Before we can capture a panoramic image of a humpback whale with the SVII-S camera we need to be first locate and safely navigate ourselves along side one of these huge mammals. Luckily we’re in the hands of the one person who knows these waters and whales better than anyone else – Dr. Nan Hauser.
While we are preparing the SVII-S camera on board our vessel, Dr. Hauser puts a call out to the local fishing fleet asking for updates on any whale sightings. A few humpbacks had been detected earlier in the morning but most likely have moved on by now. To increase our chances of whale spotting, we split the horizon line and all are responsible for monitoring an equal portion of it. As the boat ambles around the island, we keep our eyes focused on white caps, irregular movements and dorsals or blows that may emerge any second in the big blue sea.
Rarotonga island has a circumference of 32km, it is a vast area to scan and so all available human resources are deployed to give us the best chances of locating a passing humpback. On the shore, members of the whale research centre assisting with binocular assisted sweeps of the horizon line; one stays at the centre to listen out for radio transmissions from fishermen in the area while also keeping an eye on the Argos tracking device (data pictured above) which records the movements of tagged whale whenever they surface.
All this team effort pays off. Soon enough, a fisherman signals the team, whale has just surfaced a couple of miles from where we are. He has actually spotted two whales on the North of the island. Nan eases the throttle forward and we’re away.
It takes only around 10 minutes before we spot the whale. It gently surfaces, takes a breath and dives again. Whale behaviour largely remains a mystery and scientists like Dr Hauser always spend time observing the animals and the scene before getting too close, it’s critical that we know the whale isn’t stressed or threatened by our presence and only then can we proceed. The whale we spot does not show any irregular behaviour but we can't yet be sure of the whale's reaction to the SVII-S camera and so Dr. Hauser suggests that we make a first approach free diving instead of on scuba gear as we normally would.
While Dr. Nan Hauser and her assistant Abigail collect skin samples and lice left floating on the surface after the whale plunged back into the big blue, we quickly and quietly make our first camera deployment. Despite how quickly we were able to launch SVII-S into the water, as we look down, the cetacean seems to have already swam miles away. It’s disappeared already. We are back on board with no encounter and no imagery.
Back on shore, one of the research team has spotted a whale blowing, not far from the Paradise Inn beach. This feels like cat and mouse game. Yet, this is the process that Dr. Hauser’s team goes through every day with much patience and dedication, all part of the routine for scientists who are studying these mysterious mammals. We lean into the wind as the engine once again roars to life and we more towards the tip of the shore.
From a distance we spot a whale blowing and any disappointment from our previous encounter is quickly forgotten and replaced by a new sense of excitement. Without losing a minute, we are back in the water, gently kicking in the direction of the animal so as to not disturb him. As a general rule whales can hold their breath for about 20 minutes before they need to surface again, so if the whale has decided to remain at the same spot and has not been bothered by our motor this might be our chance.
Christophe is first in the water with the SVII-S. After a few kicks, he stays still in the water I jump in quickly after. Suddenly Nan calls us back, the whale has surfaced 100 metres away on the opposite side of the boat. It seems like there are 2 whales not far from each other. As I swim toward Christophe, I soon notice a massive shape that floats peacefully, with perfect buoyancy at depth of 25 metres, only 2 metres above the ocean floor. A group of fish come around and gently clean the cetacean’s dorsal. We both take a couple of free dives and I notice how excited I am, it is becoming extremely difficult to breath calmly and contain the emotion of being so close to this gigantic creature. Christophe takes the opportunity to fire the SVII-S camera before the whale swims away and before we know it we’re once again alone in the ocean.
As we resurface we find that Dr. Hauser is very excited. The whale that we have just found and photographed is one of the whales that were tagged earlier this season by her research team. It was tagged on her left side on the 5th of September at 3:34pm, just days before our arrival on Rarotonga.
At the time of tagging the whale (tag #120947) was singing, researchers recorded her song with hydrophones and collected skin samples too. Since deployment the transmitter has been continuously providing tracking information. Our whale left Rarotonga after spending at least 4 days in the waters around the island, she is now heading in a very straight north-westerly direction toward warmer waters. In fact based on the last transmission whale #120947 had already travelled 297km in only 2 days.
This season Dr. Hauser’s team deployed 10 satellite trackers and countless samples of whale matter from the waters around Rarotonga. If you want to learn more about the work the team does you can learn out more here.