Peggy Stap – her best bits!

You may have noticed that every whale related job Peggy has ever done has been as a volunteer. Peggy calls it the “3 M’s method – Maui, Monterey and Michigan!” Whale research has been her passion and vocation, but it has never made her wealthy. I asked Peggy to tell me about her most memorable encounters from her love-affair with cetaceans and why these experiences make her feel like the richest person alive. She found it hard to answer, “I’ve been lucky enough to have so many amazing experiences, it is hard to pick some out”, but with a bit more begging from me here is what she came up with:

The first time that Peggy lived her childhood dream of swimming with dolphins was in 1998. She was asked by the Oceanic Society to work on their Spotted Dolphin Project in the Bahamas over the summer. Participants on the course were learning photo ID techniques. At the dive site Peggy was the first person in the water to check things out while the students were getting ready. She remembers the amazing sensation, part hearing, part feeling, of the dolphins echo-locating her, and listening to their various whistles and clicks. Then she had the good fortune to watch the dolphins at play. One dolphin found a piece of seaweed and carried it in its mouth, then flicked it to its pectoral fin, from there flicked it to its tail flukes and from there passed it to another dolphin. Peggy was exuberantly happy to be treated to watching a graceful dolphin equivalent of a football game.

Peggy remembers the first time she got really close to a Humpback whale while researching in Maui. On this particular day she was snorkeling with the whales, documenting their behavior on film. A Humpback chose to swim up from the depths straight to her till it was within two feet of her with one eye staring straight into hers. It then swam past her so close that its pectoral fin moved under her body as it passed her. Peggy remembers keeping the advice of another researcher at the forefront of her mind with the words “Do not worry, stay calm and stay still.” At the same time her own voice was calling out in her head, “I love you whale!” To this day those are the only words she has to describe this encounter as she was, and is, so in awe that any other words simply fail her.

While working one year for the Oceanic Society in Monterey Bay, a Humpback decided to mug the boat. ‘Mugging’ is the term given for a curious whale who approaches a boat to investigate. It circled the boat for a while and then played its own game with the people on board. It started on one side of the boat, with all the people hanging off that side looking at it, then it dived and resurfaced on the other side. Of course all the people ran to the other side… Then it dived again and resurfaced on the first side, and all the people ran back to that side… This continued for a while with the people on the boat looking like drunken sailors staggering from one side of the boat to the other and back again. Then finally, for the grand finale, the Humpback threw its tail up on the starboard side of the boat. For a glorious moment it sent its fluke arcing over the boat itself so that the people had to lift their heads to see it above them before it dived down and away. Everyone on board the boat, including seasoned researchers and naturalists, turned into little awe-struck children that day, giggling and smiling their way back into port.

Around 2005 Peggy was with a volunteer researching in the bay. Two Orcas were close to the boat with another one further away. The boat was stationery and Peggy was lowering the hydrophone into the water to record their vocalisations. She heard a “Kerplunk” and looked up to see the third Orca pop its head up ten feet from the boat. Then it disappeared again. Through the headphones she heard a “Ssshhh, sshhhhh” sound. What was making this strange noise? She gave a little tug on the lead and to her surprise there was a tug back. She tugged again and felt another stronger tug back. Suddenly she realised that she was engaged in a tug of war with an Orca. The Orca, with its inquisitive nature had come to investigate the hydrophone, taken it in its mouth and was now pulling it away from the boat. For a minute or two Peggy was worried it might tear the hydrophone from the lead, but a moment later it let go. For the next 45 minutes the recorder, which was accidentally left running, recorded an ongoing conversation along the lines of, “Oh my god, it had it in its mouth! What do we do now? Do we put it back in? What if it comes and grabs it again? Oh my god, can you believe that? I know, I know, that was incredible, it had it in its mouth!”

In 2010, Peggy was researching in Monterey Bay with new volunteers. They had spotted a Blue whale quite far from the boat but then it had vanished again. 45 minutes later they were sitting with the engine off and the hydrophone in the water, trying to locate Orcas by their vocalisations. Out of nowhere the Blue whale surfaced about 400 yards from the boat. Then it kept surfacing and circling round until it was heading straight for their boat. 80 feet of Blue whale headed straight for the stern of their 19 foot boat. By now, Peggy had got the video camera going and was thinking “Oh my god, oh my god, I hope I’ve got this in frame!” The volunteers experienced a mixture of awe and fear that the whale might ram the boat. Peggy had to “Sssshh” all their exclamations so she could capture the sound of its blow on the video. The Blue whale came within 10 feet of the boat and then dived giving them the best possible view of its magnificent fluke before it disappeared into the depths, never to be seen by them again. When Peggy later sent in the photo ID for the whale she learned that this particular individual had only ever been recorded twice before, in 1987 and 2006. Peggy says that this encounter still amazes her; it is the only time she has ever had a Blue whale come so close, it was just “unbelievable”.

In 2008, Peggy was in Maui assisting on the filming of ‘Humpbacks – from fire to ice’ by Ross Isaacs. Peggy was in the water when two Humpbacks approached. It was a female and her calf. The mum kept swimming towards Peggy and each time she did so Peggy tried to slowly retreat so as not to get between mum and calf. But at one point she could not retreat any further because of the positioning of her, the whales and the boat, so she lay completely still instead. The female Humpback swam close so that it was within two feet of her and parallel to her. The calf swam up to them both and decided it wanted to get close to its mum. So it gently squiggled and wriggled its way in between Peggy and its mum, making contact with Peggy while doing so, like a child climbing into bed between its two parents. As the calf nudged its way in, Peggy was gently rolled off to one side. While she certainly did not ‘fall to the ground with a scream and a shout’ (lyrics to a children’s song), she did cry a fair few tears of love and gratitude that day.

In all of Peggy’s encounters she has held strongly to the belief that you never reach out to touch an animal. It is their world and we are visitors; if they initiate contact then that is their choice but the choice should always be theirs. She says of swimming with dolphins, “You do not swim with them, they swim with you if they so choose. And if they do choose to do so, you are truly blessed.”

When I hear Peggy speak of her experiences, I have the greatest tingling sensation when she refers to them as, “Touching the soul”. Peggy has of course had many encounters with humans as well as cetaceans during her years as a conservationist. More about whether or not those experiences have also touched her soul and what she thinks about humanity’s role on this planet next time…

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4 thoughts on “Peggy Stap – her best bits!

  1. Big decision made today. Realising what I don’t want to do has galvanised me into committing to what I do want. I think your blog about Peggy has helped!

  2. Hello Amanda ~
    I just love your writing about our dear friend Peggy, “the energizer bunny”. As you know from living with her for the last few weeks, Peggy is one of the most genuinely excitable and dedicated friend of the whales. Your blog shows us all that it’s never too late to follow your dreams!!

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