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What a sperm whale did to a 60 Minutes cameraman that will help the ocean

A sperm whale in the ocean off of the Caribbean island of Dominica surprised a 60 Minutes photographer by pooping on him. 

It's actually a good thing, National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence Enric Sala explained. The whale poop is full of nutrients, which fertilize the shallow waters. It also feeds phytoplankton, which produce at least 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere, according to scientists.

So witnessing the whale going to the bathroom was a spot of luck on 60 Minutes' second day of a six-day government permit to swim with whales. That luck didn't last. Cecilia Vega, alongside Sala, spent the next day searching for sperm whales, and the next, and the next, and the next. And then, in the last hour on the last day of 60 Minutes' trip, there they were.

A young, female whale came right up to Vega and Sala in the water. She made a sound like a creaking door hinge; it's one of the ways whales communicate and socialize. She had squid in her mouth, leftover from lunch thousands of feet below. She stayed and rolled around with her jaw wide open. The whale was using echolocation, bouncing clicks off of the swimmers, trying to figure out what everyone was.

Sperm whale in the water off of Dominica  60 Minutes

"That was a very friendly whale," Sala said. "They are huge. And, you know, you have to respect them."

Sala, a former professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, turned away from his job in academia, feeling he was "writing the obituary of the ocean" when he could have been working to save it instead. 

"I felt like the doctor who's telling you how you're going to die, with excruciating detail, but not offering a cure," Sala said. 

Sala turned to the idea of creating marine reserves instead. He founded the Pristine Seas Project in 2008, combining sea exploration, scientific research and public policy. Sala and his team have worked with 17 countries to turn large swaths of the ocean into marine protected areas — roughly twice the size of India. He says a preserve in Dominica would protect the whales from their greatest threats: plastic trash, noise pollution and ship strikes.

Over 14 million tons of plastic waste enter oceans each year, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Plastic makes up 80% of all marine debris. 

"The sperm whale population has been declining steadily for the last 20 years because of human threats that affect the whales not only here, in Dominica, but all around the world," Sala said. "If nothing is done, the population will probably continue declining, so reducing those threats hopefully will allow the sperm whale population to rebound. And the more whales there are, the more benefits Dominica and the local communities will obtain."

Hurricane Maria devastated those communities in 2017. Today, the island is continuing to rebuild, even as it prepares for a future of climate change driven storms. Francine Baron heads the agency in charge of that effort.

"We see whale-watching as an important part of our tourism product, and it's something that needs to be protected," Baron said. "And the idea of creating greater protection for the whales is something that Dominica is very open to. And we were very pleased with the suggestion that Enric made to creating a recognized sanctuary for the whales."

Captain Curt Benoit listens for whales 60 Minutes

It's a model that has worked well in protecting the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. The famed "gorillas in the mist" had their habitat protected by the government so that a local economy based on tourism could grow in local towns nearby.

"Tourism in Dominica might be regulated in the same way as for example-- the iconic gorillas in Rwanda, where people spend a lot of money coming in to see these epic creatures that live in families and communicate with each other," Kristin Rechberger, the CEO of Dynamic Planet, told 60 Minutes. "That tourism money can support the animals, the habitat, and also the local communities that are providing the tourism services." 

Rechberger works directly with Enric Sala and Pristine Seas to develop economic plans that support marine protected areas and the communities around them. 

"The whales are an opportunity that Dominica has that most other countries don't," Rechberger said. "When you save the whales, you're also saving the people because we are interdependent. And when the whales are protected, the people will also be protected and resilient."

In Dominica, Captain Curt Benoit has been in the whale tourism business for more than two decades. We set out on his 38-foot Lady Rose from a small fishing village on the west coast.

Captain Benoit uses a homemade device that picks up the distinct clicking of sperm whales as far as 11 miles away. He combined an underwater microphone with a salad bowl from his home to make the device so he can listen for whales. 

"It's like horses galloping on a hard surface," he said about their sounds. "So if you hear several of them, that means there's a lot of whales there"

Male whales live off of Dominica with their families until their teen years. Then they roam mostly alone, swimming thousands of miles away. Caribbean males have been found all the way in Norway. They live solitary lives, often growing to the size of two school buses and returning to tropical waters only to mate.

Hundreds of sperm whales live off of Dominica year round. They are mostly females, families made up of grandmothers, mothers and daughters who stay together for life, nursing and raising their young.

National Geographic Explorer Shane Gero started the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and over the past 18 years, he's identified more than 35 family clans in the region. The whales identify themselves by making specific patterns of clicks, called codas.

"It's a part of who they are, where their grandmother grew up," Gero said. "And so it really ties the animals and the place together."

When Sala went to Dominica in December, his National Geographic team filmed something rarely seen: a pod of sleeping sperm whales. The vertical giants were suspended near the surface for a short nap. He said being in the water with them is magical. 

When Enric Sala went to Dominica in December, his National Geographic team filmed something rarely seen: a pod of sleeping sperm whales.  Courtesy National Geographic

"We have, in our minds, the legend of Moby Dick: these nasty, aggressive animals. But you jump in the water and they are so docile and gentle," Sala said. "They have never attacked humans, and they are so curious, especially the babies. So it's one of the most amazing wildlife encounters that one can have on the planet."

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