I’d always been scared of these great creatures but while filming in the Azores, I jumped into the ocean amid a pod of whales – and met another sentient being

I was born and brought up by the sea – indeed, my heavily pregnant mother nearly went into labour on a visit to a submarine in Portsmouth, and I was almost born underwater. Yet I never learned to swim. I was simply too scared of the water, and what it might contain. I trace my terror to a memory of something I never saw: the bath in my mother’s childhood home, along the side of which my grandfather – whom I never knew – had painted a great spouting whale, a veritable Moby-Dick. The image of that unseen whale haunted me, to the extent that I didn’t even like taking a bath. Throughout childhood and into my teenage years, this fear dominated my feelings towards the sea. It was only when I was in my mid-20s, unemployed in London, that I decided to challenge myself. In a tiled Victorian pool in Hackney, an elderly lady in a rubber hat took pity on me. This Esther Williams of the East End showed me how the water could bear my body up, gloriously. I was hooked.

Cut to the Azores, the mid-Atlantic, 20 years later. The water off these black basalt shores drops to half a mile deep within a few hundred feet; further out, it falls to three miles. I’d gone there with a film crew, to make a BBC Arena documentary about the true story behind Moby-Dick. Soon after leaving the harbour, a pod of common dolphin began to ride our bow. The water was so clear there seemed to be nothing between them and me. And they appeared to be leading us somewhere. Suddenly, our young Azorean captain, Joao, stopped the boat. Ahead were what looked like logs.

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Source: Guardian Environment