Sperm whales swim in a pod in the sea.
Sperm whales swim in a pod in the sea.
Image: 123RF / willyambradberry

“Call me Ishmael ... ” Those celebrated opening lines from Moby-Dick are re-forming in my mind to “call me insane”, as I ready myself to slide into the ink-blue Caribbean and free-dive with a sperm whale.

The rasp of an aqualung can spook the whales, so I must rely on lung power, mask, snorkel, wetsuit and fins. Despite the fact I’ve spent the last couple of weeks practising holding my breath underwater at my local pool, I’m still only good for a descent of about 50 feet before I have to rise for breath. In comparison, the sperm whale’s round-trip to the bottom of the ocean to feed on giant squid can last more than an hour, its ribs collapsing in on themselves with the pressure of the depths, only to re-form on ascent.

Herman Melville, were he alive today, would certainly have considered me mad to do this, for a key element of his long-winded if wondrous yarn is loosely based on fact: in 1820 the Essex, an 88-foot Nantucket whaler, was rammed by an abnormally large bull (male) sperm whale. The boat’s bow was split apart in just two charges. Forget the orca and great white; weighing as much as 60 tonnes and up to 65ft long, the sperm whale is the world’s largest toothed predator and the cock of the seven seas. It has the biggest brain of any animal and can dive to more than 6,500ft. Shortly before my dive I’m told that a week earlier a male surfaced with the orange tentacle of a giant squid laced in his eight-inch teeth. As I slip into the water, my heart thunders.

I had arrived in Roseau, Dominica’s tumbledown capital, the previous day. The sounds of reggae wafted about the close-quartered wooden houses; I was struck by the absence of tourists. There are no global hotel chains here either, though groups of day-trippers are disgorged from cruise ships a few times a week. Thanks to its rainforests, rivers and mountains, Dominica attracts nature-loving, independent travellers, and given its lack of white-powder beaches it’s unlikely to be subjugated by all-inclusive resorts anytime soon.

On my first morning, I drove from Fort Young Hotel (where you’ll find the capital’s best rooms, right on the seafront) past fresh-caught marlin and yellowfin tuna for sale at the roadside, south to the village of Pointe Michel and headquarters of Dive Dominica, the outfit that would take me to meet the sperm whales. There would be nine on-board our whale-watch boat, the Olga: a guide, captain, myself and the six-strong crew of the Delos, a mixed, international group of sun-soaked sailors-cum-divers who monetise their wanderlust through video-blogs of their aquatic adventures. We would have just four days to find our box-nosed cetaceans.

Swimming with sperm whales is strictly controlled. Licences for up to six people cost $3,000 per day, and Dominica’s Fisheries Division issues only 10 per year — too many divers in the water could spook the whales, sending them away to seek out other feeding grounds. About 300 sperm whales still come to feed here, though data collected by the Dominica Sperm Whale Project suggests the population is declining by 4 per cent annually, the result of ship collisions, getting caught in fishing nets and long-lines, as well as the effects of pollution and climate change.

As we motored out to sea, our guide Nigel Seraphine explained the rules. Don’t get in the way of a mother and her calf. Don’t swim at the pod but rather swim with it, at its side. If you’re lucky, he explained, a female may come and check you out, hovering vertically beside you. This is called logging (the bulls are much more skittish and unlikely to come near you), but you must remember to maintain a respectful distance and never touch one. Finally, never get close to a sperm whale’s tail.

Family of sperm whales.
Family of sperm whales.
Image: 123RF / willyambradberry

At the first of three key feeding areas, captain Francis Charles lowered the hydrophonic microphone into the glassy water, the rest of us mute and still as shipwrecks in the hope we would hear the clicks that signify the leviathans’ language. Nothing. We continued to the second and then third feeding spot. I buried my impatience reading up on our quarry. Sperm whales are matrilineal, I learned, that’s to say grandmothers, mothers and daughters stick together for life, while the lonely males have to leave the family unit and may never see them again. In order to find the tonne of food — more for a bull — needed to power their massive frames each day, the whales might typically dive and ascend 15,000ft, the equivalent distance from base-camp to the summit of Everest.

At the front of that battering-ram of a head is a cavity sufficiently large to park a Fiat Uno, in which resides the spermaceti oil, once sought after to produce everything from candles to industrial lubricants. Exactly what the whale uses it for isn’t clearly understood. One theory is that it helps with echolocation, the other that by lowering and raising its temperature, the whale can solidify or liquefy the oil and the changing density helps with diving or surfacing.

The first two days’ sorties yield nothing, and by day three I’m tense and ill-tempered. Even the evergreen smiles of the Delos divers are neutralised as we head out to sea; we came to this rum-soaked island’s waters seeking one thing in particular and our chances are narrowing by the hour. But a rainbow in the morning sky augurs well, while captain Charles exudes steely determination, eyes narrowed against the sunshine. He steers us along the coastline beyond the pastel-hued village of Soufrière to Scotts Head, the island’s extreme southern tip.

At the first feeding ground, where the Caribbean meets the rough chop of the Atlantic, the microphone goes in again, and again we hear nothing but the familiar ring of silence. And then, like some 21st century update of “There she blows!”, from somewhere out in the vast blue, we hear a click ... and then another. “Over there!” shouts one of the divers. The first spout of water feathers in the wind as rubbery backs break the surface, the pod no more than 15ft from us. Suddenly it’s action stations, as we scramble for fins and underwater photographic kit.

Charles cuts the boat’s engines; Seraphine warns, “Jump, but no splash!” I take a deep breath, say a prayer and slide in. Only three people are permitted to swim with the whales at any one time. At first I see nothing — I’m looking the wrong way — then turn and gasp at the scene before me. Imagine a canvas of blue skittering with light, into which glide a colossal mother and calf. I dive down to get a better look at their narrow underjaw. The mother’s solitary eye takes the measure of the three of us. Despite centuries of being hunted by our species, she is accepting of our presence, even slightly curious.

WATCH | Free-diving with sperm whales off the coast of Dominica:

When I rise from the depths after that first sighting I’m a little quiet, even emotional. I’ve been watching wild animals up close for the last 15 years, but never have I felt so small, so thankful of being granted an audience.

My fourth and final day under the waves is the most prolific. Our first sighting is a pod of several whales; barely visible blobs in the murky navy sea, they’re further away than the mother and calf. I take a deep breath, steady my body and remember the advice of the professional freediver who has joined us on-board. Namely that we have more, much more air left in our lungs when they initially scream for air. Rather like a car’s fuel warning-light urging you to fill up when there’s at least 30 miles still left in the tank, our lungs err well on the side of caution and push us to surface prematurely. If you can get through this first panic, there’s plenty more breath in reserve.

I descend towards the whales, who emit a series of clicking noises, presumably checking me out with echolocation. Purely in terms of decibels, sperm whales are also the loudest animals on earth, their clicks allowing them to communicate with other whales up to 35 miles away, and track prey at a range of 10 miles.

Yet Ahab’s monsters of “inscrutable malice” are nothing if not welcoming. I’ve not dived very deep but the water has already darkened a shade as those shapes resolve themselves into six females and a calf. The need to breathe is pressing, so I allow myself to descend just a few more feet. I watch one whale’s 12ft-long lower jaws opening and closing — the teeth could easily sever me in two but my only sensation is something akin to empathy. Perhaps it has something to do with our brains: for the neocortex, that part of the brain responsible for language and consciousness, is much larger in a sperm whale than a human, and their spindle cells, which neurologists believe govern love and compassion, are even denser and more complex than our own.

Later that day, we watch other pods pass by in caravans of dignified matriarchs and juveniles, at times so close we could have reached out and touched their wrinkled hides from the boat. As the Olga putters homeward and Dominica’s felt-green mountains appear, I think again of Melville. “Consider the subtleness of the sea,” he wrote, “how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of azure.” He was wrong of course — the sea is lovelier still when you have glimpsed the giants beneath.

DETAILS

Richard Waters was a guest of the Dominican Tourist Board and stayed at the Fort Young Hotel (doubles from $226 per night). Virgin Atlantic flies from London to Antigua from £549, from where Liat Airways flies on to Dominica (from £260 return). Four days’ diving with Dive Dominica costs $385 per person, plus $3,000 per day for the permit, which covers up to six people.

MORE AQUATIC ENCOUNTERS:

1. Humpbacks in the South Pacific

Hanli Prinsloo, a champion South African free driver, will lead two trips in September to swim with humpbacks and hear them “sing”. Based on the remote coral atoll of Niue, guests will make daily boat trips, learning free-diving techniques and snorkelling with whales and dolphins. From $8,200 for a week.

2. Narwhals in Nunavut

In the far north of Baffin Island, Arctic Kingdom’s “Floe Edge Experience” offers guests the chance to spot polar bears and seals under the midnight sun — and to don drysuits and snorkel to see the elusive narwhal. From CA$13,450 (£7,700) for a week. 

3. Blue whales in Sri Lanka

At up to 98ft long — and with a tongue weighing up to 2.7 tonnes — blue whales are the largest animals known to have existed on earth. Sri Lanka is one of the best places to snorkel with them; December, January and April are the ideal months. From £6,465 for nine days.

4. Manta Rays in the Maldives

The Four Seasons resort at Landaa Giraavaru operates a “Manta-on-call” service. When mass gatherings of mantas are spotted, typically between May and November, guests are called and then taken by speedboat to snorkel with them. From £5,485 for four nights.

- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019.

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