The Sperm Whale Poopnado

Q. When and where were the pictures taken?

A. March 2014, just off the western coast of Dominica in the Caribbean.

Q. What were you doing at the time?

A. I was leading a group of 7 people on an underwater photography expedition to the island of Dominica to photograph/video the resident population of sperm whales under a government issued permit. The bubbles created while scubadiving are disturbing to the whales, so only free-diving is permitted (mask, fins, and snorkel). 4 of us got in the water near the whale, then it slowly approached us, stopped, pointed straight down and then storm began.

Q. What was your reaction when the poo storm began?

A. At first, it seemed like a regular bowel movement... sperm whales are often seen defecating, especially while diving, so we didn't think much of it initially. It pointed itself down, but then, rather than continuing its dive, it remained at the surface, continuing the bowel movement for a startling length of time. The 4 of us looked at each other with confusion, then back at the whale, expecting that any second its call from nature would be ended, and that it would descend to the depths for another meal as they usually do. Instead, the whale bobbed up and down, spun around in circles, and waved poop in ever direction for several minutes while 4 of us in the water sat back and watched!

Q. Could you see where you were going?

A. The water was crystal clear, initially. It was the most idyllic Caribbean blue water that you could imagine. Was, being the operative word. In a similar way that the universe began as an infinitesimally small volume of mass, so did the poop cloud. After a few waves of feces were released and stirred vigorously by the whale, the water was like chocolate milk. I couldn't see my hand when I held it in front of my face. It was easy enough to swim out of it though, so after getting a few shots within ground zero, I exited the cloud, and got some photos of the whale moving in and out of it.

Q. I have never heard about this defense mechanism before - is it a common occurrence?

A. Both the captain, Jerry Daway, and guide, Arun "Izzy" Madisetti - who collectively have over 50 years observing sperm whales in Dominica - have never seen anything like this before... so I think that it's safe to say that this is a rare occurrence. I've read a little about this type of behaviour online... but those references are to "pygmy sperm whales" excreting large amounts of "anal syrup" into the water to distract predators. I'm not sure that much is known about this defense mechanism at the moment... because I can't find any photos, videos, or other documentation of it!

Q. Did it spin to spread the poo everywhere?

A. Yes, like a bus-sized blender, it very quickly and effectively dispersed its fecal matter into a cloud well over 100 feet in diameter.

Q. Could it be toxic? Was it dangerous? Or, just seriously unpleasant? You didn't swallow any did you?

A. I had poop in my eyes, mouth, wetsuit... everywhere. I was soaked in it from head to toe. But, after leaving the cloud, it quickly washed away, and didn't leave a smell. However, I did take an extra long shower once I returned to shore later that day, just in case.

Q. Has this ever happened or have you ever known this happen to anyone before?

A. I've never heard of it happening before, and I don't know anyone that has had this happen. It very well could be the first time that it has been photographically documented. 

Q. Was it one of the most unpleasant things you've experienced? It looks pretty horrendous!

A. When I tell people this story, the first thing that they think is "wasn't that horrible?!". And my answer has always been "Not at all!". I've experienced lots of interesting natural phenomenon underwater, all over the world, but this was is near the top of the list! As long as you didn't take your mask off, you couldn't really smell anything (taste is another matter...), and as soon as it started happening, I knew it was an extremely unusual occurrence. It was a very exciting event to see unfold underwater - despite the fact that it essentially boils down to a whale throwing shit at us.