Story and photos by Dr. Harvey
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.
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?
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?
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.
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
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.
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?"
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.