At first I felt disillusioned by the large number of whale-watching boats carrying hundreds of tourists out to search for the largest creature ever known; the loud rattling engines, revving and spluttering each time a blow was seen in the distance. It was as if the nightmare of my youth was returning, the injustice and horror I experienced in the 1960s when, as a teenager, I had learned of the whale catchers relentlessly chasing blue whales to harpoon and kill them.
Blue whale tail with lampreys attached - a moving marine ecosystem © Dave Currey
By the time the blue whale was protected in 1966 the largest population in the Antarctic had been hunted to virtual extinction. The Soviet Union continued to hunt illegally until 1970 and it was estimated around 330,000 blue whales had been slaughtered in the Antarctic and only around 360 remained. I remember hearing at the time it was uncertain if a lone blue whale would ever come across another member of its species.
The blue whale's bloody demise enraged and saddened me, setting me off in a direction I would follow for the rest of my life.
The extraordinary beauty and secrets of the natural world fed my teenage interest in wildlife photography. Driven largely by cost, I bought some cheap extension tubes for my camera, allowing me to get close to insects and plants. So the close up world became my teacher as I focused on dragonflies, butterflies, flowers and forest debris. What I saw continued to amaze me and it became clear in my mid-teens, nature was the driving force in all of our lives. Yet most people seemed oblivious and it was under attack.
The first whale I ever saw was in 1979 on high seas in the north Atlantic being pursued by an Icelandic whaler. This thuggish boat, designed for speed, roared as it accelerated towards its prey. Hanging over its bow the harpoon gun, loaded with its explosive device, was as cruel and divisive to me as a terrorist's nail bomb seems today. I was a photographer for Greenpeace on board the Rainbow Warrior and our tiny inflatable dinghy was dwarfed as it tried to get in front of the whaler. We saw the harpoon fire and hit the fin whale's back forcing it to dive as the rope attached to the harpoon played out.
An hour after I'd seen my first whale, it was dead.
Norwegian whaler harpoons a minke whale © Dave Currey
Four years later later I was asked to come as photographer on a different anti-whaling boat. It was there on the Barents Sea off northern Norway, where I saw smaller Norwegian whaling boats pursuing minke whales. On this occasion the sea was so calm the hunt seemed surreal in the northern all-day summer sun, until the horror of the kill. Months later, when my photos and our film had been shown worldwide, the Norwegians cut their “quota” by half reinforcing my belief that we can make a difference.
Norwegian whalers with a dead minke whale 1983 © Dave Currey
Every summer between 1984 and 1987 with a team from EIA I photographed pilot whales being driven ashore and killed with knives by men in the Faroe Islands. The bloody pictures appeared around the world in magazines such as LIFE, The Sunday Times and El Figaro putting pressure on Denmark to end this barbaric ritual. As we condemned the Faroese for their unnecessary cruelty we had to face up to the fact the whales were heavily polluted by the mercury and PCBs being churned out of our societies in industrialised northern Europe.
By 1987 I dreaded the pilot whale month. Our team stayed in the Faroe Islands. constantly driving until they observed a hunt, one year interrupting the boats and others observing and recording the killing. It is no coincidence whales are brutally killed in remote areas and on the high seas. Our mission was to bring the hunts to world attention, as witnesses.
Pilot whale drive hunt in the Faroe Islands 1986 © Dave Currey /EIA
On one occasion I had been on the beach as live whales were dragged into the shallows to be killed. A particularly drunk Faroese man threatened me with his knife as he stood in the bloody water. I lowered my camera and watched as another man started cutting a young whale as it looked directly at me emitting a high pitched squealing sound. With a knife held against me and my camera at my side I was unable to document this young whale's cruel death leaving me feeling useless and sick.
This incident has haunted my life. When I'm ill or in a dark place this young whale screams at me in nightmares.
Blue Whale blowing in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka. © Dave Currey
My mind had drifted from the whale watching boat in Sri Lanka to the pain of trying to make a difference. The rattling engines had sounded so familiar, like those of the whale catching boats. But for a glorious minute or so all the noise, people and doubt dissipated and my emotion only focused on the magnificent blue whale which surfaced next to our boat.
It was as if I was alone, hearing the loud blow as the whale exhaled, smelling the salt water and watching this thirty metre leviathan slowly surface, only the time it took revealing its immense size. Lampreys hung on to the body, the whale providing a gigantic moving ecosystem as it passed through the waters of the Indian Ocean.
By the time its tail cut through the surface of the water as it started its deep dive for food, I experienced an emotional, very personal, tearful sense of extreme joy. This was the first blue whale I had ever seen. Fifty years after it had inspired my life, it had survived human contact leaving hundreds of tourists with a moment they'll never forget.
This was a moment I'd waited for all my life. I'm smiling now.