Suspended Grace

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, slowly counting to four in my head. After a brief pause, I counted out another eight and let my breath escape in a steady, controlled manner, consciously attempting to counteract the adrenaline pumping through my body and slow my racing pulse. Waiting thirty feet below me in the crystal blue waters of Dominica was an encounter I had been dreaming of for years. The excitement made it difficult to concentrate, but I needed to take full control of my respiration if I was to endure the extended free dive ahead. I continued breathing in slow, uninterrupted cycles for another two minutes until the calm I had been conjuring washed over me at last.

Confident my heart was beating slow enough, I inhaled one final time, packing my lungs with as much air as possible, spat out my snorkel, and began my descent, camera held in outstretched arms like a sword guiding me into the depths.

My career as a conservationist storyteller has helped me understand that people are more likely to care about the ocean if they first fall in love with the charismatic megafauna that call it home.

I arrived at the fifty-foot mark and slowly began an approach, doing my best to ignore the involuntary contractions of my diaphragm as my lungs begged me to rid them of CO₂ and take a breath. I took a photo, quickly reviewed it, then shifted my position in the water to try again. And again. And again. Once more, and everything started to come together – the ribbon-like squid tentacles, the sun-dappled ocean surface, the calf in the background, and her eye, closely watching this stranger to her world for signs of annoyance. Sperm whales have the largest brain of any species on the planet but only turn it off one half at a time while they sleep. She was fully aware of her surroundings but remained motionless, totally accepting my presence. It was the greatest gift she could have given me.

I grew more and more excited as this dream shot unfolded before my eyes, which increased my heart rate and triggered more aggressive diaphragm contractions in my chest. I was out of time.

Not wanting to startle them, I initiated a controlled ascent to the surface with minimal kicking. Despite feeling as though it had lasted forever, the entire encounter was over in less than ninety seconds.

Sowing the seeds for that relationship is my contribution, and I knew that giving them a glimpse into the soul of a proud matriarch would open their hearts to this mysterious world. My lungs burned as I reached the top of her head, but I continued down another twenty feet to get below her eye where I could photograph up towards the surface and capture her young calf in the background.

After my solo dive, Cristina and I revisited the sleeping whales together and captured an image for scale. It will be another decade before this mother whale and her calf part ways.

Cristina greeted me at the surface when I returned. She had been preparing to attempt a similar shot, but after taking a moment to recover, I asked if she would instead model for me to create a sense of scale. She agreed, and we cycled through a series of slow breaths together before heading back down. We made several dives over the next hour, throughout which the mother sperm whale, who had been named ‘Soursop’ by the crew of our vessel, remained perfectly still. It was as if she knew her cooperation would help our effort to protect her species and her home.

Thank you for sharing this journey with me,