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Sleeping Giants: A Dive into the Wondrous World of Whales
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Sleeping Giants: A Dive into the Wondrous World of Whales

Australian underwater photographer Jasmine Carey spends southern winter with humpbacks breeding in the tropical waters of Tonga. In the northern winter, she captures orcas feeding in the Norwegian fjords. In 2020, she won the prestigious Hamdan International Photography award with her image of a sleeping humpback whale and its two-week-old calf. 

In celebration of World Oceans Week (8 to 12 June), Jasmine shares her experiences and fascination with the world of whales. 

“The first time I swam with a whale, it was raining in Vava’u off White Patch in Tongo. The turquoise blue water was a light powdery milky blue due to the white limestone runoff from the cliffs. The water was still, and the raindrops were making beautiful forever enlarging ripples on the surface. Have you ever listened to the pitter-patter of rainfall on the oceans’ surface? It’s so utterly soothing. 

Then I heard someone shouting, “Here she is.” I quickly turned around, and about four meters away, there was this circular dark, bumpy nub, which slowly started to emerge out of the milky water. Time froze, my thoughts raced, and my heart quivered in awe. Everything felt like it was in slow motion. I couldn’t even tell if the whale cow was coming or going until it was two meters away from me, slightly angled. Right along the side was her eye that blinked and moved around, carefully observing us. 

“This past year has ingrained into me how much I love and am passionate about the natural world. It has made me more determined to be a positive voice and advocate for the ocean and the planet.” – Jasmine Carey

The humpback whale hovered with such mastery, acknowledging that we were there. It came so close and was incredibly aware of its space and was in total control over its presence. That was also the first time I witnessed a whale reverse. Just as this whale came up to us with no hint of water movement, it incredibly slowly dipped back down and swam to the side to take its breath. The time went unaccounted for, but every detail is still alive in my soul. I can recall every moment, every sensation. Today I call these “pinch me – experiences” unicorn moments.

Since this first encounter several years ago, I’ve been fortunate to swim with humpbacks and orcas over three months of the year while guiding tours in Tonga and Norway teaching underwater photography with my colleague Darren Jew. This past year, which has mainly kept me dry on land due to the pandemic, has ingrained into me how much I love and am passionate about the natural world. I love showing and sharing ocean and wildlife experiences with people. The smiles and joy that beams off their faces are completely rewarding. Intrinsically, it has made me more determined to be a positive voice and advocate for the ocean and planet. This past year, I’ve been involved in local projects and advocacy work here in Australia. 

Surprisingly over the years, we’ve witnessed whale behaviors that are said never to happen. The first of these that caught my attention was that mother cows and calves only slept on the surface. We have seen several humpbacks sleeping at varying depths. Another is the assumption that sperm whales are often the only whale that rests vertically in the water column. This we have also witnessed humpbacks do with tail up and even nose up. We have also seen them sleep as they lay on the sandy bottom. So this was a real eye-opener for me. Of course, animal behavior is very challenging to surmise and obtain to give a definitive answer over a matter of days or weeks. So long-term studies really need to be conducted and compared with each year.

This male escort was resting along the edge of an offshore reef with a mother and her calf. He would be more profound in the water than the others. The sun was high, and the light rays were dancing crazily with striking contrasts of dark shadows and beams of light. The escort was dark, and with the sheaths of flickering light, it was hard to focus on a spot underwater. He was huge and curious — the light rays highlighting all his warrior scars and ocean scriptures. The happiness, excitement, and thrill between us were so incredible. I relive it with this image each time I see it. That’s why it’s one of my favorites.

“The escort was dark, and with the sheaths of flickering light, it was hard to focus on a spot underwater. He was very curious—the light rays highlighting all his warrior scars and ocean scriptures.”

With this image of a sleeping humpback whale and its calf, Jasmine Carey was awarded the grand prize of $172,140 in the Hamdan International Photography award.

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“Whales really know how to have fun. They have moments where they will interact and play chase with dolphins, even dance around with each other, also with us.”

The most important thing I’ve learned about whale behavior is that they are highly intelligent and complexity conscious with their movement and decisions when interacting with us. Also, it’s the little things, i.e., movements vital in gauging their behavior and ‘predicting’ what they’ll do next or where they’ll take a breath. Every day is a new day to observe and take it all in. I would love to know more about heat runs and learn everything about how exactly they use their bubbles. I would love to learn the progression of what the mother cow passes on to the calf. We meet day-old calves and are even luckier to meet them again until about three months before heading back down south to Antarctica.

We are so blessed and fortunate to see their personality grow as they fit into their skin. Their dorsal, pectorals and fins are not yet grown in and their belly is the purest of white. I would love to know how or even if they learn to feed, how they are taught about the seamounts and the journeys they need to take. How do they decide that this heat run is theirs? Is it all intuitive and reactive?

Whales really know how to have fun. They have moments where they will interact and play chase with dolphins, even dance around with each other, and even with us. They can be so inclusive and allow us to witness such delicate care and affection, even to such humbling generosity, that they share their food with you. Orcas inviting me for a meal is an experience that leaves me speechless each time, unforgettable unicorn moments.  

Jasmine Carey has been diving since 2005 and in that time she has been to the Indo–Pacific, searching out encounters and interactions with the full gamut of marine life. She works closely with world-acclaimed underwater photographer Darren Jew. That teaming brings passion and expertise to their work. As an Ambassador for Rainforest Rescue, she also supports an organization that delivers tangible and real conservation results. Find out more about Jasmine’s work via jasminecarey.com.au.

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