Dancing With a Humpback Whale in the Wild

A father and son bond over a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the sea.  
Humpback Whale Sea
The start of a conversation, a moment, a game, perhaps. Photo: Joshua Barton

Two hundred metres out, a whale’s breath misted the air.

My heart raced like a child on the morning of their birthday. We were off the northwest coast of Réunion, a French territory in the southern Indian Ocean, looking for humpback whales. The first day, and part of the second, had been a fruitless search. But suddenly, as the captain pointed out to sea and said a single word: “There”, a year of planning and coordinating, of soliciting help and cooperation – a year of dreaming – came to fruition. I prepared my mask, my fins, my camera – we were going to meet the humpback.

I have swum with and photographed whales of various species in many places, but this adventure was different. Humpbacks were the whales that first drew my interest away from years of photographing coral reefs and their inhabitants – to capturing images of marine megafauna and all of the open ocean, and physical and logistical challenges that included.

My “go it alone” spirit had led me to choose the less “packaged” and frequented locations for swimming with humpbacks, and the result was thousands of miles and weeks of travel over several years that had left me empty-handed. In the interim, I had photographed blue whales, sperm whales, and many species of dolphin and small whales, but the singer, the dancer, the gregarious performer of the seas – perhaps the best-known and least shy whale – had still eluded me.

Adding to the hand-wringing hope that this trip would be more fortuitous was that my son was with me, and this was to be our first whale adventure together – in fact, his first whale ever.

Humpback Whale Sea

The challenges and risks of getting near animals larger than almost any dinosaur and weighing over 30 tons are considerable. Photo: Joshua Barton

Nathan was born in India, where I still live after moving to Bangalore from the US many years ago; but he relocated to the US with his mom a decade ago. All we had now were his summer holidays. It is hard enough to maintain a strong connection with a child as they enter their teens and change and construct their own, independent world; harder still when the mom and dad are no longer together or under the same roof. Put two continents and 11 time zones between those roofs and staying connected to a teenage American boy can be daunting. Luckily, I had a passion that I was able to share with him; the sea has served as our bond through the distance and months apart.

Diving has provided a connection few other activities can. We learn together, explore together. As dive buddies in the sea, Nathan is my guardian and I am his; we are equals below the surface, where his responsibility and not his age is the only factor that counts; and maturity (while diving at least!) seems to grow with the sanctity of the trust bestowed.  Look out for your father, your fellow diver, for his life is as much in your hands as yours is in his. The challenges we face when diving – visibility, currents, and rough seas – teach us both to have faith in each others’ capabilities and in our own. Even when we were paired with other divers, Nathan did fine: no one seemed to care if he was 14 or even 11; as long as he could do what the group did, he was a diver like them. Nothing better to instil a young person with confidence and a sense of their potential in life than showing what they can do with only skill and determination in hand.

We developed a pattern that has held for a decade: come home from the US to Bangalore for a short stay, and then off on an adventure that involves some new country or territory, wilderness; and plenty of diving. At 9, he did his first try dive in Vietnam; at 10, he got his Jr. PADI Open Water in Sumatra; at 13, his Jr. Advanced on a liveaboard in the Maldives. Our summers of random adventure crossed Cambodia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Oman and beyond, seeing what we could; never knowing what was around the bend or what the dawn would bring.

Joshua as he dives into the ocean

Diving has provided us a connection few other activities can. Photo: Joshua Barton

And this time, Réunion, a tiny dot of land in the Indian Ocean. Tourism here mainly comprises French tourists seeking sand and sun in one of their country’s remaining far-flung possessions. Almost all flights are from faraway Paris, the balance from nearby Mauritius.  Few know of this place, and clearly fewer know it is a migration destination for humpback whales. As a result, Réunion does not offer whale-diving tourism like Tonga or the Dominican Republic, the superstars of whale tourism. Here, more planning was needed. After months of researching, emailing and coordinating, we managed to get associated with a group of researchers on the island and, by sponsoring their NGO, were allowed to join them on their outings.

Renting a small villa in the cool, breezy hills far above the sea, we drove early each morning down the hairpin bends to the coast and headed out to sea from Le Port, Réunion’s maritime link to the world. We were accompanied by one or more members of the NGO, whale photographers and researchers coming along to pilot the boat and for photo identification, sound recording, and 360 ͒  filming of whales and dolphins for research.

The challenges and risks of getting near animals larger than almost any dinosaur and weighing over 30 tons were considerable. The ocean was 500m deep; we needed to be spread out from each other in the open sea; and whales can be very physical – there was no room for error.

One of the team took us to a spot near shore to teach Nathan free-diving skills, for descending into the deep blue without a breathing apparatus. The skills to gain at the start are not as much about technique as attitude and presence of mind – to not panic; to learn that even your initial depth limits are beyond what you thought you could do, and that you have more air than you think. And especially, to always ensure someone is watching you: shallow water blackouts, or cerebral hypoxia, occur even when you think you are safe and near the surface, so the buddy system is as vital when free-diving as with scuba.

My mind was was only half as pre-occupied on keeping Nathan safe from free-diving risks as from sharks. We are water people, and confident. But Réunion is notorious for attacks: 18 in the last three-and-a-half years. All the attacks were close to shore, most likely from bull sharks, which prefer murky water, churned surf, and brackish river outlets – anything to hide their approach. The clear blue water of Réunion’s whale territory, far offshore, holds the very limited shark risks of most ocean areas, and was far away from the haunts of the near-shore predators that had taken surfers, people standing in the shallows – even a dog standing out on the rocks. Now, as we practiced free-diving near shore, my mind and eye were on a constant lookout. Watching my son move through the water with grace and confidence, diving to the reef below and arcing up, I realised that his closeness to the sea from such a young age meant that he respected sharks certainly, but without the fear I myself felt. It was a passage I won’t ever forget, when I realised I had taught my son something I did not myself know.

“When a whale is near, remove your mask. They are smart and social. Let him see your eyes. If someone came to dinner wearing a motorcycle helmet, would you want to talk to him? Show him you are the same as him." Photo: Joshua Barton

“When a whale is near, remove your mask. They are smart and social. Let him see your eyes. If someone came to dinner wearing a motorcycle helmet, would you want to talk to him? Show him you are the same as him.” Photo: Joshua Barton

The days were hard, exhausting. Up before dawn, cook a quick breakfast, drive to the port (grab fresh croissants from a bakery on the way – this is still France, after all) head out on our small boat to search for whales, dive, dive, dive, and drive back in the late afternoon to cook dinner. Two weeks of this pace plus the sea and sun and swimming had sapped us. But the promise of each day’s dive gave us the energy to keep going.

One evening at dinner at our little villa, Fabrice, the founder of the NGO and principal researcher, came by as usual to show some of his research and his results using 360 ͒ cameras. Talking to Nathan, he said that just like dolphins, whales seem to show more affinity to children than adults, perhaps because they can seem less threatening.  “When a whale is near, remove your mask,” Fabrice said, “They are smart and social. Let him see your eyes. If someone came to dinner wearing a motorcycle helmet, would you want to talk to him? Show him you are the same as him”.

On the penultimate day, we headed west, in the direction that we could see many young whales breaching. Mother whales were there with young offspring, a few kilometres out to sea, and young adults were actively frolicking. Positioning ourselves carefully, we quietly slipped in near a very gregarious young male. Just as he was cruising by us, Nathan remembered Fabrice’s words from dinner a few nights before. He took off his mask for a moment, showing his eyes to the passing whale. It continued on. Suddenly, the whale rolled over and came back, at a downward angle towards my son.

Humpback Whale Conversation Sea Diving

The playful humpback mimics Nathan, step for step. Photo: Joshua Barton

Humpback Whale Playing Sea Diver

A magical conversation, below the surface, where the whale comes to say hello. Photo: Joshua Barton

Unafraid, Nathan swam down a few more metres beneath the surface until he was level with the whale, where the two checked each other out. The moment was magical. A creature hundreds of times larger than my son was coming to say hello. The young whale rolled over, did a vertical loop in the water, and playfully swung its enormous tail left and right to froth the water. So much grace, gentleness and exuberance emanated from Nathan’s cetacean playmate that the other divers watched without worry, despite the proximity of the whale to Nathan. A humpback can hold its breath for 45 minutes, my son just one or two. But as Nathan surfaced, the whale followed. I swam to Nathan’s side, and the playful whale moved on, staying nearby but without another aquatic dance. I only realised when looking at the images afterwards how deep the interaction was: every movement of my son’s arms, the whale had mimicked with his pectoral fins. Nathan had not just dived with whales but communicated with one. Looking through the photos on the boat, the rest of the team revelled in his accomplishment, with hearty pats on the back. The young free-diver had done well.

Each year we push ourselves, my son and I. To go further and harder into an unknown, and we always come out with not what we expected, but better.  At the start of each summer, Nathan always says that the last one has been so good, how can the upcoming adventure beat it? And I wonder too, especially at the start of this one, when we looked out at an empty ocean. But each progressive trip has surpassed the previous – and the day my son danced with a whale surpassed them all.

  • JOSHUA BARTON is an American businessman who has made India his home. Based in Bangalore, he travels across Asia, Africa and other regions to photograph wildlife, people, and the seas around them.

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