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Awards / PHIL SHEARER – 2019 ROAM AWARDS FINALIST – Essay in Thrill Category

Phil Shearer

A Sperm Whale Encounter

by Phil Shearer

Winter. Late January. A few miles offshore.

We had gotten word that a pod had been sighted by members of our team while they were outside
the reef tracking Humpback Whales. Rarely, if ever, had a WhatsApp message and a push
notification been so damn exciting. With a google map screen shot of their last location also sent
through, we were left with no excuses, as if any were needed in the first place.
In thirty plus years of living on, in and around the waters of the Turks and Caicos Islands, I had only
ever heard of one encounter and seen two Sperm Whales myself. Those were only fleeting, from far
away and on the surface. They were now long since distant memories and until then any slim
chance of an encounter had merely been a wish sent on a wing and a prayer. There was no chance
then of us missing this opportunity. None whatsoever. Immediate action was required.
Grabbing cameras, checking SD cards, scrambling for spare batteries, and our free diving gear while
fumbling for boat keys, Mark and I hustled to get ourselves ready. We jumped in, cranked the
engines, threw the lines and headed out through the reef cut to find them. It was late afternoon with
the sun was already on its way down. Time was tight. We had to find them quick. And find them we
did. They were further out, in deeper water than we had expected, yet, thanks to that screen shot, it
didn’t take us very long to spot them. The sunlit refractions on their moist exhalations gave them
away. Worried they would dive deep, we approached them much faster than we normally would
while whale watching. Our tense exhilaration was palpable as we saw their dark grey bodies on the
surface. With the engines now running quietly and only in gear, everything was about the approach.
Stealth is always wealth. Now every little rattle on the boat felt a thousand times louder and more
annoying than it was supposed to. Deep, loud, rasping breaths punctuated the steady ocean breeze
upwind of us as the whales just lay there, seemingly catching their collective breathes. It was now or
never. One of us had to get in. There and then. Alone. I went first. Donning mask and fins while
holding my camera, a nervous reluctance washed over me as I slipped into the water.

Here’s the thing, the first swim in the deep blue, no matter how familiar, immediately brings me into
the present moment with my own breathing and beating heart. I feel small, absolutely tiny. While
finning towards where I think the whales are, there are always these moments of anxious trepidation
mixed with intoxicating excitement as my mind wrestles and races away. ‘Is the boat, barely fifty
behind me, drifting away and getting smaller, now perhaps too far away? Or more to the point, what
else is lurking in the big blue below?’

Whitetips and Tigers swim in and out of my wild imagination as I try to focus on the whale in front of
me. Frankly, it’s intense. Especially alone. As the clouds rolled across the sun, piercing blue turns to
a more ominous darkness, no doubt a better reflection of my doubts and fears. I can’t wait for the
sun to come out again as my own breathing resonates in my snorkel. ‘Calm down. Breathe. Relax.
These whales, this whale, is somewhere right in front of me. It better be’. I thought. My heart was
pounding in my chest, it’s beat loud in my ears.

I could hear them long before I could see them. Ironically, they surely had already ‘seen’ me.
Monster clicks, like a giants’ finger run across a giants’ comb, bolt from the oceanic void. Diminishing
intervals of sound homed in on their intended target. Me. Sperm whales are true hunters and the
largest as well. Toothed whales and a completely different proposition to the more common vocalists
of the melodic Humpbacks.
As blue gave way to the steely grey outline of this magnificent animal, her sounds were now clearly
penetrating my physical body. I could literally feel her looking through me as she nodded her
massive head and upper body in my direction. And it made sense. These whales regularly find food
in the deepest darkest depths of our ocean where there is no light. The only way to see is through
sound.

Now only feet away, I could clearly see her eye inspecting me. Her tiny pectoral fins tucked into the
folds of her streamlined body with stacks of shark suckers hitching free rides. Everything about these
whales screams awesome. Ninety-minute breath holds to three thousand feet is insane on every
level except theirs. I was blown away. Utterly mesmerized by these masters of the deep. I still am.
Once out of the water with endorphins coursing through my veins, I watched as Mark slipped over
the side and finned headlong towards his own personal Sperm Whale encounter. The difference in
their size and life experiences was not lost on me, yet there, swimming, were two mammals,
connected at the surface by their mutual need for air. Watching magic like this unfold is spellbinding.
A true once in a lifetime experience delivered perhaps by that wish on a wing and prayer.

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