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Blue Whale - Nature's Holy Grail

Updated: Sep 4, 2018

We were well offshore in Mexican waters, kayaking in an area known for sharks. There were plenty of blues and makos, and even bigger predators that stalked these waters. We knew we had a good chance of spotting the unusual ocean sunfish, aka the mola, as they were in season. But we also knew we were exploring an area directly in the path of the blue whale migration.

I was filming for, my new company that specializes in video workshops for adventurers who want to learn the craft of documentary. It was an experiment to see what wildlife we might be able to film here and figure out how to manage a video camera rig on a kayak. It was a nice change of pace after years of intense documentary work. Over the years’ I’ve had some truly privileged moments topside with bears and wolves, underwater with hammerhead sharks, whale sharks and even crocodiles. But what I captured on this trip was beyond what I would’ve allowed myself to dream. Beyond my most selfish prayers.

“These were the true blue whales, and not the smaller pygmy subspecies”

Days passed with nothing, zero. Then, we saw a whale’s blow off in the distance, and began to steer towards it for a closer look. We never thought we would actually catch up to it, and sure enough the huge beast eased into the blue, gone from sight. Then again, another blow at the surface. Then a tail off in the distance. It was then that we realized we were in the midst of 3-4 blue whales, all of which were likely feeding in the deep ocean trenches far below us.

These were the true blue whales, and not the smaller pygmy subspecies that has been filmed often in recent years. These animals were so large it was difficult to comprehend. It's the King Kong and Godzilla effect, where the giants seem to be moving in slow motion but you’d never be able to catch them.

“Never in my life have I felt such a rush of adrenaline”

After a week of paddling in this area, I had filmed one mola, heard rumour of a shark, and spotted a few whales from the surface. It had been one of those trips where you begin to contemplate your life choices. Paddling so far offshore, under a baking sun, your mind starts to go after a while. I started praying to the whale gods, and singing deep in my chest. After some time, in the distance we spotted two animals headed roughly in our direction. I slipped into the water.

If you’ve never floated alone at the surface of a bottomless ocean miles from shore, it is a humbling experience. Seconds feel like minutes. I was certain I had missed my chance and the animals had already passed me by. I lifted my head out of the water and looked for some guidance from friends. They were gesturing wildly. I plunged my face back in the water, looked right, and there was a massive shadow headed straight toward me.

Never in my life have I felt such a rush of adrenaline, it was nearly all-consuming. Trembling, I managed to hit record on my camera, but there wasn’t even time to dive down below for a better angle. The blue whale was upon me, already at the surface taking a breath just 30 feet (10m) away and bearing in. Its mouth was the size of a small boat. It dived downwards, cruising past not 15ft (5m) from me at this point. I tried my best to film the events despite being soaked in adrenaline, and in complete awe. Fortunately I was filming with the widest possible lens, a fisheye. This allowed me to capture the full animal despite it being so close.

I was struck by a number of things. First, it’s enormous head looked so flat at first, it was strange. And it’s skin was so reflective underwater that controlling the image was tough. It's 'nose' was darkish, but it's back shimmered like a mirror that not only threw my camera off, the light bounced and illuminated the water and plankton. The effect, as if it wasn’t magical enough already, was to give the whale a full-body halo. And then of course there was the length.

A silent freight train hurtling past, the animal must have been at least 65ft (20m), but it's so hard to say. The whole thing was over in 15 seconds (though lovingly shot in slow mo). My lifelong obsession with wildlife and my career both peaking in a few ticks of the clock. That was my Holy Grail, a true blessing, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Diego A. Garcia

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