After the activity of the day the ship’s motor was silent. After the preparation and serving of the evening meal the generator was switched off. All that remained was the sparse silver light of a crescent moon and a myriad of stars in the inky blackness.
We had travelled a long way to share in this experience: for most it was the realisation of a lifetime ambition; for all it was a trip that was profoundly moving, and no time more so than standing on the deck of the MV Searcher in the darkness of that February night. As we emerged onto the back deck, there was chatter to begin with as we tried to identify the planets and constellations above us – some more familiar than others – but gradually we all fell silent as we contemplated the heavens. The Milky Way was above us and an occasional shooting star added to the magical atmosphere.
As silence fell we realised that we were not alone in that lagoon – the ghostly shadows of gulls flitted by the boat. But, more than that, we were surrounded by whales. As we hung over the bows, our eyes scanning the water below and trying to pierce the darkness, we heard them. All around us was the gentle noise of whales spouting – sometimes a single blow, sometimes a few together – a gentle noise to remind us that we were in their domain. Sometimes it seemed that they were quite close to the boat, while at other times they were much further away. We had come to their lagoon. We were visitors to their natural habitat. And, as we listened, the gentle spouting continued. Do whales sleep? Do they ever stop travelling? Do they ever do as we did – pause to listen to what’s going on round about them?
But that was not the only time we heard the whales. The following day, after we had left the lagoon and were out in the open swell, we again stopped the boat. But this time we needed to keep the generator going to power the hydrophone that was lowered over the side of the boat into the sea. We gathered round the loudspeakers on the boat and listened in amazement to the whale song that was being performed by humpbacks in the depths of the ocean. To think that these huge creatures are capable of producing such a variety of sounds at a range of pitches was astounding. Were there several males trying to persuade local females that they were Mr Right? Or was it a rallying call to a local feeding frenzy? We will never know and yet the haunting sounds will linger as long in our memories as the gently spouting of the previous evening.
Spouting, singing, spy-hopping and spectacular breaches – the photos record the moment, but the memory stores more than images – it stores the sounds and the emotions of the encounters we had with these giants of the deep as they moved on well-worn routes through the ocean.