Kurt Amsler -The birth of a Sperm Whale
Mid-morning off the island of Faial in the Azores, and the boat’s radio suddenly crackles into life. It’s one of the ‘vigias baleia’ – watchers positioned on hillside observation towers that were originally put there to help commercial whalers back in the 19x0s – and he’s spotted a group of six sperm whales about one nautical mile to the south-west.
The skipper puts the twin 150 horsepower outboard engines onto full throttle and we reach the location in almost no time at all. The whales are there, but they’re behaving quite strangely – moving slowly round in circles, not something I’ve ever seen before. We cut the engines so as not to scare them and maintain a distance of some 100m; then with my mask, snorkel and fins on, I slide gently into the water.
After about 60m, I notice a big murky cloud. It’s blood, I realise, which looks greenish in the water, and I realise this could explain the whales’ unusual activity – perhaps there’s a wounded individual being looked over by the others. Their communication clicking sounds intensify, and I can see them about 20m away, huddled tightly below the surface.
I dive down and slowly pass below the group, and for the first time see them all clearly, and suddenly I understand what’s going on. There’s not a wounded animal here, it’s a mother giving birth. Bits of skin and placenta and suspended in the water, and there’s the calf, which had left the womb just a few seconds earlier. It’s still immobile, so it’s raised by five of the ‘midwives’ to the surface for its first breath. The mother, still weak from her exertions, watches from below.
Within a few minutes, the calf – which is almost 3m long – can swim short distances. It’s starting to communicate too, with a much higher pitch than the adults, just like a human child.
I’m now about 10m from the group, and up to this point, they haven’t taken any notice of me. But now it seems that the mother wants to identify the stranger in their midst, and she turns in my direction and swims towards me. He massive head is getting bigger and bigger as the water churns around me and her clicking thunders in my ears. She comes to within xm, her huge eye looking me over, but I feel absolutely no aggression. It is truly extraordinary.
Other whales are now gathering, presumably because they’ve heard about the new arrival from those that were present at the birth, and the mother swims towards them, presenting her new-born calf. Then, incredibly, she does the same to, allowing it to swim right up to me. The calf is fully mobile after 20 minutes, and occasionally ventures too far from its mother, so she uses her huge toothy mouth to restrain the runaway and take it back to the surface.
Eventually, the whales have had enough of the human interloper, and they start to descend into the deep blue until they are out of sight, and then the mother goes too, closely accompanied by her child, into the great depths where I cannot go. I have to accept that this magical event is over, and return back to the boat, to my realm, to savour the experience in my imagination.
He took a four-year diploma at the Zurich School of Photography and Art, which gave him a comprehensive training to build upon. 'There's no doubt that I benefited from the training, but it was valuable because they didn't bother telling me which settings to use on the camera. They taught me not to accept the concept of the camera as a separate object, but to regard it as an extension of myself.'
Amsler's diving began in earnest in 1965 when, aged 19, he went to the Red Sea with $300 in his pocket and a sailor's bag with his diving gear, a 10-litre cylinder and the world's first amphibious camera, the Calypso-Phot. He spent eight months in the Gulf of Aqaba, and decided to pursue a career in underwater photography. In the early years he supplemented his earnings by playing in a jazz band (he still plays drums for pleasure in jazz clubs near his home at the French Riviera and also with the the band that performs each year at the Antibes/Marseille Underwater Festival in the South of France). He also took up diver training as a means of income, working as an instructor all over the world and later running dive schools in Kenya, Lake Zurich and the Maldives.
Having established himself as a leading underwater photographer, Amsler increasingly became involved in conservation issues. He famously led the successful push to protect reef sharks in the Maldives, and most recently has devoted his time to fighting the turtle trade industry in Bali, Indonesia, working alongside PADI's Project AWARE.
For a long time I used mid-format Rolleiflex and Hasselblad cameras in housings. Then in 1978 I changed to Nikon 35mm cameras. I started with an F2, and up to the F5 in Subal housings that I helped to develop in collaboration with the people at Subal. I also did use Nikonos RS and V cameras. Sinc3 2003 I'd change 100 percent to Digital starting with NIKON D1X. Since I went trough D2X,D-200 and for the moment, D3X and D-300. All in SEACAM Housings and SEACAM