The giants of the marine world have always fascinated. Writers, scientists, sea lovers… Diving with cetaceans is always a great experience that you never get tired of. This month, Tribloo collects an exceptional testimony of a moment like only one in a lifetime… Here is the story of the birth of a sperm whale.
Frédéric Bassemayousse is a renowned French photographic diver. He has participated in many scientific missions and is specialized in the observation and study of cetaceans. He has also taken part in various books on the marine world, including Méditerranée, discovering underwater landscapes alongside Jean-Georges Harmelin. It is a great pleasure to present his testimony of a moment that will remain forever engraved in his memory.
In search of the giants of the sanctuary PELAGOS
On 12 September 2016, Frédéric Bassemayousse witnessed the birth of a sperm whale in the Mediterranean. He photographs, films and records this event in his logbook:
“Embarked on a catamaran, we survey the Mediterranean Sea near the Pelagos sanctuary. Our goal, the study of three of its largest inhabitants: the fin whale, the sperm whale and the pilot whale. The mission is carried out for WWF France. The program is simple: observe, research, approach, photograph and biopsy.
At 1:00 pm, aboard the catamaran, the team is attentive to the slightest breath. Suddenly, as a breath, a sperm whale rises into the air and then falls heavily, exploding the surface into a thousand liquid needles. He is not alone, but accompanied by three of his fellow whales.
Together, they make their way to another group about a kilometre away. We can’t count the cetaceans in this second group, but the boiling on the surface betrays an intense agitation. We are preparing to take identification photos and biopsy for genetic analysis.
2h15 pm We board the rubber dinghy and head towards the sperm whales, even though a fin whale surfaces a few metres from the catamaran! In the distance, the agitation of the sperm whales on the surface is exceptional. We approach in slow motion so as not to disturb the animals. We are surprised by the number. The observers remaining aboard the catamaran report the approach of other sperm whales which seem to be coming from all sides and converge towards the gathering.
Why do sperm whales group together?
15H20 The group of sperm whales slowly turns towards us. I slip silently into the water and wait patiently. I am about fifteen meters away from the group. The water is laden with shreds of skin left by the sperm whales rubbing against each other. I can see eight sperm whales, I will discover later that there are nine of them! They swim in a line and face me. One of them is particularly bright, an adult female. I guess the others, of the same size, are also females. One of them swims on her back a little below. The water is saturated with clicks that pierce me. When I get to about ten meters away from me, the group turns slightly to my left. The sperm whales are very calm, even though it is obvious that they have spotted me. I perceive neither animosity nor fear. They just leave me at a respectable distance. Before approaching, you have to be invited! Patience and respect.
3:22 p.m. Without me understanding the reason, the agitation resumes. The water becomes saturated with foam and masks the sperm whales. The caudals beat the air and fall down heavily. I become aware of their incredible power when a flipper passes quickly in front of me. I retreat. As a unique spectator of a Dantesque performance, I have no idea what I am witnessing !
Once the water clears, I notice that other actors have appeared on stage. I notice the female very pale. A piece of whitish placenta obstructs her genital cleft: she is a mother ! She has just given birth !
A birth ! All this excitement for a birth !
Birth of a small sperm whale of 3 m in the Mediterranean Sea
Where’s the newborn in this compact mass ? Here he comes out of the group. Despite its three meters, it seems small, fragile. His umbilical cord is clearly visible ! His skin is wrinkled. His caudal lobes are still curled. It doesn’t look like its elders: its head is oblong and seems to end in a beak. This is him, the ninth individual that I hadn’t spotted in the initial group !
The unrest is not only related to the calving, but to the arrival of new sperm whales joining the group. There are soon 27 of them; a considerable gathering, rarely seen in the Mediterranean. Underwater, the din of clicks, codas and creaks is deafening. I like to think that some of these sound expressions are birth announcements that announce the happy event in the distance. Indeed, until nightfall, sperm whales come from all over the world to greet the event. To protect the newborn from the enthusiasm of the arrivals who come to greet him, a male forms a rampart to his left, a female – the godmother ? – guards it on its right. Its mother swims on her back just below. In this protective sheath the baby is safe. Its mother, who takes good care of it, carries it intermittently to ease its breathing.
I’ve been paddling for an hour now. The sperm whale dance never ends. They waltz to the sound of kodas and noisily greet each new arrival. I’ve made myself small because I can’t help it. I attend this meeting with wonder. I too would like to be part of this family, to understand their language, to respond to it. A male must have read my thoughts, he comes very close and looks at me kindly. The trust is there, I am adopted. The troop moves slowly in my direction. A living wall faces me. A small brick comes out of it and moves closer. At last, we’re within a handful of yards of each other. Welcome to you, little sperm whale !”
Find Frédéric on his website and discover his latest project in progress, the book Mer Rouge Eau Bleue (Red Sea Blue Water) to be published in November 2020 !