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July 20, 2012

Surprises from the Deep

Julie Andersen, Campaign Leader

A Pod of False Killer Whales. Photo: Paul WildmanA Pod of False Killer Whales.
Photo: Paul Wildman
This campaign has been one of constant change. But what I have come to realize is the unexpected can deliver the most amazing and unexpected surprises. Ones that are far more appreciated than those we are planning for. Or, to put it bluntly, stop trying to control and just roll with it, because you’ll never know when the turd starts smelling like roses. But keep the faith, because it usually does.

This morning I woke up to discover not only the satellite on the Bardot was still down – but it was not in range on my boat as well - meaning there was no way for us to communicate. Something critically important on campaign – particularly because we were on split missions.  That the Vaka that held Nick and Galen was in such hectic seas it had to turn around but not before a hatch slammed down on Nick. And that one of our team member’s bee stings was turning into something that looked rather festering and septic.

Rather than enjoying a glorious morning underwater with sharks, which after months of planning – not to mention a full few weeks of 24X7 stress in the field trying to adapt to constantly shifting plans – something I was really, really looking forward to, instead we steamed to shore…  to the hospital and the cell towers.

After a few hours of calls, emails and a visit to the hospital (which was remarkably quick for someone used to South Africa), we were healed, healthy and reconnected. Fuel purchased for the Bardot, critical supplies acquired, updates made and visits with ministers of the cabinet in several countries scheduled, we headed back out.

We had an hour to spare before we were to head to our next remote village outreach visit. And we had still not gotten into the water – which was rather foreign to me, being in the beautiful, blue South Pacific for over two weeks. So when a manta breached near our boat, we threw our freediving gear on for the first time on the trip and decided to take our chances.

After 20 minutes of searching the water for the manta and diving into an empty sea of blue, the skiff driver decided to take us to a reef so we could enjoy a bit of beautiful reef. That’s when we saw them. A pod of false killer whales.

I’ve been diving for 15 years, and have only seen whales a few times underwater.  I have never been in the water with false killer whales, though it is certainly a dream of mine. While everyone knows me as “shark girl”, I am absolutely over the moon for all creatures in the sea, particularly whales, dolphins, rays and turtles. How can you not adore them? I just think that marine mammals have a lot of folks on their side, and I guess I must love the underdog that is the shark.

Close visit from a False Killer Whale. Photo: Paul WildmanClose visit from a False Killer Whale.
Photo: Paul Wildman
False killer whales are known to be skittish, and rarely do they interact with divers, so I wasn’t hoping for much but possibly a glimpse.  And after all the challenges on the campaign, I figured with my luck, things certainly wouldn’t go my way. But, I thought, what the heck – I will slip into the water and see what happens. Quietly floating on the surface, I could suddenly hear their beautiful song serenading me – enveloping me in an other-worldly melody.

Then I saw them. A pod of 8, including a mom and calf, less than 10 meters away. They had just caught a tuna and were splitting it amongst the pod.  My heart stopped as I watched in amazement.  I dove to 20 feet and hung in the blue, my eyes glued to them. Suddenly, from the darkness, one came racing towards me, an inquisitive but seemingly happy smile on its face, as if to greet me.  He swam straight at me until we were literally nose to, well, snout, and my world stopped.

I will never forget that moment suspended in time and in my memory forever – these moments are why I dive, and why I cherish the amazing ocean. They are why I am a Sea Shepherd.  Few and far between, interactions like that have in the past, and will continue to, form and change my life.

And this one, I could sense would be no different. We spent the next hour playing with the whales – as they rode on the bow of our ship, swam underneath me, sang to one another, and encircled us, diving up and down. And every thing I was worried about – all the stress – disappeared.  I felt so very small and my troubles so unimportant.

Although the whales had a mission and were certainly steaming thru the water, they also acknowledged and knew we were there, even cruising upside down, their eyes closer to our faces, to get a better look.  When we finally had to go, knowing a room full of 100 eager human faces were lined up in a school in Gau waiting for us, the whales swam a final circle and one even seemingly came to say goodbye.

I now know I was meant to meet this pod of false killer whales. Everything that had transpired seemingly against us had happened to reveal this amazing gift…, which not only humbled but also recommitted me.

And I then wondered what the world would be like if everyone could meet a false killer whale, or a tiger shark, or a manta ray. Would we still kill them in mass numbers for our own greed? Would we still use their waters as a dumping ground? Would we still collectively disregard their right to be on this planet for our own?  Having met all three, I can’t imagine this could possibly be the case.  And for their and our shared futures, I hoped we’d all have an experience like our whale encounter at least once in our lives.