In the Company of Humpback Whales

Roger Horrocks

In the Company of Humpback Whales

Roger Horrocks

Some years ago, my assistant and I found ourselves only a few hundred metres from the shore off the coast near Cape Town, South Africa.

Hundreds of humpback whales surrounded us. We had been in the water for an hour already, and I was getting some great footage. The whales were curious, and I had a sense they had never seen divers before. At some point, I withdrew my focus from my tiny monitor, looked around and noticed there were whales in every direction, getting closer and closer as if corralling us into the midst of them. At that moment, I felt like a tiny action figurine surrounded by little children, and I knew that if they wanted to, they could easily toss me around like a small toy. We moved up to the surface, and I couldn't even see the boat - there were too many whale tails and fins around. Seeing a gap open up, we swam on the surface until clear of the group and got back on the boat.

It's hard to describe your first experience of being surrounded by hundreds of marine giants that have never seen a human being.

I had filmed whales before, but this was on a scale I could never have imagined. The water was beautifully clear, and each time I spun around, I could see seven or eight massive animals. I could tell that they were juveniles and not all completely comfortable with me being there. As they came past, they would belly roll and look at me. At the end of the dive, I had this great session where two whales started to dance with me. They would take turns to come in very close, and I got these beautiful long shots where you can see the one moving in after the other.

When I went home that evening, there was so much adrenalin in my system I was in mild shock.

I couldn't process the experience, and I certainly couldn't verbalise it. I have had this often after intense shoots. It wasn't just that I had seen or swum with the whales. I felt like I had met them and become part of their existence for those precious four hours. Watching the rushes that evening confirmed something that I had started to realise early on in my career as a wildlife cameraman. I grew up in a culture informed by science and religion - both systems of thought that fundamentally see humans as superior and different to animals - but in my take on things, every animal, including the human-animal, sits somewhere on a gradient of sentience, with cetaceans being somewhere very close to us.

What I savour about shooting underwater is that there is no long lens between you and the animal, and you have to get physically close to them to film them.

You have to engage with the creatures and interact with them to make them comfortable with your presence and yet try not fundamentally change their behaviour - it's an intriguing and subtle dance. You quickly learn that every animal has a different character, and to a degree, it is like meeting a new person. They are not clones of each other, and they don't respond to their environment in identical ways.  As a cameraman, a key part of your job is to win the confidence of the animals To charge in there blazing with your camera without asking permission to is simply disrespectful. All animals are dialled into intentionality in a very profound way, and with dolphins and whales, the nature of their awareness is very akin to ours.

Sitting on the boat in the chilly Atlantic Ocean that afternoon, I was jolted back to the present by a splash as a humpback flew out of the water. The animals had clearly started feeding. When we got back into the water, they had zero interest in us as they gracefully swam towards the surface, opening their mouths to take in gulp after gulp of krill-rich water.

Despite the feeding focus, they were very respectful.

I filmed whales flying past me using their enormous pectoral fins. They were very aware of me and careful to avoid me, which I found very touching. As I watched them flying through my viewfinder, I felt a deep sense of awe and responsibility - awe at the majesty of the event and a deep sense of responsibility to film it in a way that would do the animals and their lives justice and emotionally connect other people to their lived reality.

All animals have an incredible life force, but how that is portrayed to vast audiences is up to us as filmmakers.

There is a great deal of objectification in wildlife films where animals are very much shown as a symptom of humanity or represented in our image. As a cinematographer, this is something that I'm increasingly intrigued with: how one can shoot and edit a film that allows the animal to "speak for itself" and represents a more authentic take on its experience of life? Experiencing that first-hand at one of their ancestral feeding grounds was one the most powerful and privileged experiences I have ever had.