Like Moby Dick meeting modern technology, a massive sperm whale was filmed cruising nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) under the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday by a remotely operated vehicle.
It was an extremely rare encounter due to the great depths sperm whales dive to and their typically reclusive nature.
The E/V Nautilus, the research vessel of National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Robert Ballard, was on a scientific expedition off the coast of Louisiana when someone on the deck spotted a whale on the surface of the water.
“I walked out on deck just in time to see a spout and a tail breach...my first whale!” says Susan Poulton, a media consultant to the E/V Nautilus who is on the voyage.
“And then, moments later, he was 2,000 feet down.”
The big male sperm whale was then videotaped circling the ship’s remote operating vehicle (ROV), known as Hercules.
“It was probably one of the most amazing moments we've ever had on this ship,” Poulton says. “It happened in the middle of a lightning storm, with communication internally down, but the entire ship was jumping, cheering, and gathering around the monitors.”
The inspiration for Herman Melville's famous novel, male sperm whales are among the seas' fiercest predators. Although young and female sperm whales often live in pods of up to 20 animals, the adult males spend much of their lives alone, patrolling vast stretches of ocean for prey.
The toothed whales eat thousands of pounds of squid and fish—about one ton (907 kg) per day. They can hold their breath up to 90 minutes and are known to dive as deep as 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) in search of prey.
The whales were once widely hunted for the oily substance known as spermaceti, which collects in their rounded foreheads and was once a valuable fuel oil and lubricant.
The animal is considered vulnerable by conservationists, with the current population unknown but estimated in the hundreds of thousands. Entanglements in fishing nets and collisions with ships represent their greatest threats.
Catch more from Robert Ballard's team on "Nazi Attack on America," a NOVA/National Geographic special presentation premiering Wednesday, May 6 at 9pm ET/8c on PBS.