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Behind The Shot: Social Scrum

Tony Wu describes how he made this dramatic sperm whale photo in the Indian Ocean, off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka

Canon EOS 5D Mark III, Canon EF 15mm ƒ/2.8 fish-eye, Zillion underwater housing with Pro One dome port, 1⁄250 sec. at ƒ/7.1, ISO 800

Sitting on a boat, roasting like Sunday dinner in the unyielding heat of equatorial sun, staring out across a panorama of tropical blue. Hour upon hour of scanning the seas, enduring ocean swells, with nothing to show for the time and effort but salt, sweat and sunburn. Oh, the sunburn.

Suddenly, a blow on the horizon, then a second, third, fourth. Wait, dozens. No, hundreds! I’ve read accounts from whaling days of vessels coming across cetaceans in numbers so large that it was impossible to count them, but little did I think I’d ever have a chance of witnessing such a spectacle.

What I ended up seeing that day defies description: hundreds of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), swimming to and fro, twirling, twisting and talking—so much talking—clumped together by the dozens, descending to deeper water from time to time, but staying for the most part near the surface, allowing me the opportunity to witness, then participate in, their social scrum. Yes, you read that correctly. Participate.

This is one of the sperm whale groups, literally within arm’s reach. The whale facing me is an adult female. She came up for a moment to take a look and pepper me with echolocation signals, almost as if she were hoping to communicate. The whales knew where I was, of course—they always do. Curiosity satisfied, she executed a cartwheel of sorts, with her fluke pivoting around and coming up toward me while she reinserted her bulbous head into the Physeter fray below. From that point forward, the whales paid me no mind, allowing me to swim in and among them, through the bubble blasts and sloughed-off skin, into the cocoa clouds of whale poop.

I’m not sure that anyone fully understands why sperm whales, which are the largest of the toothed whales, congregate like this. I can say with a measure of confidence from repeated encounters of this nature, however (though involving far fewer whales, of course), that these events are social gatherings. The water is inevitably filled with a staggering cacophony of sound—clicking, clacking, snapping, popping, buzzing, squealing. The whales rub against one another, appearing to luxuriate in tactile exuberance. And, for whatever reason, they often defecate so much that the water becomes opaque, with the ocean taking on the texture and consistency of an oil slick. The one thing I always try to remember in these situations is: “Don’t drink the water.”

You can contact Tony Wu for fine-art prints at Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter @TonyWu.