The First Time I Saw a Sperm Whale – 2012

Hi, my name is Maria, and I would like to share with you the first time I saw a Sperm whale. Little did I know by then, that I would end up working 6 months every year with these giants.

The first time I saw this species was in 2012. 3 years before that, little Maria had found a project called Project NINAM –NINAM after the names of the captive dolphins from Barcelona’s Zoo. NINAM was founded by the trainer of the orca Ulises while the orca was in Barcelona, and one of the dolphin trainers of the same facility. Let me tell you that now
there is a short documentary about the story of this orca. These two great souls decided to quit their jobs, tired of the abuse towards the animals witnessed in the zoo, and start a project with the aim to spread awareness and contribute to the research of the cetacean population of the Catalan shore, in the Northwest Mediterranean sea.

I was 14 when I first joined them. They were weekend expeditions on a catamaran boat, patrolling the area trying to find dolphins, fin whales, sperm whales, marine birds, or big fish such as sun fish or tuna.

So here we were, on a hot day of 2012’s Summer, patrolling a marine canyon off the Northern coast of Catalonia. Sperm whales find a lot of food in that marine canyon, so it’s well known that the whales forage there. However, we had been sailing around that area for several hours without any luck. I think I really learnt to be patient during those

Suddenly we spot it, the iconic leftie blow of a sperm whale, and we approached him slowly.

Albert –the Captain– knew well how the behaviour of a foraging lone sperm whale was, so mixing his knowledge and a bit of luck, we managed to spot the whale a few times, predicting when and where he was going to surface next. I was super proud of myself as I was assisting Albert with the tracking of the whale: I would record the diving time,
coordinates, and heading, and Albert would estimate the area where we should wait for the whale to surface. Of course, his knowledge of the marine seabed and how the marine canyon is projected, helped too.

I felt like a little researcher –or at least– that what I was doing was important. The whale would surface, I would go to the bridge, write down the time, coordinates and heading.

Then I would go back to the deck to enjoy the sighting and, once the whale dived, go back to the bridge and write down –again– the time, coordinates and heading. Then we had to endure more than 50 minutes of waiting, with the uncertainty of not knowing if we were in the correct position to see the whale again, or if the whale had turned back or changed direction for any reason.

Now I know that Sperm whales usually follow the same direction, that they dive to, and swim between 1 and 1.5 miles from their diving point. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they can’t also change their direction under the water sometimes. But by then, I didn’t know anything about these whales, only that they dived for a very long period of time, and a few more characteristics that the team of NINAM had explained to us.

I was thrilled.

It was the first time that I saw a whale lifting the tail while diving. That big bull was the second whale that I have seen in my life. The first one was a fin whale, and they don’t lift the tail when they dive.

Seeing that waterfall from the whale’s tale was breath-taking, and being able to follow it for a while, added a lot of value to the encounter. Since with the fin whale, we couldn’t spend much time with it.

Looking back to these firsts encounters with whales, helps me to remind myself why I love my job, as they are a throwback to those rookie whale lover feelings.

I remember that by that time I didn’t have a proper camera, just a digital compact one, meaning that I couldn’t take any decent pictures of the encounter. However, I remember that there was a girl, with a great reflex camera that eventually shared her pictures with me.

When the encounter finished, I was so tired I fell asleep immediately on the deck after we lost the whale.

Maybe it’s a funny coincidence, maybe it’s fate, but for the past 4 years I’ve been working in the Azores, and yes, Sperm whales are the resident whale here, so I get to see lots of them. I ended up learning quite a bit about them, which makes me appreciate even more that first encounter in 2012, because now I understand better what we saw in the Mediterranean back then. I’m also fascinated by how we could spot that very same whale 3 or 4 times
without having an hydrophone to follow it more accurately while it was diving.

To finish this story, I would like to thank Project NINAM because they were like a lighthouse for the 14 years old Maria, eager to find a connection with wild cetaceans. To be honest, I don’t think I would be where I am today without them.


This post was adapted from a voice recording in the thirty sixth episode of the Whale Tales Podcast, listen here

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