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Hanging out with Humpbacks

The No. 1 spot on my list, however, never changes — my ultimate underwater experience will always be a face-to-face encounter with nature’s largest mammal, the whale.

Like most divers, I have a wish list of marine creatures that I’d like to see, and like most divers, my list is approximately half a mile long. I’m constantly adding to it, but sometimes, I’m lucky enough to check off one of its inhabitants. The No. 1 spot on my list, however, never changes — my ultimate underwater experience will always be a face-to-face encounter with nature’s largest mammal, the whale. Over the years, I’ve been lucky to have several chance encounters with the humpback whales that migrate up the east coast of South Africa each winter. And instead of becoming blasé about these beautiful creatures, they manage to take my breath away a little bit more each time I see them. My most recent encounter took place on a crisp winter morning on Aliwal Shoal, and was my best to date.


After surfacing from the second of the two dives I’d led that morning, the sea was glassy calm and our skipper had spotted a pair of courting whales in shallow water over the reef. My divers and I pulled ourselves aboard as quickly and quietly as we could, and we motored slowly towards them, all of us buzzing with anticipation. Although we’d seen humpbacks breaching from shore for the past few weeks, this was my first time seeing them up close this season, and I couldn’t have been more excited. These two were magnificent, their great black backs silently breaking the surface, their sleek dorsal fins glistening with seawater in the sun. They were so wrapped up in each other that they didn’t pay us any attention at all. Maintaining a respectful distance, we turned the motors off and watched them in awe for several minutes.

Although we had stopped over 300 feet away from them, they drifted closer and closer to us with the current, either still oblivious to, or entirely unconcerned by, our presence. Every few minutes, one or other of them would exhale sharply, sending brief columns of condensation into the air, their shuddering breaths only serving to underline the fact that we humans were all holding ours. They were so relaxed that our skipper eventually told us we could quietly enter the water and see if they would allow us to snorkel with them. , I was almost dizzy with excitement as we slipped silently over the edge of the inflatable into the Indian Ocean.

At first, all I could see was blue, my eyes desperately willing the ocean to form itself into recognizable shapes. Then, there they were, so huge that it took a while to process the reality of them, their flukes and pectorals glowing turquoise through the water. We swam slowly towards the whales, conscious of the power behind those flukes if we startled them. Within moments, I was just a few feet away from them, their mottled white and grey skin like a great, living wall in front of me. I dived down until I was parallel with one whale’s deeply grooved throat, and swam alongside it until I was looking directly into its great, white-rimmed eye. For a single fleeting, spectacular moment, the whale and I swam eye-to-eye, sharing a second of palpable communication before I had to return to the surface. In the shallow water over the reef, the two whales circled us several times before disappearing back into the shimmering blue.

Back at the surface, none of us could stop grinning. The encounter left me feeling both shaky and utterly exhilarated, as I reveled in the unique expansion of the soul that comes from finding oneself completely aligned with nature, if only for one brief, magical moment. I’ll never cross whales off my wish list, because moments like those are worth seeking always.

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