Swimming Among Pilot Whales in the Far North

Photo: Françoise Gervais

We are not yet in Greenland, nor are we near Canada. We’re right smack dab in the middle of Davis Straight. The water is nearly 9,000 feet deep and I’m suited up like an astronaut in a dry suit, though I’ll be surface bound for this journey.

I’m here with the Sedna Epic expedition, where ten women are snorkeling a relay over 3,000 miles from Canada to Greenland. In addition, I’ve brought OpenROVs to explore and record the scene from underwater.

I spend a solid forty minutes face down in the icy blue Arctic water, mesmerized by the light rays dancing for a hundred feet below me. The only evidence of life is the band of small ctenophores (comb jellies) glistening as they float along. I imagine myself transiting long distances through the pelagic environment as one of the ocean’s great migratory beasts.

That’s when I encounter a real one.

While nowhere near the size of a humpback or most other whales, compared with a human diver, pilot whales are still impressive best. (Photo by Françoise Gervais)

From a kilometer away, a pod of whales approaches our support ship, the M/V Cape Race.

The crew on the boat watch the pod approach from the north and maintain a course straight toward the idling ship. Less than half a mile in the other direction is a black skiff whose commander is wearing a pair of folded-down rubber boots and cutoff jean shorts despite the ice looming in the distance and the cold breeze streaming off it.

Our Dive Safety Officer, Jeffrey, is suited up more formally, standing by in a drysuit should any rescue need to be made. He communicates with the mother ship about the approaching pod and stands at attention as the whales pass the bow. They are heading straight for us.

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