First Person Singular: Greg Marshall, inventor, marine biologist, National Geographic

First Person Singular
Greg Marshall recalls his encounter with a 50-foot long sperm whale. (KK Ottesen)
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Sunday, August 15, 2010

There's really no reason for me to still be here today: I had an incredible experience with a sperm whale that could so easily have gone another way. I was diving, filming, in the Azores, and I was by myself. The boat had dropped me off 200 meters in front of this pod of sperm whales and then gone away so we wouldn't disturb the animals.

Anyway, this pod comes toward me -- eight or 10 animals that were 30, 40, 50 feet long. They get to within about 15 feet of me and started diving; they were going to avoid me. And just as they were about to disappear 100, 150 feet below me, one of them turned around, and this thing just emerged at light-speed, coming right at me like a Titan missile. I was all alone in the middle of nowhere, and there was nothing that I could do to protect myself from this 50-foot animal.

I heard my heart pounding: BOOM! At what felt like the last second, it turned aside, looked me in the eye and sidled by. The body just kept going past for, like, ever. And as I'm rotating, looking at it, I saw that right behind me was another whale, a calf, that stayed behind; the mom was coming back to protect her. Now what's the easiest thing to do if an insect is next to your precious calf? Just take it out. Fifteen-foot jaws and 9-inch teeth, you know. But it chose not to. It chose to take the gentler path. And I kind of fell in love with sperm whales from that moment.

When I think about why I do what I do, about what inspires a person to want to see what's down there a thousand meters deep, it is that same thing that inspired me when I was a kid snorkeling with my brother, each of us pushing a little harder to see around that next crevice, around that next rock -- just the pure joy of discovery.

And then to have the opportunity to go to the next step and to see what that sperm whale is doing in its abyssal world, a mile deep into the ocean, when we couldn't possibly be with it any other way than with the Crittercam [the underwater camera system we developed]. How can't one be inspired by that?

There's something magical, something spiritual, at least for me, about being this close to a 50-foot sperm whale that chooses to tolerate you being there. Why? Because of some sort of affinity with other living things.

Interview by KK Ottesen

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