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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Having A Whale Of A Time

When I was 10, my parents brought us kids to SeaWorld San Diego where I met a back-flipping killer whale named Shamu. I went home with a Talking Shamu cuddly toy (well, not very cuddly cos of the battery-operated speaker in his tummy) as a souvenir of the celebrity whale.

Just recently, I was talking to a friend about SeaWorld and she mentioned Shamu. Yups, that whale is an eternal celebrity, although I've no idea how many killer whales have been named Shamu since (and before) we visited SeaWorld in 1990.

The closest I've come to seeing another whale since then was when I watched the movie Free Willy and BBC's awesome nature documentaries, Deep Blue and The Galapagos Islands, on Blu-Ray. Snorkeling with a whaleshark in the Maldives does not count, because although whalesharks are incredibly huge creatures too and look alot like whales, they are actually fish. And not the warm-blooded live-bearing mammals that whales are.

Off the Pacific Coast of South America around the tropical belt, whale sightings are practically guaranteed from July to September every year when the whales gather to mate during the summer. At the fishing town of Puerto Lopez on the Ecuadorian coast, we went on a whalewatching tour that promised sightings of humpback whales. It was then that I saw my first (and second, and third, and fourth, and...) whale that was not a Shamu.

But first, I had to suffer some cruel pranks by The Boy Who Cried Whale:

Please meet The Boy Who Cried Whale

Try going for a whalewatching tour with a character like this. I was already perched on the edge of my seat nervously clutching my camera, which was glued to my eye, all ready to spring to the other side of the boat at the glimpse of a dorsal fin. He took great joy in pointing in random directions (usually right behind my head) and dramatically gasping "LOOK!" at non-existent whales. And I would fall for it every time. Right up to the point when the boat pulled back up onto shore, signifying the end of the tour. And as the moral of the story goes, The Boy Who Cried Whale got his just desserts and got swallowed up by a whale.

Okay, no he didn't. He just got assigned laundry duty for the rest of this trip.

We got off on a really good start on the tour. Within minutes of leaving the beach in a zippy little speedboat, we spotted our first humpback whale when it leapt high into the air and landed back in the water with a tremendous splash. Apparently, it's not known for sure why whales breach in this way. Most observers agree that it's not solely for fun, as it takes a tremendous amount of energy for a whale to displace tonnes of body weight in order to rise out of the water, just for laughs. One can guess that the leaps are a form of communication (gawd, imagine having to somersault instead of sending a text message) or an impressive show of prowess.

Whatever the reason, the incredible display sure impressed the socks off me!

Wanna fly as high as the birds? All you need is some whalepower!

The silvery misty curtains of Ecuador's cloud forests rising from the coast made for a beautiful stage for the whales' graceful performances.

Aaaaahh... nothing like whaling away the afternoon in the ocean

On other occasions, the whales chose Puerto Lopez's sandy cliffs as a backdrop.

This guy was whaling to leap for my camera

This is my all-time favourite photo from the trip. I love the graceful arch of the whale's torso, the white flash of its striated belly and the watery curtains that drape from those knobbly fins.

The most powerful jumper of all. Indeed he is the prince of whales.

These energetic gymnasts seemed to perform solo, bathing in the limelight of an appreciative human audience. We also saw small groups of whales, usually in pairs or a pod of 3, but these just swam uneventfully alongside the boat. Or rather, our boat had to play catch-up with them while their powerful tails and fins propelled them stealthily through the water. Throughout the tour, the boats never chased down the whales or got too close to the animals - something which I really appreciated. When scuba diving, the sound of a motorboat whizzing past above my head freaks me out a bit (the ear-busting sound of the grinding motor is many times louder when you're underwater) so I can imagine that it must be just as unpleasant for the whales if boats get too close.

The humpbacks of Ecuador

Finding yourself in deep waters? Don't fret. Al-whales look on the bright side of life!

Trying to play 'Where's Whaley' with us

Whales are mammals. So they need to come up to breathe once in a whale.

Thar she blows!

I was in awe of these huge gentle creatures and absolutely honoured to be in their close presence. It was almost surreal to have witnessed these giants leaping powerfully into the air. My photos alone don't quite do justice to their magnificent displays. I fell asleep that night replaying the visions of those spectacular leaps in my head, trying to commit them to memory before they got fainter with each passing day.

My photos prove that this fantastic experience was for real, and not just a whale of a tale!

I think I fell asleep with a big smile plastered all over my face that night :)

Oh no, don't go! When whale I see you again?

Bye! I'm sure whale meet again!

I'm glad that the whalewatching tour from Puerto Lopez was reasonably-priced (USD40 inclusive of lunch and a fantastic island tour - more of that in another blog entry) and that we could afford it, given our tight travel budget. With most whalewatching tours priced much higher than this, I don't know when our next chance to revel in such an awesome display of grace and power will be. But I know for sure, that this won't be our first and last meeting with the whales.

After all, if there's a whale, there's a way ;)

PS: Some of the terribly bad whale puns are courtesy of Dan, whom I married for his corny sense of humour (and a shiny ring.) And if you think our puns are bad, wait till you read these fish jokes. Some of the authors deserve to be krilled!


Tracy Su said...

Wah lau, those puns are corny indeed! How long did they take to think up? And I forgot to say that your hummingbird facts are also quite geeky.

Pretty cool, but corny and geeky nonetheless. Hehehe...

Stephanie said...

omg, awesome shots!!

junwei said...

I love the whales.

If the boat didnt get close, did you have to use a zoom lens? I'm surprised the pics were so clear!

Yi Lin said...

Heheh, Dan was already thinking up corny whale puns for photo captions while we were on the boat! And we have hours and hours on the bus, with nothing to do, so that's when we think up stuff for the blog. Yeah, the best thing abt seeing these creatures in action, it makes you think why they do certain things (like why do whales jump) and you realise that your knowledge of the natural world is rather fuzzy. And it makes you want to find out.

Junwei - noooo, I shot using my 18-55mm kit lens! My other lens is a wide-angle for shooting scenery. The whales turned out tiny, but sharp. Helped that I set the camera to fire continuous shots. Then I cropped and cropped and cropped the photos to the max I could, without losing the resolution. Then touchups to increase sharpness and contrast. Till I can get a good zoom lens, it's just going to take this much effort to get a few decent shots! Which is why we're willing to skip the Galapagos for now till we can get better photo equipment, and save up for a return trip to Ecuador (come with us!!)

Steph - as always, thanks for reading and leaving comments :)

Liming said...

The whale jokes are pretty good! As good as the pig ones for H1N1!

Yi Lin said...

Haha, Liming, you just made Dannie very happy by remembering his swine jokes (even I had forgotten about them!) Thanks for the encouragement...

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