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Within reach of Sperm whales

Life underwater

I think I dropped into this Sperm-whale adventure quite by chance as usually I travel to different places. But this time a friend of mine Zsolt Sásdi who is a dive filmmaker told me that there would be an interesting opportunity. He came across with the Blue World Association which organizes different programs primarily for whale watching. One of the members of the association is Zsuzsanna Pereszlényi marine biologist who also does dolphin research abroad and she leads the scientific projects. They started Sperm whale expeditions on the Azores last year, but at that time they could not get a licence for underwater shooting.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

Azores-islands is an island group in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 1500 kilometers far from Lisbon and about 4000 kilometers from North America. This group of nine islands is a very special place as there are sperm whales in its region all year round, however, a lucky weather is also needed to photography. If you cannot sail off the sea due to heavy waves, these giant mammals are around in vain. Other marine mammals can occur here in certain periods of the year, such as the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus).
So we undertook the organization of a two-week expedition. We already had to request a permission to get close to the whales by ship and only qualified divers with teaching licence are allowed to dive here. We also had to indicate the objective, filmmaking or documentation as they do not give licence just because you want to swim with the whales.
Of course, this is not free of charge, in addition, we had to rent a motorboat too as only that is suitable for watching and diving and not a sailing ship. After all these things, we only had to pray for good weather. Weather conditions change rapidly there, you can experience sunshine, rain, stormy wind in one day on a single island.
We walked down to the base every morning by 9 where they told us whether we were allowed to sail off or not. Even if everything went well, there was not too warm as the daily temperature was around 20 degrees celsius and the water was 18 degrees. In fact, we were constantly on standby.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

Whale diving does not take place with device. To my surprise recently it had happened in several places that I only dived with a snorkel, for example in South Africa or not too long ago in Indonesia when we swam with whale sharks.
I can say that for me this is a new dimension of both photography and diving. But thanks to my recent experiences i was wellprepared for the challenges. It is interesting that whale watching expeditions are based on that knowledge which was gained by whale hunters in the past. There were watchers on the hilltops who alerted the hunters in the past, and now when whale hunting had been given up the locals who know whales very well switched to whale watching tourism.
Therefore people are still up there on the peaks and watch the sea and navigate the boats via radio. Thus we could get to the spot very quickly. Of course, our work had to be harmonized with the interest of the whale watching ships as if we dive the whales often sank as well so the tourists could not see too much of them. Nevertheless, they tried to organize everything the way that everyone got what he went for - so either we worked a bit later or tried to find our “own” whale.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

I was surprised on the number of marine mammals around the Azores and as I learned later their number increases continuously. Experts who work on longterm observations say there are evident signs to prove it. We encountered many Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) and they are quite respectable sized, males can be even 20 meters long, so they are considered to be the largest toothed whales on earth.
Sperm whales can be recognized very easily, in spite of the fact that they rarely show up. The sperm whale’s distinctive shape comes from its very large, block-shaped head, which can be one-quarter to one-third of the animal’s length.The S-shaped blowhole is located very close to the front of the head and shifted to the whale’s left. This gives rise to a distinctive bushy, forwardangled spray. As it spends most of its time hunting for octopuses researchers track it by hydrophone. It is able to remain submerged even up to 90 or 120 minutes and reach a depth of 2000 metres.
The maximum depth reached by them is around 3000 metres. At these enormous depths their lungs shrink and they store the oxygen in their muscles and blood and their heartbeat can slow down to its quarter.
Although the average diving period is less than 45 minutes and after surfacing their blows last for about 12-20 seconds. They are on the surface usually for 3-6 minutes and this is the time when we could capture them. Mostly they swim slowly, eve still, but we had not have that luck to see them like that.
We had to spot them in the moment of surfacing and get closer carefully, then slip into the water silently and take shots - if we had luck. It was a hard job, I remember one day when I get on and off the boat fifty times. The incredible 50-meter underwater visibility help our work a lot. If the waves were stronger, we could spot the animals harder and they disappear in the deep faster.
Besides the Sperm whale we also encountered Short-beaked Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis), Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and Risso’s Dolphins (Grampus griseus) as well. However, we only saw the latter once as it is a very rare and timid species and steer away the bouts. But we came across with common dolphins almost every day.
Photo: © Dániel Selmeczi

They followed the boat in large flocks, the young ones often swam close to ride the waves made by the boat. It was a great experience when we discovered a Leatherback turtle in the distance. Leatherback turtles are the largest sea turtles today.
Their body length (from head to tail) ranges between 1.83-2.2 meter and the weight is about 700 kilogram. It is a very rare species, even locals see them sparsely. It is the only species among reptiles which is able to keep its body temperature at high level permanently, it can be even 10 degrees higher than the water temperature of the Atlantic Ocean.
At the end of the two-week expedition we realized that we only had two days when conditions were ideal, the water was flat and there was sunshine and the whales were not that reserved. In fact, all the good photos were taken that time.
We spent six days on the sea, we also dived with device, but there were not that much to see than for example on the Red Sea , so the whales made this tour memorable. Due to the uncertain conditions tourists often spend long time on the shore, therefore I can say that we were lucky as we could take nice pictures. Although we missed the blue shark dive due to bad weather.
It would be worth returning to the Azores as an encounter with the sharks or blue whales could be very exciting and the visibility is as good as we could take proper pictures. It was a good experience for me that you do not need to take diving cylinders to see big animals.
I recommend to every diver to improve their snorkel diving skills as sometimes this is the only way to experience these incredible encounters.
Dániel Selmeczi
Video: Zsolt Sásdi
Expert: Zsuzsanna Pereszlényi
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