Swimming Among Pilot Whales in the Far North

We are not yet in Greenland, nor are we near Canada. We’re right smack dab in the middle of Davis Strait. 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 from Canada to Greenland. Along the way, I will deploy the underwater robots, called OpenROVs, I’ve brought 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, a pilot whale is still an impressive beast. (Photo by Françoise Gervais)

From about half a mile 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.

(Photo by Jill Heinerth)
The pack ice moves so quickly that a diver can get trapped if they are equipped only to swim. This little scooter lets us zip through the water much more quickly and using a lot less energy. (Photo by Jill Heinerth)

He blows the air horn to get my attention. One hundred feet behind the skiff, I lift my head out of the water and Jeffrey informs me that a pod of pilot whales is approaching. Everything he says next is completely muted because my head immediately shoots back into the water.

From a few hundred feet away, ten or so whales approach. Maintaining a course straight for me, they pass at speed within 20 feet—the mother and calf coming closer than any.  The mother whale’s eye locks on my tiny black figure as her calf rises and falls at her side, brushing her belly with every drum of its fluke.

I’m absolutely positive I hear the Dive Safety Officer call out “Stay with the whales!” and I take it to heart. Jetting off after this magnificent family, though not too close, time slows down. They move at immense speed and outpace me in moments. Their grey skin fades into dark blue as they swim away.

An eternity later (maybe 30 seconds or so) I return to the skiff. I am berated, “I told you to stay with the boat!”

I could blame the 10-mm neoprene hood I’m wearing, or the seas splashing over my head in this open sea, but really, I guess you hear what you want to hear …

Erika Bergman
When you’re not on the water catching sea spray in your face, staying warm on land makes getting back in the freezing water just a little easier.  (Photo by Françoise Gervais)

The entire expedition is up for commentary on OpenExplorer. Discover the expeditions of others and then begin recording your own!

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
As a submarine pilot and National Geographic Explorer Erika Bergman is a passionate storyteller. She studied chemical oceanography at the University of Washington while working as a diesel engineer aboard the tall ship S/V Lady Washington and a steam ship engineer aboard the S/S Virginia V. Since then she has worked as a submersible pilot for exploration, research and filmmaking. Erika is an editor of OpenExplorer.com, a site dedicated to supporting and curating a new era of connected, citizen exploration. She is also the Founder of GEECs - Global Engineering & Exploration Counselors; providing a network of thrilling engineering camps to girls around the world. Photo - Heather Perry.