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The Blues Singers
Story and photos by Dr. Harvey Barnett


My lungs have just collapsed due to the pressure and my stomach feels like it is in my throat. This panic point was a deterrent until I learned to control it. Deeper than the panic, now the calculated wait begins.

For the last two hours we have been monitoring a few dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) from a considerable distance. Once we accurately predict their position and ventilation intervals, I am ready to drop into the ocean alone at the point where we calculated they would be 21 minutes later. I am in, the boat moves off and I wait at the surface like a piece of bait. I finally get the dive signal from the boat and I slowly drop from the surface of the ocean. I stop my descent at 90 feet in this free dive; I know this depth without gauges…the faceplate of my mask presses against my nose. I am surrounded by blue beyond blue. In 45 seconds they should appear due north of me. The whales should be between their first and second ventilations and cruising near the surface. I hope the dolphins we sighted are still bowriding them. I hear the dolphins clicking; they are scanning me. I see a few of them at my depth swimming hard. They race right past me five feet away! Did the whales turn or will they follow the dolphins for a close pass? The need for air is telling me the time to return "home" to the ceiling is approaching. Off to the northwest, I see seven of the pod packed in tightly. Where are the other two? I take three shots of this pod segment. The faint clicks of the camera at even 1/125 of a second are a very loud announcement of my position yet they do not notice. I sense something and turn 180 degrees. A gray is less than 15 feet from me and even with the extreme wide angle lens, he will more than fill the frame. I take one shot and move out of his way. That was number eight, where did number nine go? The need for air and the cold water must be having their effect. How can I even think such things? Am I never satisfied?

There is a saying that good things come to those who wait, but does this still apply to someone holding their breath 90 feet down, in 3,000 feet of 60 degree water, with no wetsuit, waiting for whales to swim up and hoping big sharks do not?

I begin a slow assent to the ceiling in a spiral to gain the 360 degree perspective of "the blue room." I only get to visit this place in tiny segments of time and space. I am still 50 feet below the surface, still needing air, as a dolphin races by and turns back on his track then disappears. I am bewildered and know this action sometimes means "be wilder" and sure enough, here they come! The remaining dolphins are bowriding the ninth whale. They pass right in front of me and the camera jams! The shutter button goes down, but no click! Oh God, please do not let me suffer this way…few will believe this story. I need the pictures! In underwater camera repair 101, small problems like these are sometimes solved if you remember to cock the camera. I get three shots of the dolphins with the whale and then I swim closer toward the group. The next shot is taken from beside his tail and now I move above his massive back. I find myself in the current around his body, called his vortex. It sucks me along. I can almost stop swimming and still be one of the tribe in this primal situation… it must be so exciting to be a whale! I get the next shot from above his back as I watch the dolphins surfing the pressure wave a few feet in front of this massive animal.

I understand Bernoulli described all of these principles of physics mathematically in the 1700’s and now I get to physically experience them. Few people get to swim with dolphins in the wild, fewer get a chance with whales, even fewer still can get permits to work and dive with whales. How fortunate I am to get sucked along to become part of this delightfully preposterous parade…Ahab with no strings. Then reality sets in and I am reminded that I needed air about a minute ago! Physiology always bats last! The parade continues on without me as I leave in a desperate dash for air. I do not remember getting into the boat, but I do remember being in the boat with a dizzy smile cracking my salt-crusted face.

The next morning, before daybreak, Jo Ann was up making breakfast before I came out of a deep, much needed sleep. Austin, my young son was up too, packing the towels and gear. When I heard the zipping sound of the nylon foul weather pants going into the drybags, I knew something was different about today. I got up and looked out the window onto Santa Maria Bay. With just a hint of the impending explosion of color they call a sunrise down here, I could see whitecaps…again. I went downstairs and asked the usuals: everyone was okay, slept well, no bad dreams, and no, I didn’t hear the cat fight. Ashleigh was out loading the cooler into the boat. She said she thought the wind would lay down today. What have I done to these people? I went back into the villa and helped Jo Ann serve the pancakes and fruit, poured the orange juice and took my Baja/Zodiac vitamin aka Tylenol.

Everyone filtered in and sat down. They were digging right in as though this was step 47 in a 501 step procedure to get out on the water. I sat back, unnoticed, studying my family and crew until Austin looked up to ask for the syrup. He scanned me…"Dad are you okay?" "Are you all sure you want to go out today?" I broke my silence. We had taken it in the teeth for the last two days; come in soaked, beat, zero pictures, no tape and even when we saw whales we could only go with the following sea and wind to stay near them only to pay dearly, hugging the shore near the dangerous, breaking surf line to return home. They looked at me and then at each other as if I had asked the whereabouts of the car keys. Austin plagiarized my speech in his own voice, "You cannot study whales from the beach." I looked back at them and asked, "Are you sure you want to try it again today?"

Jo Ann, my wife and first mate, is the master of the boat and my soul. Her intuition (which means, If…then) always leads her to the correct balance and solution. She knew I was hurting (physically) and needed a day off. She also knew why I did not suggest one. "Why not go out as usual, hide behind the Arch Rocks in the harbor and see what happens" she suggested. "If the wind lays down then we are there and ready, if it continues to blow, then we can come in slowly with the engine angled to keep the bow up and we can stay dry." Two hours later we were behind the Arch and sure enough the wind was screaming around the hook of the Cape, driving wildly confused, wind-driven waves, carrying spray that stings your face. We decided to wait one more hour and then proceed into the harbor, have a sit-down lunch at the Cantina followed by a siesta. My lower back and I were looking forward to all of it.

Then the wind died. Like a string was pulled…the door slammed…the eye of the hurricane came overhead…the wind was gone. Then the breaching began. This became a rare day – breaching whales in water that was becoming more like a mirror every minute.

We headed east toward Gordo Banks where we could see the Humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) landing in these huge 100-foot explosions of water a quarter-inch under the horizon. We were within a mile and a half of the melee when they stopped, so we stopped to see where the pod was moving. We went into an acoustic zero profile: the engine is shut down and is tilted up and locked. We made no noise in the water. We waited. This is a nervous time because you do not know what to do. I pulled out my surface motor-driven camera and put a long lens on it. Ten minutes later the water 100 yards in front of the boat erupted and a huge whale came completely clear of the surface! Chances were high that we would see him do it again within 90 seconds. I checked the camera and prefocused on the area where the water still reeled under a 50-ton impact just seconds before. Contemplate a whale breaching for a moment. A 45-ton whale at least 45 feet long jumps clear of the surface. From start to finish it is 2.7 seconds in duration when 80 percent of the whale rises above the surface. This whale just cleared the surface so let’s add .3 seconds and say that half of the time was spent coming down. Sound reasonable? Now hear the absurd! 45 tons is 90,000 pounds and that weight is moved 45 plus feet vertically in 1.5 seconds. That information can be used to calculate horsepower. What we just witnessed took almost 5,000 horsepower to accomplish!

I know that the subsequent breaches will not be as large because the energy debt must be paid. The image above of the Humpback breaching occurred 83 seconds after the 100 percent breach. I estimate this to be a 95 percent breach. This whale breached 19 more times in the same general area. Several rolls of film later, it was over. After all these years of witnessing this special event, my wife and children still cheer and scream every time. I do too. When the slides come back in the mail and illuminate the entire wall through the projector, I am just like the little kid in the rubber boat…again.

I have been underwater with Humpbacks as they breach, yet I have no pictures of it. I have a camera with me each time, but I have been so taken with their grace and effort under the water that I forget to shoot. My brain however, has every millisecond recorded. Here is what it looks like from under-water. The whale lands on breach number one, the bubbles and swirling turbulence rocket around in shear chaos for a long time. The whale regains a stomach down posture and occasionally ventilates again. A shallow surface dive with no large display of the tail is made. The whale swims off about 50 feet below the surface, turns around and rushes the surface, pumping its tail furiously. Just before it gets back to the take off point, it relaxes the muscles over its ribs which allows the air inside the lungs to expand rapidly. The whale appears to have swallowed a large balloon, as that area of his body suddenly distends greatly. Using the huge buoyancy assist at the surface, he picks up his head, while his 15-foot pectoral flippers reach and drive toward the surface. His tail beats the water into submission one or two final times and inertia takes over – a 45-ton glider. 45 tons up…it sounds like rain… 45 tons down…impacting with the sound of a muffled cannon, leaving a massive green and white impact zone in the surf.

When your toilet flushes you hear five gallons of water move slowly. When a whale breaches, you hear 12,000 gallons of water move very quickly. If you are too close you can get hurt. Two days before, I was too close. I was in the water among three male Humpbacks who were jousting each other, feigning attacks at ramming speed, hitting each other with one ton tails and pecs and trying to breach on top of each other. With 15-foot pecs extended on either side of a body 15 feet wide…two of them side by side creates a 90-foot wide duo that yields to nothing. As I was trying to get out of their way, the third whale breached and landed in their path and mine too. I was not hit on impact…I’m still here, but in the confusion, the water smacked my back and shoulders with an incredible force. No bruises, scrapes or blood, but I was as sore as I have ever been for the next week. I respected the power of the large whales before that incident, but now my respect is somewhere beyond awe.

On another day, an event occurred that will affect me the rest of my life. On this day, something was very wrong. Humpbacks normally surface every 7 to 12 minutes and take three breaths, then cruise 150 feet down at a speed of about four to five miles per hour. They usually travel in pods of between three and eight animals. This single whale was surfacing every 2.5 minutes and taking an average of five ventilations. If we tried to move closer to see what was wrong, the whale would turn and move away. No matter how we tried to passively position ourselves for a closer assessment, the whale evaded us. The decision was made to drop me off. As the boat pulled away, the whale might swim directly at me. I had a camera to document the situation. (It will take a lifetime to make sense of it and hopefully less than another life with your help to solve the problem.) Almost as soon as I was out of the prop wash of our super quiet outboard engine, the whale made a turn for me. He went to the surface, took four breaths and swam right to me. I was down at 30 feet and holding very still with the camera already in position to shoot. I looked over the top of the camera and felt sick. A net was wrapped over his head, sealing his mouth closed and hence his fate. It trailed out for 150 yards behind him. I took nine shots as he passed in front of me. I will never forget his eye. If the eye is the window to the soul, it would explain why I now felt so much shame. As he passed into the blue beyond my vision, I heard a strange sound.

Try to imagine the muffled sound of loose plastic flapping wildly atop the luggage rack of the family van speeding down the highway. I could not see the source of the sound, and it haunted me for three days as we did nothing from dawn to dusk but search for this whale. Finally, in the late afternoon of the third day we sighted him again, swimming east. I slipped into the water as the boat moved away 800 yards and then the silence. Without a camera but ready with wire cutters and gloves, I waited at the surface. John Lien is a Canadian scientist who has perfected the technique of freeing many, many Humpbacks from the local fishermen’s nets in Newfoundland. The secret, he claims, is making eye contact. This contact must be made with the whale before any work begins. Trust? I had never done this before and yet failure at this task never occurred to me. He swam right toward me, but 20 feet away he made a sharp turn and I slowed. I slowly moved in directly toward his eye. About eight feet away his eye grew very large and I stopped. I concentrated on his eye, not allowing myself even a glimpse at his shroud of nets. No sound, eye to eye, wishing I could signal my intention, but I needed air. I went to the surface still maintaining eye contact.

As I moved away to dive back down and resume my position, he rolled to keep his eye directly on me. As I came back, he moved his tail once and he was instantly beyond me. I swam alongside, but another tail thrust put him a little further ahead of me. I stopped, as he continued forward on his momentum. I moved back up near his eye and he began a slow, even cadence swim to the surface, took 5 or 6 breaths and resumed his depth of 15 to 20 feet. I was losing this race, so I changed my plan to dive, grab the trailing net and begin cutting it off as I pulled myself toward him. In a pinch I’ve gone three minutes plus underwater. The adrenaline I would release in this effort would surely see me through. As his speed increased, I heard that flapping noise that had bothered me for three days. As I identified the source, my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. To add insult to his situation, this young whale had swum into a segment of rope longline. The big longlines are 40 miles long and made of cable. They are set out to be retrieved a few days later and indiscriminately catch everything that takes the bait.

This rope version, like the big cables, share a common point. About every 20 feet, they have a heavy wire leader attached to a huge fish hook. These hooks were spinning in the wake of the whale as the longline had snarled and fouled itself into the ghost net. If I grabbed the net, and the whale increased his speed even a little, I would render myself more of a problem than a solution. I thought about it… I will feel about it for the rest of my life. I will never forget that eye nor the look I got from my children as I got back into the boat. I explained what had happened, how I weighed my options and came to my decision. They both looked away searching the horizon. I am sure I would have drowned in the nets and hooks he carried to his death. His heart probably stopped from exhaustion and starvation and then his eyes closed. Taking too much of anything is simple greed. We rode home in silence.

Read this carefully, every night 40,000 miles of monofilament nets go into the Earth’s Oceans, EVERY NIGHT. That will almost wrap the Earth twice at the equator. If the fishermen lose just 1 percent, the ocean gets a free-floating 400 mile lethal, nearly invisible, nylon monofilament "ghost net" that will not biodegrade. It will float forever and kill dolphin, tuna, turtles, marlin, sharks, sea lions and this whale.

AUSTIN. My son attracts them, ever since he saw his first one in the ocean as a three-year old. Had they never seen a human this small and skilled in their domain? Austin learned to swim when he was six months old and was an accomplished snorkeler by the age of 14 months. Before he was two years old, he was a regular with the harmless, gentle Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus) at my research area of Crystal River, Florida. We would get up at five in the morning and he would sleep in his car seat for the two hour drive west from Orlando. With his tiny wetsuit and dive gear on, he would follow-lead me around as I documented the wintering population of manatee with video and still cameras. He cannot remember not knowing how to swim, snorkel and free dive and he has always thought that big gray things in the water mean "friends". Some of my fondest memories are of a little blond baby playing with a 14-foot manatee. Playing tag, giving and getting rubs, purple lips and a slightly blue hand waving with the little voice "Bye, bye, see you next time, be careful ‘til I get back." As a three-year old he got into the Pacific for the first time holding his eight-year old sister’s hand. On one trip, Ashleigh led him around the Zodiac for about a minute and her mask strap broke. She brought Austin over to the side, told him to hang onto one of the black lift handles and she got into the boat. I handed her a spare strap and she was busy attaching it to her mask. I was adjusting the video camera housing, a job that takes 30 seconds on dry land but 10 minutes in a small inflatable boat bobbing two miles offshore in the Pacific. A high pitched squeal forced through a mouth piece and out the end of a snorkel at the back of the boat got everyone’s attention. A nine-foot dark shape was three feet under the water not six feet away from my son. My heart stopped…shark!! My daughter screamed as she grabbed my arm.

At that instant the shape vanished, Austin let go of the boat and followed it! I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. His sister was frantic, one leg over the side, her other flipper tangled in a dive bag. A silence, a struggle and my baby who does not know better is following a large shark. Dolphin! It’s a dolphin! Oh my god, it is a dolphin!!! My heart resumes normal operation, my blood pressure returns, my face has a normal color again, it is a dolphin. He is giggling and speaking snorkaleze. Little hand extended, slow approach swim, quick right turn to swim away from it, it follows until he turns back, chases it, it flees, he turns and flees, it chases him. The game is on! Three more dolphin show up and the game continues now with Ashleigh in the water too. The game only stopped when I got in. Zip, and they were gone. I do not know if it is an electromagnetic aura, or if they sensed absolute calm as they scanned Austin’s body and the resulting acoustic image signaled friend, but my son and dolphin have a special, demonstrable relationship.

When he was four he wanted to take pictures of them with very expensive underwater cameras. Trying to substitute a little 110 camera for this purpose brought a sincere response. "It’s okay, if you don’t think I can be trusted with your camera, I’ll just swim with them, but they do come closer to me than they do to you and I can put the safety strap around my wrist like you sometimes forget to do," Austin quirked. Just like the seatbelts, I thought. "Okay, but be very careful with this, this superwide angle lens cost…" he took the camera from over the side as Jo Ann adjusted the wrist guard as far as it would go which was not even close enough for his little wrist. "Take only one shot and then come right back to the boat" were his orders. He came right back with five shots. Six weeks later we would see what he described.

Children are gifts. They represent the future. They learn from watching us and then, if we allow it, they discover themselves and find their place in this world. When the image of a perfectly centered dolphin brought our darkened living room wall to life, my wife and I gasped. I have every one of my 100,000 shots mentally catalogued. Visual memory is instant and correct. This was not mine but it was a shot that required the photographer to know that the image was too long in this pose to be shot horizontally. Here was a perfect, vertically framed image of a dolphin with vignetting lines of light blue rays disappearing into a vanishing point into the deep blue abyss backdrop. "That’s one of my friends! I took this picture that day, that time when we were… wow, there he is" the little voice down in front exclaimed. My, my, my, the best dolphin shots in the house belong to a four-year old. "How did you know to make it a vertical Austin?" I inquired. "What’s a vertical?" Austin asked. "It’s when you rotate the camera 90 degrees"…"Oh, I’ve seen you do it" was the reply. Next slide, another dolphin better than the last, if that is possible. The one I saw then, you see now. When the photographer and the model trust each other, a picture at that instant transcends mere documentation. That kind of image is a timeless celebration of the here and now. I was once told that instant of time is a gift, that is why we call it the present.

Last year, we got into a pod of 100 dolphin for four hours. My children played with them in the water for two hours. Austin, of course, was the last one back in the boat. We took off, and cruising quietly at 15 knots, we were escorted 10 miles all the way back to Santa Maria Bay by eight bowriding dolphins. When Austin moved over the bow, they would maneuver a little closer. If his hand stretched down they raced along just under the surface. The light reflecting from their gleaming bodies underwater silhouetted his hand and that light reflected back down on them. The circle of light.

When my daughter was 8 and my son was 3, my wife and I began taking them down to our research center in Baja. It is a 4,000 mile drive from our home in Florida, pulling a trailer loaded with boats, engines, cameras, clothes and equipment that collectively weighs over a ton. We bring everything but the dog. We will work at our destination for 8 to 10 weeks. Back then, my little children rode in the boat and cheered for the whales. They would hold their breaths while I was in deep dive. I was their hero. Today they are 16 and 11 and now they too dive and photograph the whales, run the sound board and the hydrophone, catalogue the identification photos scanned into the computer and meticulously clean the gear at the end of the day. They can explain Cetacean anatomy and physiology, the effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and the differences between a spill of refined versus crude oil in the ocean. They know about water and fat soluble toxins and the cascade effect to future offspring and the concentrations called bioaccumulation. They know why we use a Honda 4-stroke outboard engine rather than a regular 2-stroke outboard engine that puts 96 percent of its oil directly into the water. They have read and studied the very credible research that shows that one gallon of used motor oil contaminates one million gallons of water to the point where it kills the plankton that serves as the base of the food chain.

My children know so much and yet feel they know so little. Back then, their tolerance lead to participation in my passion; today they lead me further into it. Their time will not come because it is already here; my children are my heroes.

Harvey Barnett holds a PhD. in Psychological Foundations from the University of Florida. He was a University professor for seven years and served as a Director of the Marine Mammal Project for five years. His award winning photography of hawks, eagles, owls, manatees, dolphins, sea lions, seals and whales has been published all over the world. He is a sculptor with two of the seven under-water statues of marine mammals in the world to his credit. A surface replica of his whale statue stands on the peninsula of the Hotel Cabo San Lucas. He is the founder and director of Research for Infant Swimming Research, a field in which he has authored seven books and numerous scientific articles.

Jo Ann Barnett continues her studies at the University of Central Florida in biology and coordinates the complex logistics of marine mammal research, international lecture schedules and is a published author in the field of learning theory and instructional design.

Their daughter Ashleigh is an honors student at Winter Park High School and is taking college courses there as a junior. She wants to pursue careers as a scientist working on pollution and as an environmental lawyer.
Austin is a straight-A student in the sixth grade with 58 hours toward his private pilots license. He wants to be the youngest person to fly across the U.S. totally on instruments and wants to become a veterinarian. Everyone in the family is an accomplished free diver and published photographer.

Dr. Barnett has logged over 5,000 hours in the water since 1969 with a variety of marine mammals. His research, documentation and select photographs of marine mammals will appear in his upcoming book, "A Mist at Sea", due out in 1997.

Dr. Barnett delivers his award winning lecture series featuring his video, slides and audio recordings of marine mammals every year at various hotels in the Los Cabos region.

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