merged at will, emerged sometimes even after fifteen minutes (they can stay underwater about 30-40 minutes) and usually in absolutely unpredictable direction.
I went to Baja California to photo the whales, so when on the first trip I saw only a small part of its back, just for a few seconds, my mood was nearly gloomy.

'At least a tail (well, a fin) above the water,' I thought, 'almost everybody took a picture of that…'

To take a photo of a tail had shown to be actually easier than to photo a surfaced whale, mainly because a dorsal fin emerged surely after some time of calm, regular and therefore predictable whale’s swimming.
A nice position of a whale tail, from the photographical point of view, means that the whale does not stay close to the surface, but goes to the depths (sometimes even to 1500 meters under water, they say). It then usually emerges hundreds of meters away, in a direction you cannot expect.
Humpback Whale. Reminiscence - humpback whales live for 60 years. Cabo San Lucas. Mexico. 2009

Waiting for a Good Luck

We were waiting between two dives, the sea by Gordo Bank was calm, sun was shining. There was one anchored boat and one other, floating nearby. The previous dive assured me of one thing I had started to fear already – to photo the whales underwater on a classical scuba dive would not be easy at all. I thought about the tactics to get close to a desired photo shoot. I was more and more certain that with an aqualung emitting bubbles, it would be more than a coincidence to approach a whale to some reasonable distance. Not talking about the visibility, which was approximately 10 meters.
I hadn’t taken of the neoprene to get in the water any time in order to get a good picture. Few meters away there was something floating on the surface, something shaggy, as if there was a birds’ feast. Before I could had taken my flippers on, my friends were in the water already and on coming back they shouted: “Seals!”
On the surface there was a dosing family of californian seals. They are no whales, but I was really keen. Those circumstances were idyllic, after taking photos of seals in surge. When we got near, the seals woke up, took a look at us and then returned to their previous occupation nearby, relaxing. That scenario was repeated several times. Despite of the initial thrill I still was not satisfied – sun was shining too much, the rays pierced water and drew ornaments on the seals’ skins, so they looked like a special unit disguised before a secret operation.
Even a specialist could had had a problem to recognized them as seals. But sometimes they got to a little bit “better light”, so I was spinning as a top, pushing the trigger of a reflex camera, hoping to get some good take. Those seals are really quick. In one moment there was a seal on the take and half a second later there was only half a seal on the take.
Sea lion. Gordo Bank. BAja California. Mexico. 2009.

We were lucky again. We were floating with snorchels on the surface, when somebody saw a whale exhalation and a dorsal fin not far from us, no tail. It meant that the whales were swimming normally and they were not going deep after inhalation. Unbelievably enough they seemed to be swimming in our direction. We made an assault wave and with our faces under water we tried to penetrate the blue, sensing the whales beneath us. To go deeper in 5mm thick neoprene needs more kicking than is desirable for such an intimate meeting, so the whales spotted us and graciously changed their course. We were jumping out from water, breathless, like bottle stoppers. The photo-harvest was poor, nevertheless we managed to take some pictures. This brief accounter filled me with hope, not even leaving the water, friends tossed me my equipment, my buddy Karel was ready and we dived on a whale pursuit. I went down close to the descending rope to 30 meters or so, but the visibility was terrible, more with every meter. I thought I might hit the whale before seeing it. I signalled to Karel, ascended to some 15 meters and I left the current to float me gently on, hoping for a random meeting. It seemed to me like a good plan. After some 25 minutes and seeing only two jellyfish the current grew stronger, so I went out. The Fortune has left to make somebody else lucky.
Humpback Whale. Whales also need to breathe. Gordo Bank. Baja California. Mexico 2009.

I was sad a little, because I realized that meeting was a big luck and it was not probably to repeat. To be precise, I realized that most likely, those are the best underwater photos I could had made there in Mexico.
We did not give up entirely, though. We hired a boat for a whole day and we set out for the whales again, this time with the snorchels only. When we saw a whale, we tried to float in presumable direction of its trail, we merged in the water (as quietly as we could) and we waited patiently for a meeting with this amazing mammal. With hours going longer, I remained the only one in the water under the sun. In one moment friends were pointing frantically: “There, quite close on the left…”. Nothing, not even a fin.

Keporkak. Humpback Whale. Cabo San Lucas. Mexico 2009.

The Humpbacks don't move very quickly and they are not even very cautious, so it is quite possible to approach them with a ship, even to maintain this contact for a period of time, but to jump in the water beside a swimming whale and “catch up” with it, with the camera in your hand, that was almost absolutely impossible.

Nevertheless: these were great moments, which I won't forget easily. Not only for that, I hope that people, in this case the touristic industry, which is not insignificant in the California Bay, won't disturb the whales' thousand-years-old traditions, because of the whales themselves

An edited text of an article, published in divers' magazine BUDDY, May 2009

Bohdan Nemec, Cabo San Lucas and Pilsen, April 2009

Translation from czech original version by Tereza Němcová: gwareth@seznam.cz

Post scriptum:

Thanks to Mr. Tomáš Kotouč about comments to determine of whales species.

Comments on article 'WHALES ABOVE THE WATER'
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12.2.2010 18:26:41
Kamaráde, tak to smekám! úžasné fotky a krásné povídání! Honza
14.2.2010 18:54:07
Bohdan Němec
Honzo díky, od Tebe moc příjemná pochvala. Bohdan
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