Andrew Armour, who runs Kubuli Watersports on the Caribbean island of Dominica, has been called the “Whale Whisperer” because of his ability to communicate with sperm whales, particularly a young male named “Scar.”
“Once I’m in the water I try to reach them acoustically by making this noise in the water, and it’s the same noise all the time so they know it’s me,” he says. “So I’m talking to them all the time in the water, and they start coming.”
To be sure, had Herman Melville been to Dominica and swum with its whales, he might have had trouble finding the inspiration to write the classic novel, “Moby Dick.”
Perhaps 200 of the fabled cetaceans utilize the surrealistically blue realm beyond the island. None has expressed ferocity toward humans or bitten the leg from a tyrannical (and fictional) captain.
On the contrary, as people such as Armour have learned, these great leviathans, once hunted mercilessly around the world, are docile and at times even seem friendly toward people.
“The whales come to us, make friends with us, and interact with us,” says Peter G. Allinson, a Baltimore doctor who has made several trips to Dominica, which is between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
“The best encounter is when the whales are socializing among themselves and they’ll come over and play with us,” Allinson adds. “A couple of them will rub up against you and try to get you to rub them, and some of them roll over on their backs and let you rub their bellies. It’s quite interesting.”
Allinson’s images have appeared in National Geographic magazine and won photo contests. He does not distribute his photos but, as a supporter of the Save the Whales organization, he allowed their use for this story hoping it’ll raise awareness that all whales “are very intelligent and very friendly animals, and they should not be hunted.”
Images captured recently by professional photographers also have surfaced, on various websites, and suddenly the whales of Dominica are no longer a secret.
“The secret is now coming out,” Armour says. “And it’s coming out in a sense that this is the best place to see sperm whales, this close to North America.”
This is disconcerting to scientists, however. They say a budding and largely unregulated “swim-with” program might be harmful to the whales. “These interactions alter the normal daily behavior pattern of not only the animal which is interacted with but also all of its family members as a result,” says Shane Gero, a researcher from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Armour, who closely works with researchers but also runs a whale-watching business, acknowledges that regulations are needed but adds: “My strategy with them has always been to let them want to be with me. The thing is to not let youngsters get too far away from the family group. In this way we have noticed a minimal change in the behavior of the group as a unit.”
Sperm whales, which in the pre-whaling era numbered about 1.1 million globally, now number about 360,000. At Dominica, as with other populations, adult females and young whales do not migrate. Adult males visit only during the wintertime breeding season. Young males leave their family units at about age 9 and migrate to the north and south. They do not return to breed until they’re much older.
Dominica is unique, Gero says, in that scientists are able to locate specific family units with high regularity. He has been studying the whales there with Hal Whitehead, one of the world’s foremost sperm whale authorities.
“Dominica’s uniqueness lies in the fact that we can outline families and compare between sisters, as Jane Goodall did with the chimps; not simply between families or like-sounding clans of whales,” Gero says. “As a result, our big advancements have been the discoveries of which animals in the family unit acts as babysitter when mother makes deep dives for food.
“We have also been able to compare the vocal repertoires of each individual across the years and have shown that mothers and calves sound different from the other members of the family.”
Armour has known Scar since the whale swam to his boat as a calf, with injuries to his head and dorsal fin, presumably caused by marauding pilot whales.
He makes humming and clicking sounds to communicate with Scar, and in January the 10-year-old whale arrived for the first time with some much younger whales.
Scar, who has reached the age where he ought to be off roaming, has not been seen since February.
Says Armour: “Deep down I felt that when he introduced us to the youngsters this January that was his way of saying goodbye.”
– Photos courtesy of Peter G. Allinson. Top photo shows Andrew Armour (left) with a whale named Scar. Bottom images show Jeff Hartog, a plastic surgeon from Orlando, Fla., in the midst of sperm whales. Images are copyrighted and Allinson requests that people respect that protection.