Outdoors Magazine

And Then There Were Three

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
Two days after we swam with whales in the lagoon here in PNG's Hermit Islands, we were told one of the whales had died. At this point, the pod had been inside for eight days. This sad news didn't resolve questions about whether they would be able to leave, or if we could have a group stranding.

We gathered input from from a number of sources, thanks to help from friends and a network of forwarded messages to seek expertise. Contacts filter into our radio-based email account to offer assistance and help evaluate the situation. A group PNG fisheries department visited for several days, but they were focused on their task of surveying the beche de mer (sea cucumber) population and didn't have any input to offer. With all of us on site unfamiliar with the scenario, these expert opinions from afar feel like a lifeline.

Our fuel supply for the outboard is limited, so we don't have the luxury of regular runs out to the reef. But men in the village pass by in dugouts as they paddle several miles to gather trochus shells or fish on the outer reef, and bring back news.

The day after the fatality was reported, we planned to make another trip. Our friends from sv SeaGlass had arrived, with more fuel and more suitable cameras (our ruggedized point-n-shoot camera died, and I'm a little protective of my nice DSLR). We hoped to get a sense for whether the whales were in distress and the nature of any injuries. Not long before we headed out, an update came back to the village: after nine days in the small inner reef, all but three of the whales had left! What a relief.

We've learned that these whales are highly social. Researchers had suggested to us already that they may have come into the lagoon to allow a sick member of the pod to heal. We'll never know, but the fact that the pod left within a day of a single death lends credence to the theory. Visitors and villagers alike, we were all just glad the whales could get out! We were told situations like this can be the precursors to mass strandings, when the strong bond shared between the whales works against them.

When we got out to the reef, the remaining three were as curious about us as the pod had been previously. We moved in their direction, and they came cruising by to check us out. It was certainly a lot less intimidating to be in the water now, compared to the pod we had estimated to be at least 20. This time, all the children got in the water to share the magic: listening to the chirps and whistles, watching and being watched.

Two of them stick very closely together, nearly close enough to touch; the third is always close by. Is the whale unwell? Or is a juvenile just being given a little helicopter parenting? Either way, it's sweet to watch knowing how tight social and family bonds are in the species. We're hopeful that these whales will also leave when they're ready.

Our pictures are- well, they're OK. We'll get more posted when we have internet access, but that's still going to be some number of weeks. For now, I'm so grateful to have good news, and for the support from the folks at ORRCA, Whalesalive, Whale Rescue, and Sharksavers.

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