During the 1990s I worked as a professional diver in Cabinda, Angola West Africa.
Cabinda while geographically in the Congo (Zaire as it was at the time) historically had been an enclave of Angola, and as the Atlantic ocean off shore from Cabinda was rich in oil, Angola was unlikely to give it up.
The Cabinda diving team worked out of and Malongo, a ten minute helicopter ride from the airport in Cabinda.
There was nothing in Malongo except the camp and jungle.
I had my most incredible underwater experience whilst working in Angola.
Part of our job as the Malongo diving team was maintenance of the deep water SBM’s (Single Buoy Mooring) and PLEM’s (Pipe Line End Manifold) these dives were big payers for us because they were deeper than 120 feet, so we used mixed gas, replacing the nitrogen naturally occurring in air with helium and we got paid £ Stg 1.62 per foot from the surface.
One of the SBM’s was at 305 feet and so was worth £ Stg 400.00 sterling and the other at 375 feet, just over £ Stg 600.00.
Under normal circumstances we checked them every two weeks, but if a tanker was coming in to load we would have to go and open the valve on the seabed.
It was my turn to open the valve on the deeper SBM so I was at 375 feet breathing Heliox hauling the big gate valve wheel to open the valve in preparation for loading.
As I recall it took one hundred turns on the wheel to ensure that the gate was fully open.
To make sure of the count, we had blue polypropylene rope tied at one point on the wheel so that we could count each turn as the rope passed the 12 o’clock position.
It was a big wheel and it took some strength to put it through one hundred turns, so by the time I had counted to 100 I was breathing heavily, and I asked for a moment to catch my breath.
At that depth the water is very clear; its pitch black of course but with a hat light visibility is excellent and ecause sun light has long since been filtered out, there is little or no marine growth or fish life.
As I sat there on the edge of the PLEM, blowing bubbles, I became aware of something other than me in the water.
My hat light penetrated about six or 8 feet so I looked towards where I felt the other something to be, and thought that I could see a shape. All through the dive I could hear the clicks of what could be dolphins or whales as they communicated with each other.
Now I could hear very distinct and very close clicks.
If I was to find out what it was, I had to do something quickly because the supervisor would soon call upon me to get ready to leave bottom and on a mixed gas dive seconds counted.
I was afraid that if I went too far from the PLEM that I would get lost and lose the only safe way I had of ascending, so I looped my umbilical around the valve wheel and went towards the shape.
I had barely left the PLEM when I could see clearly that the shape was a sperm whale, a calf, it was only about 10 feet long and it was lying on the bottom.
Its dark eye regarded me as I moved towards it, and I could immediately see that it had a piece of old-fashioned hemp netting, around its left ventral fluke, with a buoy keeping the irritant tight under where it joined the whale’s skin.
It was a simple task for me to reach up, pull the scrap of net down and release it, and as soon as I had done so the magnificent animal, without any effort visible to me, moved off.
As I lost sight of it, I got the call from above “okay Jimbo, get ready to leave bottom” I just had time to scramble back to the PLEM when he said “leave bottom”
As I ascended slowly and while I did my long water stops, I wondered about that strange encounter between whale and human.
Sperm whales have huge brains even in comparison to their massive bodies, and we know virtually nothing about how sophisticated their thinking is.
Perhaps they know who we are and without getting very close they could know about our humanity.
Perhaps they observe, invisible to us in the darkness down there, and wonder about these yellow headed black bodied animals who occasionally visit their world , but who never stay long.
Did that young sperm whale take a gamble that with my dexterity I could rid it of an irritating piece of flotsam, or did it know somehow that I would?
Its eye as it followed me had intelligence behind it.
Capt Ahab’s white whale had vengeful intelligence, mine had compassion and gambled on mine.