stories from the field
Visitors of the Deep
I was part of an eleven-person team that was to investigate on the reported sightings of Humpback whales off the Babuyan Islands. Most of us were first time volunteers looking for some wild adventure and dark tan marks. However, after spending sometime with these people, I could discern our shared concern for the situation of our environment.
Upon reaching Camiguin Island, one of the four small islands north of Luzon that constitutes the Babuyan group of islands, the team found comfort on the soft, powdery sand of the beach. The overwhelming security one seizes from burying both feet on land after a long and turbulent sea journey can only be equaled by the awesome spectacle one gets from the sheer beauty of the destination. The exuberance of nature in the Philippine Islands is a gift to its inhabitants. It gives them the rare chance to be proud of who they are and what they have.
Despite my deep interest with nature – especially animals, my experience with whales had only been limited to Sea World and the Discovery Channel. Humpback whales are a migratory species that travel thousands of miles from their icy feeding area in the Antarctic to warmer places in the pacific, such as the Philippines, to breed and rear their calves. Known to have the most complex songs in the animal kingdom besides man, these endearing whales have gained much popularity. But despite this, very little is known about them. The data gathered will help researchers determine the specific route of these nomadic animals. This will be very crucial in drawing up long term conservation efforts here and around the world. After days of anxious anticipation and oftentimes meticulous preparation, I just couldn’t wait to have my first glimpse of these gigantic visitors. Feeling the hot sun burning my skin, tasting the salt in the air and seeing the wide expanse of ocean ahead of us, one can’t even imagine my excitement.
Morning breaks. Armed with a big bottle of drinking water and a thick layer of sun block, I was ready for some major whale watching! We departed the beach with boisterous cheers and rowdy romping. I felt a strange sense of freedom leaving the prison of the island. The initial vivacity soon died down after 30 minutes of the pounding sun and monotonous view of the swelling blue sea in the horizon. The 30 minutes were soon followed by minutes that decelerated to slow motion. With my head about to explode, I started regurgitating my “last night’s pasta” breakfast half past the first hour. It wasn’t as glamorous as I thought.
Then suddenly a scream broke, “Blow!!! Three o’clock”. It was an amazing feeling. My head cleared up and my stomach settled simultaneously, my spirit was higher than ever. The entire bangka was suddenly animated.
Cetaceans, the classification of animals given to whales, dolphins, and porpoises, have blowholes situated on top of their heads, which they use to breathe. They produce a jet spray of water and air as they exhale. From a bangka, this blow is the most visible indication of their presence. Apparently, our primary spotter caught sight of a blow 200 meters away from our bangka signaling the moment we have all been waiting for. As the video photographer, I had to disembark the big bangka amidst smashing waves and get into a smaller but faster bangka that was used to pursue the great leviathan.
We trailed the blow and finally confirmed that it was from a Humpback whale after seeing the recognizable figure of its dorsal humps, long pectoral fins, and its distinct fluke. It was a full-grown specimen, reaching approximately 30 feet long. Its dark, almost black, back was only visible as it intermittently rose for air. We chased it, catching it on film as a hunter stalks his game. After getting real close to it, about 15 meters away, it suddenly disappeared. We continued on the same transect for several minutes but found nothing. Then the next piercing shriek fired, “Breach!!!” At that moment, this huge black and white figure suddenly bursts out of the water, just 20 meters from the bow of our tiny bangka. It was the Humpback whale breaching. Exposed was its white belly with the deep blue sea in the foreground and the accumulating rain clouds on the horizon, totally surreal. It had its 3 meters long pectoral fins out on its sides, like a cliff diver performing a swan dive. This jaw dropping moment lasted for just a few seconds but it struck me with a force comparable to the explosion it left as the whale crashed down the yielding water. I was too shocked to even get it on film. The place where the splash happened was a hazy patch of tiny white bubbles as we passed. I internally tried to masticate the dynamics of propelling such a massive creature clear out of the water. One can just marvel at the force these great whales can produce. Terror suddenly veiled the initial awe and wonder. The creature was again gone, deep under the opaque water. I began entertaining the alarming thought of the possibility that we had offended the whale by our chase and that it breached to show off its enormous strength and size as a warning to us intruders. I tried calming down by talking to my other comrades in the small bangka, pretending that I was not nervous. However, I found out that we all had the same sentiments. Nevertheless, we were on a mission.
The next encounter we had with a whale happened in late afternoon of the same day. Some of us boarded the small bangka to proceed closer to the milling whales. This time we came across two whales, a mother and her calf. We suspected that our motor scared the first whale so we decided to slowly creep in this time. It worked. We were able to get really close – 5 meters close! I was filming the whole event with the pride that I may be the first person in the Philippines to ever catch these visitors on tape! I could really see the curiosity these whales had for us, especially the calf. He was ¼ the size of his mother but he was almost as big as our small bangka. He approached the bangka in a somewhat playful manner, almost touching the bow. I could see the amazing parallelism with his behavior and those of young children. That was also same time that I observed the same maternal instinct mother whales shared with the human mothers. As if calling the calf, the mother descended on a shallow dive towards the calf. A split second later, the calf followed his mother down. Then it got a bit distressing. With the camera still rolling, I suddenly saw the familiar eerie white belly creeping slowly under our bangka. She was hovering directly under us for a few seconds before popping out her huge head inches away from our thin outriggers. As if investigating, she stared right at us with her hypnotizing gaze. I was paralyzed. I was imagining her powerful fluke still lingering under our puny bangka. With one swing, she could easily crush our boat and take us down with it. Even though it was a really profound experience, it hit me that I might have crossed into her personal space. I mean, if I put my face even a foot away from a stranger’s face in bar, I’ll be sure to have black eye in the morning. We disturbed these creatures and their natural state. I was relieved to see the whale gently maneuver herself beside the boat, really close but never touching. After a few tense moments and a firm blow, she finally continued her milling with the calf securely on her side. It was as if she inspected and gave us her permission to exist on the boat. The gentleness in her approach and majesty in the water proved both her advanced intellect and entitlement to the ocean. I realized that I was in a prefabricated replication of land, a boat. I needed a boat to survive in the water. I was not made for the water. I was not in my element.
That experience deepened my interest and respect for these whales. I felt that that whale and I connected somehow. I understood that I was totally at her mercy but she acknowledged my presence and allowed me to enter her world for a moment before going on her way. So thinking about it more, who was the visitor?