Bermuda Artists

Andrew Stevenson

The Ocean They Inhabit

Andrew Stevenson first began researching humpback whales almost two decades ago after he and his then two-year-old daughter Elsa spotted a whale breaching off Grape Bay, close to their home. She asked him why the whale had jumped out of the water. That simple question – one of the many whys thrown at parents daily – to which the stay-at-home father did not yet know the answer, was to alter the course of his life.

Not only did Stevenson maintain his promise to his daughter to find out why, but his fact-finding would lead to the production of a feature-length documentary on the subject, Where the Whales Sing (2010). The film, narrated by Elsa, then aged six, went on to win the Charman Prize at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art in 2010 – the only film to ever do so – and Best Emerging Underwater Filmmaker at the Blue Ocean Film Festival & Conservation Summit in California. A second documentary, The Secret Lives of Humpbacks, followed in 2019, winning Best Ocean Film at the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York.

As Elsa observes in Where the Whales Sing, “The more we began to know, the more we didn’t know.” That quest for knowledge continues to drive Stevenson to this day. He has since identified over 2000 whales – identifiable by the black and white pigmentation on the underside of their tails (known as fluke IDs) which, much like human fingerprints, are unique. This has led to the discovery of unexpected migration patterns and an understanding of their behaviour in the mid-Atlantic, into which little research had been done previously.

Humpbacks, Challenger Bank, Bermuda, March 2015, IV by Andrew Stevenson.
Archival inkjet print. Collection of the artist.

Entirely self-taught, Stevenson has since co-authored several scientific papers and is today a leading expert in the field, lecturing globally on the behavior of humpbacks in Bermuda’s waters. “Down south they are preoccupied with mating, and up north they are preoccupied with feeding, but here they’re doing all kinds of other things,” he says. “You can really see the social complexity of their lives. And the more we know, the more questions we have.”

The photographs in this exhibition are the result of a two-day encounter with the same pair of whales (a male and female) taken at Challenger Bank, a seamount 15 miles off the south-west of Bermuda, in March 2015. The photographs are shot in black and white, allowing us to see the whales, who have monochromatic vision, as they see the world around them. Stevenson was feet from them when taking the photographs.

Each encounter, which took place on two successive days, lasted over two hours, with him swimming alone alongside the mammals who, at 45 feet long and weighing over 40 tonnes, dwarf him. Despite the whales’ imposing presence, Stevenson remains calm in the water. “The way I get these images is by being totally passive,” he explains. “The boat is stationary, the engine off. I never dive down into their territory. I never swim after them. I stay at the surface. It’s always entirely on their terms.”

Humpbacks, Challenger Bank, Bermuda, March 2015, V by Andrew Stevenson.
Archival inkjet print. Collection of the artist.

Just as a calf stays close to its mother, Stevenson never strays from the boat. “I’m always beside the boat and that is a point of reference for them. If they know where the boat is, they know where I am. It makes them feel safe. In some strange way, I think that they view the boat as my protector.” It is usually the females who approach him, learning to trust him as, like their own offspring, they see that he stays close to his ‘mother’.

The most notable exception is the first whale he ever swam with, a large, elder male who Stevenson encountered while swimming with a pod of dolphins whilst researching his first film. After initially trying (and failing) to intimidate him, the male whale relaxed and swam with him for several hours, coming up beneath him and dancing around him. Later, a second male approached and the two began fighting. Stevenson got out of the water as the situation became increasingly fraught, before the whales eventually swam off separately.

Electrified by the experience, he got back into the water, only to have the first whale reappear at his side. At one point the whale lay a foot beneath him, listening to his heartbeat. “It was definitely interspecies communication,” says Stevenson of this intimate one-on-one experience. “It’s something that I have experienced multiple times since then, but this was the most intense and this was unique.”

Humpbacks, Challenger Bank, Bermuda, March 2015, III by Andrew Stevenson.
Archival inkjet print. Collection of the artist.

The second, more aggressive male has since been seen many times – in fact it is the whale that Stevenson has seen the most often off Bermuda – but that first whale, identifiable not only by his Fluke ID but also by a big scar on the right-hand side of his face, remains elusive. Andrew Stevenson’s lifelong quest is to one day find him again. It is the driving force that sees him out on the water for up to 14 hours a day every day between mid-December and mid-May, in the hope of one day being reunited with the creature that began it all.

The Ocean They Inhabit: Photographs by Andrew Stevenson is on display at BNG through to September 23. Sponsored by Butterfield.

Please note that Andrew Stevenson has a research permit issued by the Government of Bermuda which grants him permission to swim with the humpbacks and observe their behaviour up close in the water. The public is strongly advised not to swim with whales under the Guidelines for Whale Watching in Bermuda, published by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.