Wetpixel sperm whale expedition, update 1

**Wetpixel Sperm Whale Expedition to Ogasawara Islands, Japan**
Update 1: October 11, 2009

We arrived in the Ogasawara Islands two days ago after enduring a typhoon in Toyko and an arduous 25.5-hour ferry ride. Ogasawara is 1000km due south of Tokyo and sits, isolated, at approximately the same latitude as Okinawa. As the ferry approached land, Tony Wu translated what was being broadcast over the ship-wide speaker system.

“There’s another typhoon coming, and it’s supposed to hit tomorrow.”

2 typhoons in 4 days! Given the prospect what high winds and huge swells might do to the tiny island we had just set foot on, an urgency suddenly materialized to get out onto the ocean as soon as possible. The six of us settled in at our modest accommodation for about an hour before heading out on our 42-foot dive vessel (which is very nice). Sea-Tac, the local operator whose vessel we chartered, is very knowledgeable about sperm whales and drove us east to a ridge line in about 1000 meters of water.

The so-called “heart-shaped rock” in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan (photo: Eric Cheng)

Immediately upon arriving at the ridge line, we saw our first blow—my first sperm whale! I am used to the high, misty blows of baleen whales like humpbacks and was startled by how gurgly a sperm whale’s breath is. It shoots out in a water-filled spray at a 45-degree angle.

Luckily, we were able to do more than just whale watch from the boat. Because we are all on permits, we are allowed to get into the water. We slipped carefully into the water and were immediately buzzed by two female sperm whales. In this photo, they are exposing their underbellies:


Two sperm whales, Ogasawara Islands, Japan (photo: Eric Cheng)

Within two hours of boarding the boat, all of us managed to get a few decent images of sperm whales! It was already mid-afternoon by then and clouds had gathered above us, taking away the precious light that photographers need for a decent underwater image. Soon, it was too dark for photography, and we headed back to shore. But—success on the first day! We were all on a high.


Rainbow, Ogasawara Islands, Japan (photo: Eric Cheng)

Tony and Emiko are our lifelines in the Ogasawara Islands. Very little English is spoken here, and we haven’t seen any other people who look like that might be foreigners. We had dinner at a cute little Hawaiian-themed restaurant and ordered at least one of pretty much everything on the menu. Douglas Seifert, whose portfolio will be featured in issue 7 of Wetpixel Quarterly, discovered that the restaurant had shiso peppers on the menu and wasn’t satisfied until we had cleaned off 3 plates of the little salted gems.

The next morning, we went out to one of the few grocery stores on the island to buy bento boxes (prepared meals) for the day. We knew that strong winds were coming from the north-west, but decided to give the sperm whales a try anyway. Sure enough, winds and swells picked up as we rounded the protective corner of the island, and by the time we reached the ridge, our boat was being thrown around mercilessly. But we had come all this way to swim with sperm whales, and decided to stay out there despite poor conditions. Luckily, we were rewarded with some close encounters. One sperm whale swam right up to to me and stopped just meters away. I froze. I have experience with humpback whales, but was at a total loss as to what I was supposed to when confronted with the business end of the largest predator on the planet. She approached head-on, looking like an unidentifiable, floating lump, turned, and stared. Then, she suddenly flipped upside-down and splashed around for a bit before swimming off, her powerful fluke pumping up and down slowly.


Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Ogasawara Islands, Japan (photo: Eric Cheng)


Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus), Ogasawara Islands, Japan (photo: Eric Cheng)

Looking back at the metadata in the images, the entire approach and departure only lasted 30 seconds—every second of it was truly magical!

The typhoon has turned away from us, but the effects of the storm on the ocean may force us to take the next day or two off. I’ll report back the next time Douglas allows me to steal his Blackberry, which I’m using to send this message (AT&T works here, but Verizon doesn’t).

Hugs & Kisses,
Eric Cheng and Wetpixel sperm whale expedition members

Other updates:
- Update 01, October 11, 2009
- Update 02, October 14, 2009
Update 03, October 17, 2009