The Human Blue Whale

My first encounter with a blue whale was while flying in a Cessna high above the water; I was shooting aerial photos for a book called The Gulf of California: A World Apart. That day, the pilot (my dear friend Sandy Laham) showed me several blue whales. I still have the visual image in my mind of the magnitude (magnificent size) of their tails. After awhile she pointed out two humpbacks; I could not believe their size; they looked like little piglets.

The following year I came back to the Gulf of California, invited by Diane Gendron another extraordinary woman and blue whale researcher, for a trip to see these large cetaceans. To feel and hear a blue whale at close range is one of my most memorable experiences, and since then I have come back at least 10 times to these waters to look for blue whales. As Diane says, I was touched by this giants. Last year I made a trip to Antarctica and visited some of the 20th century whaling stations in the South Georgia Islands. There I saw many historic images of this industry that produced a number of over a million whales killed by man in these waters. I came back feeling sad, knowing why it was almost impossible to have an encounter with a blue whale in this remote corner of the world.

To observe ten or more blue whales in one day is one of Mexico’s greatest privileges. Long ago I realized our need to make a commitment, as I understood that those of us that have these experiences and these encounters must help to preserve these wonders of nature.

That is why the human blue whale was conceived; to preserve the marine corridors in the Gulf of California and to make sure these are not put at risk by human development. It took almost two years for the idea of a 28-meter long human whale to get to the final image. I must admit that I got some inspiration from a colleague who, several years back, created a very powerful image of a giant sequoia, by stitching several frames together. For me, it was essential to have the human scale in perspective to show the magnitude of this gigantic animal, and for that reason it would take 46 bodies to draw it’s silhouette.

To make a strong statement, I chose to do this ritual in the waters of the Gulf of California where these great whales come year after year to reproduce and feed.

The city of La Paz was the obvious place to summon the potential participants. My good friend Ana Ezcurra helped me in many ways, and after giving it some thought we decided that we would only invite women to create a female blue whale. The power of this symbolism is centered in the fact that the females of this species are larger than the males and some come to these waters to give birth.

The idea was applauded by Diane Gendron who immediately joined in, not only as one of the participants but giving us very useful advise as well as size and measurements of the largest female that she had records of in the Gulf of California.

We chose the month of October (2011) for the shooting because of the warmer and clearer waters in the La Paz Bay. The only possible situation we could find at this time of the year was the presence of numerous jellyfish. The day of the shooting the safety diver caught a very poisonous Portuguese man o’ war.

Three days before the actual shooting I was really nervous because we only had 30 participants enrolled. I visited La Paz many times to give talks about the human whale. Friends helped very much allowing me to use their own spaces to interest and invite possible participants, like Lucía Frausto in her cultural Galería Galería and Carlos Sánchez who introduced me to his students in marine science from the UABC. The night before the shooting we did a test on the beach near down town La Paz, with the main purpose of positioning each participant in the formation. Over 50 women signed up, thanks to Julieta Goldin who helped with some of the sensitive issues; the human blue whale would then be possible.

I had two more problems to address; this shooting would be the third time I photographed underwater and if I remember well, my tenth time using scuba gear. For that reason I invited two very good friends and great underwater photographers to assist me on these matters: Octavio Aburto and Roberto Chávez. That same day, we decided that the 3 of us would photograph the human blue whale.

We chartered a large boat and sailed for over and hour to the nearby waters of Espiritu Santo Island, one of Mexico’s most beautiful protected areas where we would anchor and do the shooting. As we were on our way I took a portrait of all the participants. Their spirit helped me secure some of the most beautiful and intriguing expressions.

The support of my wife Patricia was very important. I know that as a doctor she gave the participants certainty during the shooting, and together with Jaime Rojo they also coordinated the shape of the whale from above water. Jaime and Neil Osborne, 2 extraordinary young photographers were also in charge of capturing the story in video and audio.

That day we did 3 different exercises where all the participants formed the silhouette of the whale on the surface of the water. We knew that the last one would be the one that counted; because the sun would be much lower allowing us to get more definition on each picture. That afternoon 59 women remained motionless on the surface for more than 40 minutes; one could feel the energy of all the bodies acting as one. When the last frame was taken, I approached and thanked them all for one of the most memorable moments of my life.

The female human blue whale was pregnant; one of the participants, Cecilia Paola Espinosa, was expecting a girl, a very symbolic fact of this ritual.

To include the threats to blue whales in this work was essential. The biggest one is the fatal collisions of large vessels to whales in their oceanic routes. I chose a less frequent accident that we humans do to these animals when they get caught by a drift net. You can see a very graphic silhouette of a net on the tail of The Human Blue Whale.

Stitching over 190 photographs together, with the help of Larha Baca, we produced the final image. It took us more than 50 hours in front of a computer.


Acknowledgments

The artist would like to thank the 59 participating women for their willing and commitment on the creation of this piece, and also to the following people and institutions without whom The Human Blue Whale could not have been possible:

Octavio Aburto, Fátima Andrade, Larha Baca, Alberto Beylán, Juan Carlos Burgoa, Fernando Calderón, Roberto Chávez, Yolanda Cortés, Tania Escobar, Ana Ezcurra, Lucía Frausto, Fondo Dolores y Javier Robles Gil, Diane Gendron, Julieta Goldin, Sandra Laham, Elena León, Timoteo Means, Regina Noriega, Neil Ever Osborne, Fermín Reygadas, Earl Richmond, Sandra Robles Gil, Jaime Rojo, Patricia Rojo, Elena Rosas, Carlos Sánchez, Maria Teresa Solomons, Luis Fueyo and Francisco Álvarez from Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, Contralmirante Rodolfo Cañedo and Jesús Robles from Secretaría de Marina de México, Ricardo Medina from Unidos para la Conservación, and Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur.