Learning deep compassion from whales

The latest in our Through My Lens series, photographer Karim Iliya describes his experience of being caught between two giants of the deep

Our boat is tracking a female humpback whale near the island of Vava’u in the South Pacific Ocean. She sets the pace for the ‘heat run’ that decides who she will mate with.

“In the water! In the water!” shouts our skipper, Ali. With a deep breath, I swim deep down, calming my racing heart to conserve oxygen. Then I see them: four massive shapes cruise into my field of view. I forget the cold. I forget that my body needs oxygen. The shapes cruise by, one blowing a stream of bubbles.

Suddenly two males – both the size of buses – break off and begin the ritual. They twist and turn, clashing against one another with all their force. The water is a frenzy of swells but somehow silent. They are headed my way. They draw closer and closer, their enormous tails and fins smashing through the water. I think I’m going to die, pulverised between two testosterone-fuelled leviathans.

One of them thrusts his head into his opponent’s side, his five-metre long tail slicing through the water in front of my face. I stop taking photos, ready for impact. Then suddenly they split and each whale coasts gently around me before returning to their battle. Despite being in the midst of a fight for survival, these magnificent creatures have made a conscious effort not to hurt me; not to crush the delicate little creature in his rubber suit.

This image shows the moment one of the whales registers my presence.

Karim Iliya is a Maui-based underwater photographer who takes pictures in a bid to protect the planet’s fragile ecosystems.