Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab had legendarily obsession to seek out the white whale Moby-Dick.
I’ve had a similar obsession to seek out a whale.
Whereas Ahab’s obsession was driven by revenge, mine was driven by something much more mundane. Killer, Minke, Humpback, Sperm, Blue… I didn’t mind which I just wanted to find and see Earth’s largest creature in it’s natural habitat.
The first attempt: Iceland, February 2012
It was a beautiful day in Iceland. In fact, my first day Iceland. Oh, and it just so happened to be my birthday and I was there to for one reason.
I’d gotten drunk a couple earlier and woke up to find I’d bought a cheap holiday to Iceland on my birthday weekend.
[Actually, I’d done a bloody superb job booking it and given I’ve just come back from Iceland for the 2ndtime, I wish sober spontaneous me was an efficient bargain-hunter as drunk me.]
I’d walked down to the harbour in the hope of checking off the first of three bucket-list items for this trip:
- See the Northern Lights
- See a volcano
- See and photograph whales in the wild.
The start of the trip was promising. The captain and crew telling us all how successful they’d been over the last week and how we were also likely to see dolphins and puffins as well as other sea birds.
We saw nothing except a few seagulls, and even those only appeared as they were following a trawler. We roamed the coastline for hours and hours. People and crew getting more and more frustrated. I stayed outside in freezing temperatures and progressively rougher seas before defeat was admitted and we turned back and were ferried onto buses for a solemn drive back to Reykjavik.
To the ends of the Earth: Auckland, New Zealand, January 2013
I really couldn’t have gotten any further away from Reykjavik for my next attempt to see a whale. Just under a year had passed and I found myself in New Zealand on what turned out to be the last stop of my backpacking trip.
Life had moved pretty quickly in the last year. I’d been made redundant halfway through the year and took time out to travel. Depression had caught up with me by this point and I’d made the decision to come home.
But first I wanted to tick off that elusive whale sighting.
Nothing. Zip, nada, zilch.
I returned back to Auckland soaked through.
The one thing that I did see was and America’s Cup contender completing its sea trials. They are damn impressive vessels that appear to fly over the surface of the sea. I had an unlikely reunion with it last year in Milan as it is now an exhibit in excellent the Leonard da Vinci museum.
Technically yes. In reality, no: Sri Lanka, 2015
Another place that I’ve never have expected to end up just a few months earlier. My work had taken out to India for a few months at very short notice and were kind enough to book my return flight with a gap to allow me to take a break before coming home. I decided to head to Sri Lanka.
I’d had a lovely relaxing week and had seen some amazing wildlife already having been on a safari, a trip up the inland mangrove streams and visited a sea-turtle hatchery/rescue. As I had the time and budget for one last thing, I asked if there was anything else I could do that was similar…
I’m on a boat that is going surprisingly quickly and heading further and further out to sea. In the distance, but getting closer are gigantic super-tankers and cargo ships. I’m surrounded by people who have either had the chicken for lunch or are rarely on a boat. For that can be the only explanation for the amount of vomiting going on.
I stand outside and am absolutely soaked to the bone. My camera is also soaked and I’m fighting a losing battle trying to shield it and keeping the glass clear. In truth I’m hoping that the weatherproofing really is as good as Fuji claim it to be.
Suddenly there is a stirring of life and a collective dropping of sick-bags. A dolphin has been spotted.
I elbow a space and fire off a burst of shots in the direction of grey dots. Finally, my first sighting of something, anything that isn’t a seagull.
The dolphins disappear as quickly as they appear.
The boat crashes on and now it’s a battle to hold on and stay upright. But since the alternative is going back inside and facing the sights and smells of the perpetually sea-sick, I take my chances outside.
There is a commotion. A blow has been spotted and the boat is now bouncing more than ever. A whale surfaces and I bring my camera up and just hold down the Sutter.
Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click- Click
It’s truly hit and hope stuff and I’ve no idea what, if anything, I’ve seen. One of the crew near me tells me we’ve just seen a Blue Whale. At the time I just had his word for it. It’s only now a few years later that I’ve found a couple of clear-ish shots and they’ve taken a fair bit of editing to become recognisable.
The crew shout that we’re gong to get another pass and gun the engine. Apparently these whales move quickly.
I stick the camera into video mode, hold on and look out to sea again. I see something breach the surface and a humongous shadow beneath the water.
‘So Neil’, I hear the cry. ‘You saw a whale in Sri Lanka’. Technically yes, there was a whale and I saw a flash of something. But, I was holding on for dear life to a bucking bronco of a boat. My hair was plastered to my face with salt water, waves of which were breaking and going directly in my eyes.
I could barely see a thing.
The trip back to port was something special and can best be surmised in one sentence.
They had to re-use the sick-bags.
Full Circle: Iceland, April 2018
Finally, finally I can say categorically that I’ve seen and photographed whales.
It’s Tuesday night and I can’t sleep. One spontaneous decision to go somewhere and two days later and I’m in Reykjavik sitting in a restaurant eating a pizza and waiting to go out searching for whales once again.
“It’s rough today. You may want to take a seasickness tablet”, I’m told at the ticket office.
I’d already taken one. I didn’t fancy emulating my fellow passengers in Sri Lanka. I’d not eaten since the previous day at Gatwick and if it was going to be one of thosetrips I wasn’t going to be dry-heaving.
I also had a full set of waterproofs with me.
At 39 I was finally showing the ability to learn from experience.
There was a swell for sure, but rough? Not a chance. It was perfect out there. Heading out into wind I was grateful for the wind-breaking properties of my waterproofs, but ended up ditching them one the way back.
The conditions weren’t the only thing that was perfect on the trip.
We travelled out to the migration grounds for around 45 minutes with a very brief stop as a harbour porpoise, leapt out of the water and was gone as quickly as it appeared.
Here we go again I though, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We were joined by a pod of humpbacks. They stayed with us for ages and seemed happy and playful with each other and did not mind our company.
They spent so long with us that my thought process progressed as follows.
I hope I see a whale.
I hope I get a photo of a whale.
I hope I get a clean, shot of two whales together.
Ooh, I hope I can get a shot with a nice background.
Right, enough whale dorsal’s. I want a face.
Stop playing, show your faces arseholes.
Yo! Whales. Move your blubbery arses to the other side of the boat so you’re not consistently in shadow.
They hung around so long that I was able to put the camera down and just lean on the railings watching them. It was the complete opposite of the Sri Lankan chaos.
A pleasant trip back to the harbour followed in late afternoon sun. I’d finally satisfied that whale-sized hole in my soul, and somehow it just felt right that the search ended where it started all those years ago.