Friday, May 27, 2011

Whale of a Time

I joined the Navy to fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a submariner hence I opted for the submarines as soon as I could once I got my commission. As a submariner I had dreamt of a life full of adventure, exotic locations, untold mysteries and uncharted vistas, all of which did come true but I hadn’t bargained for the amount of studies we had to do regularly and continuously, even appearing for qualifying exams every six months, failing which one would be expelled from the arm.

During my 22 years of submarining I had to learn and absorb massive amount of knowledge regarding weapons, sensors, hydro-dynamics, physics, tele-communication, navigation and also copious amount of information about the ocean life. A submarine literally is like a metallic fish, the largest fish actually, which can easily dwarf the largest blue whales both in size, volume, weight and speed. A submarine is ‘an essence in the water a part of the ocean world’ since that’s where we live and operate. So it is imperative for us to understand our element, the oceans and all beings that reside within this vast and magnificent medium.

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The only way a submerged submarine can detect any movement or presence in water is due to the sound waves emitted by others. We need to master the field of underwater sound propagation, a subject that is not only hugely complex but also dynamic enough to have kept me on my toes all through my career. Sonar is the only sensor that works underwater and we all were trained thousands of hours with earphones plugged around our head, listening to noises (Hydrophone Effect) of all sorts of platforms that we would encounter, be it a ship, submarine, a low flying aircraft, torpedo, depth charge, oil rig, fishing boat, rubber dinghy, sea plane, etc. We had to reach the level of expertise where just by listening to the noise of another vessel we would be able to tell the type of propulsion, the speed, no of propellers and shafts, direction of movement, etc. We called this the acoustic signature of the platform. Unbelievable as it may sound, but each vessel in the world, even if they are identical in design, load and crew, have a unique acoustic signature just like a fingerprint hence it can literally be pin-pointed out of thousands of seafaring vessels. Of course to achieve this we also use data banks and super computers along with manual sonar operators.

Besides the vessels, what we also had to master were the various sea and ocean noises we were likely to pick up; like school of fishes, crabs, geysers, ambient ocean noise, cyclone or tsunami, bottom bounce, sea bed acoustics, etc. Among the fishes and mammals, our particular interest were of those that were massive in size, were migratory and were found worldwide since often we would dive or surface within these groups of creatures or follow their path allowing their noise to mask ours in order to evade detection. In fact these creatures are our allies in the ocean depths. Needless to say, whale noise was on the top of our list.

I have always been fond of nature in its most magnificent form and all its creation. Therefore mountains, rivers, forests and oceans and the creatures you find in them were my friends from childhood. ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Old Man and the Sea’ were a part of my growing up and they still are. Oceans were the means by which I could travel unrestricted around the world and that’s a dream I always nurtured. And upon the oceans I always dreamt of befriending and riding whales, dolphins, sharks, seals, sea lions and walrus if they would let me.

Only after I joined the submarines did I realize that my childhood dream was finally becoming a reality. When we used to sit in our sonic library, I would always grab the whale and dolphin tapes first and shutting my eyes listen to the voices of my friends for hours, on day’s end. Eventually I reached a level where I could distinguish between a humpback and an orca just by their hoots or could predict with fair amount of certainty when they were feeding or mating. I loved to hear the sound of hooting and blowing as at that point I felt the whales were really having a whale of a time. As I specialized in underwater navigation and submarine tactics, I found myself away from the sonar and the ocean sounds that I loved so much. Even then whenever possible I would stay glued to the sonar, relieving the much happy sonar operator, and shutting my eyes listen to the whales, dolphins and other marine creatures frolicking away.

As I travelled submerged and over water around the globe I started to chart and record the noises and sightings of whales and read up on their lives and their migratory patterns, mysteries about their breeding, mating, feeding and cycle of life and death. I also befriended many marine biologists and whale experts who enhanced my experience about these majestic creatures. My submarine mates found my interest in whales and marine life odd since a submarine’s primary purpose is to hunt and destroy hostile platforms. So many times I had to plead with my Commanding Officers to surface when I heard whales blowing on the surface or hooting or feeding on krill. When my pleading would not be granted then I would conspire with the engineering / medical officer to come up to periscope depths (tactical situation permitting) to take in fresh air so that I may enjoy the visuals through the periscope since as the navigating officer, the periscope was my undisputed territory.

And what fun that always was. Whale watching from the surface is common and so many people do that, but to actually swim at the same depth as the whales, staying right within their midst and to see the entire circus in three dimension through the magnified vision of a periscope; well only submarines have this rare privilege. So while fresh air was rushing in expelling the stale, I would steer a course parallel to that of the whales and enjoy their antics happening all around me. During those hours I would completely forget about food and hunger and would hang on to the whales as long as they did not dive. I have often wondered what they made of us since it is impossible they wouldn’t notice us. Even though we often surfaced or dived right within these giants we never collided into each other. Only on one occasion do I recall when we were about to bottom on the sea bed did we feel the gentle nudge of a whale on our pressure hull. The nudge did cause us some alarm but no damage at all and I hope the whale did not suffer any injuries either.

If I continue with my whale and dolphin experiences then it could fill up an entire book so I would cut short here and get on with the story. The reason of this post is something different. After all I am no expert on marine life and least of all on whales and this is my first post on these creatures. A genuine love and care for these gentle giants does not make me an authority about them. What I know about whales can be written on a piece of rice leaving room for more. Yet I am writing this post since after many years I met and befriended someone who was and is as crazy about the oceans and marine lives, whales in particular, as I am about everything in general except hot places.

Though I am yet to find anyone who is not fascinated by whales and who does not wish to go whale watching but this friend’s fascination is beyond normal. She simply forgets the world around when she sees a whale; she even wears whale-shaped jewelleries and she literally sleeps, drinks, eats and lives dolphins and whales. Though she has seen whales a bit I would happily trade my place and submarine life with her so that she would or could see and experience the whales and marine lives the way I did and still do. I know that’s not likely to happen now. So this post is to fill her up with my stories and to share with her some of the little known but intriguing facts about the whales to welcome her back home since she is returning right now from one of the longest voyages of her life. And this post is also for each one of you especially for those who like me and my friend are crazy about oceans and marine life.

So strap on your seatbelts and let’s go diving with the whales and literally have a whale of a time...

All whales and dolphins are collectively called cetaceans and one of the best ways to identify whales is by the shape of their flukes (tails) as each type has different fluke shapes. Interestingly, whales being mammals are warm blooded and they can’t breathe underwater though they can hold breath underwater for long and their tails never goes sideways like that of a fish, instead they go up and down hence they are superb divers and have high degree of manoeuvrability and this along with their flippers (forelimbs) makes them high jumpers as well when they simply leap out of the water in great display of excitement. I guess easiest to identify would be a narwhal, orca, beluga, humpback and sperm due to their unique shapes, patterns and colour.

Basically all whales are classified as Baleen or Toothed. Baleens like right, pygmy right, grey, blue, fin, humpback whales don’t have tooth instead they have baleen plates in their gum along the upper jaw. Baleen is made of keratin the substance of our nails and hair. They only feed on tiny animals like planktons, krill, etc since they can’t chew and just swallow their food. For feeding baleen whales either swallow large amount of water or swim with mouth open to take in water and then they shut the mouth allowing the water to filter out through the baleen leaving the food inside that they then swallow. Baleen whales also have two blow holes.

Toothed whales are the ones with tooth and include all dolphins, porpoise besides sperm, white, beaked, killer whales and nearly 65 other species. They have one blow hole and are smaller than the baleens. They hunt on larger fishes, squids, crabs; starfish etc and locate their prey by echolocation just like active sonar. They transmit ultrasound that bounces on the prey telling the whale about their distance, size, shape and location.

Some Interesting Facts

Largest / smallest: Blue whales are not only the largest whales but also the largest, heaviest and longest animal ever to have lived on Earth. They can grow up to 110 ft weighing around 120 tonnes. Fin whale is the second largest whale. Hector’s Dolphin is the smallest growing around 4 ft weighing around 40 kg.

Blue Whale: They are champions in several fields like blowing, appetite, and noise. Blue whales can blow cloud of water droplets while blowing out to a height of 10 – 12 meters. They have the largest appetite and eat around 4 tonnes of krill each day that is equivalent of eating an adult African bull elephant every day. A call may reach up to 188 decibels, which can be heard over thousands of miles away; compare that to a jet plane’s 140 db and human scream of 70 db.

Deepest: Sperm whales dive the deepest to a maximum recorded depth of over 3000 m. At this depth the pressure is 300 times of atmosphere and no submarine can dive to that depth without getting crushed like paper. Sperms normally dive to 1000 m and hunt on giant squids that live in those depths.

Orca: Orca or Killer whales emerge as clear winners in two aspects. They are the fastest cetaceans with a top speed of 50 km/h that is as fast as the fastest ship and they are also the deadliest predator in the oceans, hence called Killer. They also hunt in pods when attacking a large shoal of fish or marine mammals. They are also the largest member of the dolphin family.

Narwhals have the longest tooth that protrudes out like a unicorn’s sword and therefore it is easiest to identify. The tooth grows longer than a champion basketball player at 7 – 10 ft.

Longest migrations are done by the Gray whales. During the winters they swim from the Arctic Ocean, northwest of Alaska of Chukchi Sea / Bering Sea to the Mexican Baja Peninsula (this is one of the world’s best whale watching spots for this reason) and return in the summers. Annually they average a distance of 12,000 – 20,000 km. For an average lifespan of 40 years of a Gray, it does a return trip to the moon in distance.

Whale Songs: male Humpbacks are the Pavarotti of the marine world. Their tenor, pitch and frequencies cannot be rivalled by any other. I have listened to hundreds of their songs during my submerged ocean passages and they are beautiful when they call out to their mates. The songs can at times last nearly for an hour and consists of sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds. Only males sing and they do so only in warm waters believed to be done for calling out to prospective mates and keeping other males away. Not so different from human I daresay. In cold waters their songs are rougher and less melodious as it is done to locate food and krill.

Of all the whales’ only pilot whales beach occasionally, coming out of water and sunbathing like human on the beach. The reason for doing so is yet not known with certainty.

Whales and dolphins don’t sleep like human or other animals. They just catnap momentarily while swimming with each half of the brain taking its turn to ‘sleep’ while the other half continues to control all motor and voluntary actions including breathing. When they open their eyes in water a special greasy tear screen protects their eyes from the salt.

Though there are thousands of other facts about whales I would pause here today as the above would suffice for this post.

The picture accompanying shows the flipper of a whale recently sighted in north Atlantic. If you can identify the whale, please leave a comment with its name with this post and the first one to get it correct would find an honourable mention in my next post that too would have something to do with whales. The only person not allowed to take part in this is the one who took this picture, so no cheating.

Welcome to the world of whales. I hope you had a whale of a time!


  1. Wow Sat,that's the best welcome gift anyone has ever given me, you are a real darling :)I know it's for me ;) We went to Tubuai to dive and your old friend Capt Miko is still there, can you believe it, still strong as a bull,we used his rig. He remembers you fondly.I can now free dive to 300 ft, let me see you beating me to that ha! Are you still a sinker my friend? Ok now tell me when are you coming here. Can't wait to see you and showing you my new boat. So come soon... take care. xoxo

  2. The picture seems to be of a humpback whale.Is that right?

  3. Can't help going back to reading this lovely welcome gift of yours ;) Means so much to me. Thanks so much. miss you. xoxo.