Replacing fear with fascination

Matt Draper is an Australia-based underwater photographer who specialises in wide-angle black and white imagery. He spends countless hours in the water, learning to better understand the species he interacts with. By meticulously studying and patiently moving through each untamed environment, he is able to reveal distinct characteristics and behaviours.

Words and photograph by Matt Draper


Ever looked into the eye of a whale? I mean deeply, heavily stared in there? If you have, then you’ll understand what I mean when I say it shifts your universe. Just slightly. It changes your perception of yourself, the creatures we co-exist with, and your place on this big blue planet. Nothing I’ve encountered so far in life could prepare me for that moment, for the way it changed me, changed my view of the world and made me question things. 

There is a moment during eye contact when reality kicks in, when your shifted universe re-centres. It dredges up all those fears, reminding you that the animal you’re observing (and who is currently observing you) weighs approximately 36,000kg. Internet stories flood your mind: wasn’t there a guy who was killed by a whale? Or was it a whale shark? Is there a shark here right now? All around me is deep blue ocean. In front of me is one of the largest animals on the planet. My head is a mixture of awe and nervousness. The fear of the unknown. The strength and power of the behemoth. A moment later, seeing the curiosity, wisdom and intrigue reflected back at me, the sentience of this creature that I’m locking eyes with, my worries vanish, replaced with fascination and wonder.

There are still occasional moments of fear. Humpback pectoral fins are about a third of the length of their body – imagine two and a half refrigerators stuck together end-to-end, coming at you through the water as the whale rolls and dances. That said, time with these gentle giants has taught me they are much more capable in the water than me, and they will generally avoid crushing me with their fins. Typically, they are curious, coming in for a look and enabling me to capture close-ups and details. Every interaction is different, but generally includes resting, breathing, the occasional twirl and breach.

Adult humpbacks have a breath-hold of up to 45 minutes, but in general return to the surface every 15 minutes or so, the calves even more frequently. They continue this cycle during sleep, essentially napping on the move. The intriguing and unique nature of these animals is what makes them such a joy to photograph. They have a relatability and are utterly beguiling.

The Kingdom of Tonga is one of the few places in the world where close encounters with humpbacks can be enjoyed. The mothers are there to calve, care for their new-born babies, and find a new mate. The males are there to seduce. No one can definitively explain what role whalesong plays in this, especially since they’re all singing the same evolving song, year after year. All those whales, all those strange sounds, and every male humpback in Tonga singing almost exactly the same melody. It’s a characteristic that only adds to the magic of an encounter.

Singing whales hang suspended in the infinite blue, flukes up and heads down. You can’t see them singing, but you can feel it – a combination of creaks and growls, pops and bloops and trippy Led Zeppelin-esque wails. The vibration moves through your whole body, shaking muscle and bone. At home in Byron Bay, they say that vibrations change your frequency, that everything in the universe is made of energy and that our problems are caused by parts of our bodies vibrating out of resonance. When you’re in the water and you feel the shake and pulse of whalesong humming through your fingers, the power of vibration doesn’t seem quite so unbelievable. 

Issue One
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This column appears in ISSUE 1: Saving the Arctic of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue One
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_blancpain

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