The Circle of Life at Socorro
Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “A mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” After visiting the Socorro Islands with Great White Adventures aboard the Solmar V, my mind was stretched more than I could ever imagine.
I started diving as a child because my dad was a SCUBA instructor. We did most of our diving in the Caribbean, but I always wanted to swim with the gentle giants of the Pacific Ocean. When my dad sold his business twenty years ago, we stopped diving and I put my dream on hold as "life" got in the way, but I recently decided it was time to get back in.
I chose a trip in the Socorro Islands that promised a dive with giant mantas, dolphins and several species of sharks, including hammerheads. What I was really hoping for, though, was a chance to dive with humpback whales. In this area, it's not uncommon to see or hear whales from a distance, but a close encounter or swim with them is not guaranteed. My gut was telling me a different story though. I just knew they would be there…
Our first dive was at Cabo Pearce where we saw mantas, hammerheads and dolphins, just as promised. We even heard a whale singing so loudly that I could feel the vibration in my chest. Her song was so loud, it seemed she would come around that coral reef at any second, but we didn’t see her until we got back in the boat. She was a few hundred yards off in another direction. That night we left Cabo Pearce for the small island of Roca Partida.
All photos shot with Nikon D800, Nikkor 10.5mm fisheye lens, Ikelite D800 housing & Ikelite strobes
Here, my intuition that we would be swimming with whales on this trip was realized. The mother and her calf began circling the boat with her escort. Eric, one of our dive masters, quickly recognized her as a whale who had been there before, and he was as excited to see her again as I was to encounter her for the first time. We couldn’t get in the water fast enough. She was the true definition of gentle giant. I couldn’t believe how large these animals really are. To see a 40-ton animal up close like that was truly mesmerizing. I had to just float there and take it all in before I even remembered I had a camera with me. We spent the whole day there with momma and her baby, using snorkels to keep swimming when our tanks went dry. The calf would surface about every three minutes to take a breath, then dive back down to momma so she could hold him down while he was learning buoyancy. At one time, he swam right up to me and stopped, just staring at me before heading back down. I’ve never bonded with an animal the way I did with these whales.
The next morning our friends were still there, so as soon as the sun was up we were back in the water. I could have spent the entire trip swimming with them, but Mother Nature had different plans. After our dive, as the rafts were picking up the last divers and heading back to the boat, our day was turned upside down. We heard a commotion and saw the thrashing of the whale fins in the water, but we weren’t sure what was going on at first. Then we saw the orca fins. My stomach sank.
I was worried about the calf but didn’t think there was any way that these orcas could fight the giant (and obviously protective) whales. We rushed the rafts over towards them and our worst fear was realized. The two orcas had severely injured the calf and were taking him away to feed on him. We followed the orcas for about an hour, witnessing the circle of life firsthand, reminding ourselves that the orcas weren’t being cruel; this was just the natural order of things.
We headed back for another dive to be with the mother whale, but as soon as we got in it just didn’t feel right. She was circling the island at a frantic pace, over and over. On one of her passes she came close enough for me to see her eyes. Her once wide, peaceful eyes were now squinted in what seemed like sadness and anger. I wanted to console her, but how do you do that for a 40-ton whale? It felt like it was time to move on. That night we headed to San Benadicto for some “bubble therapy” with the giant mantas. These soothing creatures love the bubbles we create, and our time with them felt healing for all of us.
Momma whale is on my mind every day. I will always wonder where she is and how she is doing. It warmed my heart when I read the dive report for the Solmar V on the trip that went out after ours. She was still there and had started mating with her escort. I’ve already booked my return trip for next year and hope I get to cross paths with her again.
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About the Author
Rodney Bursiel is a music, surf and underwater photography. When he is not at home in Austin photographing the music scene, he is traveling the world chasing waves and capturing the underwater world. You can see more of his work at www.rodneybursiel.com
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