Culture and Society

What's it like to swim with whales?
Answered by Sylvia Earle
  • Sylvia Earle

    Sylvia Earle

  1. Sylvia Earle Founder and President, The Sylvia Earle Alliance


    Swimming with whales is ethereal. It's a reminder that we're not the only creatures on Earth with a brain. To be in the presence, as I have many times, of the singing whales, the humpback whales, other whales too, but I've spent more time with the humpback whales than any other individual species of whale. They could whap us with their big flukes. They could do us in if they wanted to. And they'd be allowed, considering what we've done to them over the ages. Humans are not, over the years, a whale's best friend. But they are just curious. And they're tolerant. But mainly, they want to check us out. I've had it happen countless times where the whales are way over here. I'm in a little boat.

    And they change course and they come the boat -- go upside down like this with their big flukes out. It's like, what are you? Who are you? And you go underwater with them, and they come to you. And that's the only way you have a truly good encounter with any wild animal. You let them make the moves. I've spent hours with them making the moves -- swimming around and back and forward and upside down and just checking us out. And it instills a sense of responsibility in me, too, not to betray the trust, the innocence that they have. I've come to feel the same way about fish. It isn't just whales. Having a big grouper just come from way over there and swim directly over, come and look at you -- or squid.

    I once had an encounter with an octopus in an Australian reef. It was about 70 feet down. So I didn't have a lot of time. It was the middle of the day. It was unusual, I thought, to see an octopus out just exploring the ocean floor by day. Often, they're out at night. But I stopped a respectful distance away. And when I did, the octopus stopped too. He obviously saw me -- he or she -- and immediately started changing colors and went from light to dark and then half-dark, half-light, and then splotches, then all one shade, and then another, as it moved slowly toward the reef that was off to the side. It took us a good five minutes to move across the reef, slowly. I didn't change my distance.

    But I moved as the octopus moved. And finally, it reached the reef. And instead of diving in, it oozed its way up to the top of the reef. And it stood up on the tips of its tentacles, made itself as tall as it could, and just looked at me. And I don't know what it was thinking; it obviously was thinking something. Octopuses do have a brain. It's pretty big. In my mind, I wanted to be able to respond. But I couldn't. I couldn't go half-dark, half-light. I couldn't make my skin project out in little pieces the way the octopus could. I felt so ignorant. I couldn't communicate, except with all my heart that I was expressing goodwill. I wasn't going after it.

    I was showing respect. Somehow, being in the water, being examined by other creatures, whether it's a lobster or an octopus or a whale or a dolphin or whatever it is, they are treating me with respect. And I feel compelled to return respect and treat them with dignity. It's changed the way I regard not only other forms of life but the way I regard other humans. If we could just treat everyone with dignity and respect, there'd be fewer wars.

    More answers from Sylvia Earle »

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