Wetpixel sperm whale expedition, update 3

Wetpixel Sperm Whale Expedition to Ogasawara Islands, Japan Update 3: October 17, 2009

Those of you reading these updates might think that it’s easy to find and photograph a sperm whale underwater. I assure you that it is not. During this expedition, we spent days on the ocean looking for miniscule signs of life above the surface. Noticing a single blow in the huge expanse of ocean extending out to the horizon can mean the difference between success and failure. The crew of Sea-Tac’s Dancing Whale work hard, stopping regularly to listen to the ocean via hydrophone. Everything has to be right in order for a photographer to capture a good shot: weather, equipment, positioning, and above all, the presence of the animal(s)!

Photographer Tony Wu in the distance, with a diving sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Ogasawara Islands, Japan

The three days since the last web update have been rather slow, but the action was so good for the first few days that I consider anything more to be a bonus. We spotted beaked whales on the surface twice. Underwater photographs of beaked whales are extremely rare, and indeed, such images continue to elude our group because the whales dove immediately and didn’t surface anywhere close. But we did have great luck (topside) with pantropical spotted dolphins, 2-3 dozen of which escorted our vessel for hours, riding the bow wave and jumping out of the water in every direction.

Two pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) jumping out of the water. Ogasawara Islands, Japan.

We dropped into the water a couple of times and confirmed what we had already known: these dolphins are FAST, and they want nothing to do with snorkelers.

A sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan.

On October 16, we wandered across a huge, solitary sperm whale. It was at least 15 meters long, and the crew quickly identified it as being a large male (by size, presumably). I don’t have much experience with sperm whales, but aside from the size, I noticed that this whale’s head had huge bulges protruding from it (to hold the spermiceti organ), and that its fluke was quite large. We dropped in a few times and swam out to greet him, and each time, he let us get fairly close before going into a slow dive. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t tolerate our presence; rather, it was that he stayed just out of good photography distance! As a reminder, we are on permit in Ogasawara, which allows us to get into the water with sperm whales.

During our last drop, the whale went into a shallow dive again. I thought the encounter was over, but then noticed that he had leveled out not far below the surface. I continued to swim ahead, leaving the rest of the group behind. Less than a minute later, the sperm whale surfaced… and slowly turned toward me! I stopped swimming immediately, because this guy was rather gigantic and I wasn’t quite sure what his intentions were going to be. As he swam closer, his huge form nearly blotted out the sun, and I thought, “Now, THIS is a whale.” — the spermiceti bulges in his head made him look like a proper sperm whale, like the ones I saw in cartoons and illustrations as a kid.

Look at the bulge in the head of this 15-meter male sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Males sperm whales in Ogasawara are both rare and shy.

Then, as all of the Ogasawaran sperm whales have done, he rolled slightly sideways, exposing his belly and jaw, presumably to get a better look at me. Both of us froze, staring at each other, and after 20 seconds, he swam off with purpose, pumping his massive fluke up and down a few times as he rotated into a gentle dive. Wow.

An enormous 15-meter male sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) in the Ogasawara Islands, Japan. Males sperm whales in Ogasawara are both rare and shy.

As I have said before, Ogasawara is a magical place. Douglas, Emily, Julia, Tony and Emiko have decided to extend their stay for another six days (one ferry cycle), but I must head home, so I will board the long ferry back to Tokyo tomorrow.

Group shot: Makoto Takahashi (captain), Tomoko Takahashi, Julia Sumerling, Douglas Seifert, Emily Irving, Emiko Miyazaki, Tony Wu, Eric Cheng, Shiho, and crew member

I never imagined that the first Wetpixel sperm whale expedition would be such a success, and hope to come back to the island soon. It is unclear whether we will be given a permit for another expedition, but we will certainly try to obtain one! When we know, we’ll certainly post details; as always, we’ll announce it first via mailing list.

Beautiful sunset from a lookout point on Chichijima, Ogasawara Islands, Japan

I’ll post one more update (soon), which will include some images from our limited time on land in Ogasawara!

Douglas goes berzerk at the ramen house

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

Reports from others on the expedition:
- Tony Wu: Sperm Whales!
- Tony Wu: How to measure a giant squid arm
- Tony Wu: Identifying sperm whales
- Tony Wu: Dolphins
- Tony Wu: Ogasawara video

Leave a message here or in the associated discussion topic if you have any questions or comments!