Ecologist Kerry Finley skillfully maneuvers our two-person kayak in the 6-foot swells of icy Baffin Bay. "If you are going to swim with these bowhead whales, then you better go now," he yells against the wind.
Apprehensively, I peer out through my partially fogged mask. There in front of me is a flurry of tails, pectoral fins and sea spray.
"There are five or six of them in active sex play," Finley shouts.
"Sex what?" I holler back.
"Sex play. The young males jockey for position to rub themselves against the adult female." An ear-piercing shriek punctuates Finley's commentary. "You can tell this is active by how vocal they are," he screams.
Suddenly, a 20-foot-wide tail flicks out of the sea and hangs high above the water, dwarfing our fragile kayak. The little boat is a mere 18 feet long. By contrast, an adult bowhead can reach 60 feet in length and weigh up to 100 tons. Along with the fin whale, it is second in size to the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth.
Finley, an independent biologist, is an old hand at bowhead research. He has been observing the eastern Arctic population of these animals since 1983. His study group, at Isabella Bay in the Canadian territory now known as Nunavut, can number up to 90 whales at any one time, by far the largest concentration left in the species' North Atlantic range. In all, there are about 700 animals remaining here in the North Atlantic, a far cry from the 7,000 left in the North Pacific.
A second group of North Atlantic bowheads appears along the ice edge on the northwest side of Baffin Island near Igloolik. Susan Cosens from Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, along with investigator Brad Parker, has been studying these whales for the past six years.
All three researchers have had close encounters with the whales. For me as a wildlife photographer, such interactions are newer and more unexpected. As part of Finley's project, I have been invited to shoot photo identifications, including pictures from the whale's vantage point-in the sea. I really am about to swim with these giants.
Like all whales, bowheads are sensitive creatures and getting into the water with one must be done with caution-from the whale's standpoint, not just the diver's. The idea is not to displace these huge beasts from their feeding or resting areas. In fact, swimming with any marine mammal can be hazardous to the animal, and harassing one is illegal in many jurisdictions (it is outlawed throughout the United States, for instance). I am swimming under the guidance of Finley, who has permits and permission from the local Inuit to conduct research on these whales. He has decided that capturing underwater photo-ID images warrants a slight disturbance, but we always allow ourselves just one approach per whale.
In my excitement, I can barely focus on what I do know about these huge animals:
* The whale gets its common name from its looks; its huge curved skull, approximately one-third of its body length, results in a bow-shaped mouth.
* Its primary food source is the copepod, a rice-sized marine crustacean. The copepod is one of the world's richest organisms; a dried gram contains up to 8 calories. One bowhead can consume up to 50,000 copepods a minute. The whales use baleens, consisting of 700 bony plates …