Video: Eight-Year-Old Swims With Humpbacks

March 30, 2012

Little Bermuda school girl Elsa Stevenson is just eight-years-old and less than five-feet tall. But she is shown swimming with some of the most enormous — and gentle — whales in the world in this video footage.

Elsa, whose father Andrew Stevenson is founder of the Bermuda Humpback Whale Project, swam with the enormous mammals during a family visit to the whales’ Caribbean breeding grounds.

Humpacks can reach lengths of up to 52 feet and weigh between 30 and 50 tons.

Elsa is featured in her father’s award-winning documentary  ”Where The Whales Sing” and its companion book about the humpbacks’ annual migratory journey through Bermuda’s waters “Whale Song” [she is pictured with her father and sister here].

“Her first time in the water and Elsa had an encounter for an hour and a half with a female, her calf and escort,” said Mr. Stevenson. “At times they seemed more interested in her than vice versa. I am sure they recognised that she was a human ‘calf’. The mother repeatedly swam towards us within ten feet and less to look while her calf hid underneath. Elsa also used her own underwater camera to film two ‘dancers’ that danced around us, apparently more interested in wooing us than each other. This was her favourite experience.

“For a year and a half Elsa has been a member of a swim club and swims three times a week, one and a half hours per session, to become proficient enough at swimming that I would take her with me. In the end, she was like a squid, darting about here and there and with my 55-pound camera I was incapable of keeping up with her.”

Mr. Stevenson said in the video you can see the mother swimming up to him and Elsa — of her own volition — and reaching out in front of her with her pectoral fin to both determine the distance to he and Elsa as well as to establish her own space.

“You can also see us backpeddling,” he said. “She did this a number of times, circling around to swim up to us.

“That’s one of the reasons I think we have a particular affinity for the humpbacks, and vice versa. Unlike the other whales, humpbacks’ pectoral fins are long enough to be used as tools, to lovingly embrace a calf and hold it close, to using their barnacle-encrusted fins as weapons to fight off Orcas.”

Elsa Stevenson swimming with humpback whales: 

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Comments (47)

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  1. Spooky says:

    Nice experience but dangerous at the same time.

    • Mayan says:

      He needs to get his ego in check. The man thinks his daughter walks on water-that much was obvious from his monthly column in RG magazine when it was being printed.

      He won’t think these ‘adventures’-like when he allowed her to sleep in a tent outside while he stayed in a house while the family were overseas in some remote place (per his own column)-are so cute when something happens to her.

      You’d think the doctor in the family would know better…

      • andrew says:

        Hi Mayan,

        You raise a number of interesting points.

        This video was taken on the Silver Bank, between Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos, on the humpbacks’ breeding grounds. This is a trip I have done once or twice a year since 2008. It is one of the best experiences I have ever had. Elsa has wanted to join me since narrating our film “Where the Whales Sing” two years ago. I have hesitated. We all have. But after a year and a half swimming at a swim club we all felt she was capable of doing this. This wasn’t for my ego, this was because Elsa has lived and breathed whales since she was two and has begged and pleaded with me to join me when I swim with whales. Finally, I deemed the risks acceptable, as did my friends who are professionals at this. The whale in the video is a whale we know as “Pinball” and she has a very gentle personality. Whales, like us, have personalities and good days and bad days. With Pinball, we had the perfect opportunity for Elsa to get first-hand the experience she wanted. With me were Jeff Pantukhoff of the Whaleman Foundation and Captain Gene Flips who together have more than forty years experience with cetaceans. We were based out of a mother ship with two tenders. Out tender had two professionals on board while the others were with me in the water with Elsa. The tender was standing by in calm water a hundred yards away. Being a parent isn’t easy There is no parents’ manual. There are constant decisions we have to make on behalf of our children. As a father, I take fewer risks than when I was single. Putting Elsa the position of being in the water with whales was something my wife and I considered an acceptable risk within all of these parameters. Elsa has seen every video made on whales. She could go for the rest of her life looking at videos and never experiencing the reality. When is it too early to share these experiences? At eight, and a proficient swimmer, and with a team of professionals, I considered Elsa ready to undertake this experience. Driving a scooter in Bermuda with a child in front or behind is a far greater risk. I try and instil in both my children a genuine sense of wonder at the beauty of the world. I also deliberately try and instil in them a sense of confidence that they can tackle whatever they want to do. The fact that she has swum with whales doesn’t mean she can walk on water. I’m well aware of her faults, but I also try and promote her and guide her in whatever directions she wants to take.
        I’m glad you read my “Family Man” columns in the RG magazine. Not easy to expose one’s foibles in a public forum like that and usually the humor was self-deprecating, hardly the kind of stuff to build up one’s ego. The occasion you referred to when Elsa slept out in a tent in some remote place was the town of Blenheim in New Zealand, in the fenced-in back yard of a good friend’s home. Hardly putting my child at risk but at the same time, at 3 years of age,instilling in her a sense of adventure and confidence and independence. She could have been sitting inside safely watching TV I suppose.
        My column being drivel, as you have described it on the YouTube video? Well, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. I’ve written ten books, hundreds of magazine articles (I’m trained as an economist btw, not a journalist or filmmaker or marine biologist, but that hasn’t stopped me from persuing my passions) and it was consistently the “Family Man” articles that drew the most positive responses. The fact that RG no longer is printed was an opportune time for me to stop writing publicly about my family life.
        It’s easy to take pot-shots at a public figure in a public forum but if you are interested in a genuine discussion on the points you raised, please email me and I’d be happy to explore these topics.

        • Family Man says:

          I always enjoyed your Family Man articles in the RG Magazine. Having two young children of my own I could relate to your stories. We didn’t have quite as many, nor as exotic, adventures as you did but there was always something in the stories that I thought “Hah, that’s so like ….”

          I’m so glad you followed your passion. And I hope your children can follow theirs as well. Thanks for sharing and allowing the rest of us to imagine the thrill.

        • Mayan says:

          I apologize if my opinion sounds mean-spirited but I still think this is dangerous and foolhardy. I know that you’re an expert on whales, but they are still wild creatures and you’re encroaching on their habitat where anything unexpected could happen. Everything went well-but if it hadn’t, you’d never be able to forgive yourself. In my opinion, eight is way too young for this kind of activity but hey-it’s your kid.

          Re. the experience in the friend’s backyard-don’t you think pedophiles can scale fences and snatch kids? They’ve taken kids from their own beds in their own homes with doors and windows, so a tent in a ‘fenced-in yard’ is no barrier to some creep taking your child for her never to be seen again-all while you’re inside sleeping blissfully oblivious to what’s going on outside.

          Finally, you say: ‘I also deliberately try and instil in them a sense of confidence that they can tackle whatever they want to do….’

          What you are also doing is instilling in her the sense that she’s invincible and I’d hate to see that come back and bite you in the butt but as I said,it’s YOUR kid…you have to live with the consequences of your decisions, not me.

          When you put your child out there in the public eye, you have to be prepared to accept criticism. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking this way. My aim isn’t to ‘take potshots’-I have brought up valid concerns…what you do with them is up to you. Good luck to you.

          • Mayan says:

            BTW-I meant to add that I personally wouldn’t ride with my child on a scooter, either but you can hardly compare that to swimming in the ocean with a humungous creature that could gobble my kid whole.

            Also, can you define what you and your wife considered an’acceptable’risk. I.e. did you figure the worst that would happen would that she would only be maimed and not killed?

            Really-I’d like to know.

            • andrew says:

              Baleen whales like the humpbacks eat plankton and small fish the size of herring. Anything bigger than that would choke them. The last thing a humpback wants to do is open its mouth wide to gobble up things it can’t swallow.

              • VJ says:

                OK so maybe the worse that could happen is that the whale will choke on your child. Were the “team of professionals” trained in how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver on a humpback whale?

              • Pastor Syl says:

                @ andrew: I have nothing but admiration for you and your daughter. I applaud you and your wife for not allowing the doom, gloom and sensationalism of today’s press to stunt the adventurous spirit that lives inside every child. We adults are so aware of all the worse things that can happen, but it pays to remember that the reason most of them are newsworthy is because they are out of the ordinary, and not the norm.

                Pedophiles that climb fences to steal your child away are pretty rare. Its not the strangers we have to be wary of, its the relatives and friends that we trust. So does that mean we don’t trust anyone or instead that we teach our children safety measures and build the kind of relationship that encourages them to turn to us when they are distressed. I believe we have to let them put their feet out of the nest so they can learn to fly or we might as well cut their wings by teaching them to fear the “might happen”s.

                I for one am envious of your daughter. She showed determination, perseverance and dedication to work toward achieving a goal. She deserved the reward, and I am sure, learnt an invaluable lesson about how to prepare for life in the bargain.

      • Pastor Syl says:

        Wow! Them’s some mean, bitter sour grapes!

  2. Brilliant says:

    Amazing!

  3. Pastor Syl says:

    Magical!

  4. mixed up says:

    Talk about being thrown in the deep end…LoL. I’m sure it’s a life changing experience for someone so young. Or should i say a life influencing experience. Must be awesome.

  5. Wintersun says:

    It’s so wonderful reading Mr. Stevenson’s short stories in the RG magazine in which he commonly involves the adventures of his little precious Elsa and Somers. We look forward to each issue. I encourage anyone who hasn’t read his stories to do so – and read them with your kids especially!

    These princesses are so adventurous, it doesn’t surprise me that Elsa swam with the humpbacks – remember the “freeing the lobsters” fiasco enroute to Bermuda!

    I just hope Mr. Stevenson will write another story based on this awesome experience – a bit scary for me to try, yet exciting though, I’m sure!

    Keep up the good work Mr. Stevenson, you and the girls have fans!

    Is a book in the near future?….patiently awaiting!

    • andrew says:

      Thanks. I have thought of putting the 42 articles I wrote in the RG magazine over a period of eight years into a book, along with Peter Woolcock’s superb illustrations. I’m also trying to discipline myself to write a thousand words every two months (which is what I did for RG magazine) on being a daddy at home to two growing girls. Having a publishing deadline was a good incentive to make sure I did write those thousand words and now that I don’t have that deadline, I’m not quite so disciplined. But yes, putting the articles into a book has been a consideration.

      • Amanda says:

        People enjoyed your column when it was in a magazine they also enjoyed and that came FREE with the newspaper every month. Now you’re talking about putting those same stories into a book with the belief that people will be so fascinated that they will rush out to buy it, and sit and read about two girls that are no more special than any other girls in Bermuda are to their parents. What makes YOUR two daughters and YOUR family so great that all of Bermuda will clamber to buy a book about them?

        No ego? Yeah, right!

        • andrew says:

          The point of the Family Man articles was exactly the opposite of what you seem to be saying. You are perfectly right, there isn’t anything particularly special about my daughters or my family. The point of the column was to write about the commonality of what every parent experiences in raising children. When a parent or parents told me that they could relate to something I had written I felt I had fulfilled my goal as a writer- writing about the mundane in a humorous, interesting way that everyone could relate to. The specifics might have been different, but the overall experience or lessons learned were the same. No one forces you to buy a book in a bookstore, you do it because you want to read the book. Even if the magazine comes free in a newspaper, you don’t have to read anything you don’t want to. Publishers of magazines and books are in the market to sell. If a publisher publishes a book, they take a calculated risk, assume the associated financial risks of paying an author up front, and then take on the costs of designing, printing, marketing and distributing the book. For the publisher, it’s not the author’s ego they are worried about. They simply determine whether enough people will buy the book to recoup the costs of producing the book and making a profit.

  6. Real says:

    That whale at Sea World was gentle too. Until it got pissed at the trainer.

    • andrew says:

      The orca was an intelligent but captive animal enclosed in a tiny area that would drive anyone mad. I’m surprised there haven’t been more incidents like this. The whales we swam with with wild, had their freedom and were in their own space. We slipped off a tender into the world of the whales and they approached us, on their terms. But you are absolutely right. A whale in the wild can just as easily get pissed at these human intruders. So far they haven’t, but I prefer to be cautious and have removed myself from the water when I felt uncomfortable with a whale’s behavior.

  7. Rard says:

    Wow wow wow…. what an amazing experience that must have been!

  8. MeesterJeem says:

    Wow! Way better than parking your child in front of a TV or an iPad. Adventures like this shape a great future for a fortunate girl like Elsa. She will cherish these aventures for life.

    • Marilyn Stines Sannemalm says:

      My sentiment exactly. No one can ever take away this experience or memory from Elsa all her growing years. Great exposure for a very fortunate little girl.

      • Big Deal says:

        This is no big deal. My daughter had been swimming with whales at that age for years…every summer,in fact.

        Unfortunately, we never had a chance to film it- the encounters didn’t last too long before the whales headed out the water to towel off and enjoy some
        Bar-B-Q….

  9. TheFuture says:

    This looks brilliant until you realize how easily it could become tragic.

    • andrew says:

      Correct. A sideswipe from that fluke and you’re goo in a wetsuit. Ditto when you ride a scooter in the rain in Bermuda- goo in a helmet. I broke my back riding a scooter in Bermuda. I’d rather swim with whales- tragic as it may be, at least I’d be doing something I loved if one swatted me. But in my experience, these whales are respectful of other creatures in the ocean with them. I wish we could be as respectful of them.

  10. fed up nanny says:

    can’t say I have much to offer in regards to a comment “speecless”

  11. Lillian Martin says:

    Beautiful! Thank you!

  12. DEFENDER says:

    At least the father admits that it is dicey. I would worry more about the idiots that ride bikes with the precious ones in front or asleep on the back. Or the show offs in their sporty cars with kids standing and half their bodies hanging outside.

  13. Parent says:

    Well, I say bravo for Elsa. She has more nerve than I do! I would love to do as she did but don’t think I have the testicular fortitude to get it done and I’m 45 years old!!

    Not sure if I would have let my eight year old (when she was that age) do something so dangerous and beautiful at the same time. But as you stated above, you and your wife gave it proper and considerable thought and decided she could do it. And boy, did she ever!

    Being a parent isn’t easy, there is no book, no matter how much I look for it! But I’m sure you made Elsa’s year by allowing her to experience her dream. As parents, that is our job. Good job Andrew! Even better job by Elsa!

    Ha, she may be my hero. LOL

  14. star man says:

    I’d LOVE to swim with the humpbacks!… and I’m 65. We’ve been out to see them in a boat; we got so close you could smell the fish on their breath! And their incredible turquoise fins!

    Maybe next year when they come by I’ll swim with them… too bad the water’s so cold at this time of year!

  15. Politely Pompous says:

    I have mixed feelings about this. I’ve admired Mr. Stevenson’s column in RG magazine for years so I’m hesitant to say anything negative about him but eight? Elsa just seems a tad bit young for this. I don’t know what the ideal age would be but no matter how you cut it and no matter how mature and intelligent she is, Elsa is still a young child.

    Mr.S. you say that ego plays no part in this, so why not keep this video in your private collection? To show it to the world seems like you’re trying to beat some kind of record or show that your daughter has done some amazing feat that no other child has done. No matter how much a child begs, sometimes you just have to give them a big, fat “NO” for their own good.

    It’s o.k.to teach a child to be courageous and brave but I agree that it can give them the sense that they are invincible superhumans. Think of people like JFK Jr. who thought that way and paid for it with his life. Right now as we speak,Prince Friso of The Netherlands is laying in a vegetative state because his whole life he was told that he was no mere mortal but some ‘blue-blooded’ superhuman which caused him to take stupid risks that ordinary people would think twice about. It has now been proven that ‘blue-blooded’ people break bones and get brain-damaged just like the rest of us.

    One day your daughter will grow up and go off to college where you can no longer protect her. I’m not saying that she won’t be smart, but how will her quest for adventure or the next big thrill serve her then? Will she take risks that most people her age wouldn’t? It’s a fine balance. I think that you need to be very careful how you proceed here.

    Ending on a positive note, after reading your column for so many years what amazes me the most is the fact that Elsa is eight! Where have the years gone?!!!

    • andrew says:

      If you look at the footage carefully (and I took over 200 minutes of footage that week) I wasn’t filming Elsa with the whales. I was filming the whales and Elsa kept getting in the way. With a very wide angle lens, it’s easy to get into the viewfinder! In the end, instead of turning the camera off whenever she was in the frame with the whales I kept filming but I had no overt intention of getting footage of her with whales to broadcast to the world. I added this footage not to my usual footage of whales on a publicized YouTube, which has my public whale footage on it, but to a site which I keep for my own personal use containing footage of Elsa. Admittedly I had added this link to my website http://www.whalesbermuda.com which is linked to my Facebook page but Bernews took this link (without me knowing) and added it to their Bernews website. Soon after I started getting comments from people about the footage. I have no problem with it being on Bernews, but would just like to point out that it wasn’t deliberately done to beat ‘some kind of record’ or show my ‘child has done some amazing feet that no other child has done’. We did this trip in January and it has only surfaced now, by accident.
      From an early age, throughout my two children’s growing up, I have tried to avoid saying “No!” whenever possible. I have encouraged them to take those small steps of self-discovery and exploration so they slowly learn what they are capable of and what they are not capable of doing. They don’t learn to think of themselves as superhuman so much as learn by experience what they can and cannot do. Elsa wants to be an explorer when she grows up. Some people want to be accountants, lawyers, actuaries and I’m sure their personalities are well-suited for those professions. Who knows what Elsa will grow up to be but if she does want to be an explorer, she’s got a head start and the only places left in the world to really explore are in the ocean. Her mother wanted to be either a fighter pilot or a hairdresser. She ended up being a doctor. For many people putting their child into the water with whales is something they can’t imagine doing and I understand and accept that.

  16. VJ says:

    Ok so she wants to be just like Dora the Explorer, an eight year old that travels the world with a five year old monkey? Elsa was allowed to sleep outdoors in a tent at three years old? Are you kidding me?!!Like somebody said earlier, anything could happen to a child sleeping all alone in a tent in the dark. Look at what happened to that little girl Madeline in Portugal- she disappeared without a trace while her parents were mere feet away. I understand instilling a sense of adventure in your kids, but this is going a bit too far. A three year old could wake up in the middle of the night, become disorientated by unfamiliar surroundings, and go roaming off to find Mommy and Daddy. How is a three year old ‘mature’ enough to handle this? A three year old is still a baby!!! Something seems very wrong with this picture.

    • Amanda says:

      Haven’t you heard? She’s supergirl!

    • andrew says:

      I just checked my Family Man articles and the one referring to the camping trip was from January 2009 when Elsa was 6 3/4. My primary motivation in writing these articles is so that I can remember these events. Time telescopes and in my mind’s eye she was three- but apparently she was not.

      • Dee says:

        Fair enough Andrew! I wasn’t out to crucify you but I find it really suspicious that my comments questioning her age were removed. It was a fair question and if she’s not eight so what? You made a mistake. I see my sister Amanda’s comments made it through but I guess she has a bit more clout than I do. In any event, all the best to you guys. Stay safe!

  17. Amanda says:

    Where’s my other comment Bernews? What happened to fair and balanced journalism or is Bernews nothing more than an online tabloid? This man isn’t telling the truth about his daughter’s age then or now, yet you seem hesitant to touch the subject lest it take away from your headline.

    So what if she’s really nine now, she’d still be young so why not just PRINT THE TRUTH? Her own father brought the subject up, yet you removed his comment. WHY???

    Either he’s an influential sponsor, works there or threatened you with some kind of legal action. In any case, I no longer trust what I read on Bernews and I’m going to make sure that all my 1, 281 Facebook friends know about this and tell them to tell all their friends about this crap. People can bash politicians to kingdom come yet this one man puts some pressure on and you let him retract comments and manipulate what’s on your website.

    I also happen to work for a major sponsor of yours and I’m heading to my friends in advertising right now to tell them that Bernews censors comments according to who you are and that your reporting may not even be accurate-based on what was on here earlier that is mysteriously not there now. Hmmm…

    Here comes Elsagate…the story that exposed Bernews as being full of [profanity removed]

    • Pastor Syl says:

      @ Amanda: You really have a problem with this story, it seems. I’ve seen people get this riled over politics and religion but not over whether a child is 8 or 9 years old. What difference does it make? Is it that important to you that you have to make threats? Sheeesh! Lighten up!

  18. Amanda says:

    O.k.-seeing as Andrew’s comment has re-appeared, Bernews readers would like to know: Mr. Stevenson,if your daughter was 6 3/4 in January, 2009 then how is it that she is EIGHT now-THREE years later? Would that not make Elsa 9 3/4 in January, 2012? Are you confused or are you misleading us about how old your daughter was while swimming with whales?

    It’s a legitimate question that has been asked and you’ve gone and blown it out of proportion. I personally hate b.s. which is the only reason I’m pursuing this…

    That’s it-I have nothing more to say on the subject.

    • andrew says:

      Hmm, this is getting a bit ridiculous. She was born May 2003. You are right, she would have been 5 3/4 in January 2009. She’ll be nine next month.
      I have no influence at Bernews whatsoever. I don’t censure remarks made, I don’t think I could. If remarks have been censured I would guess it was because they weren’t worth putting on the site, were personally offensive or full of profanities. But no, as much as I might wish I had that clout, I don’t.

  19. Stuart Hayward says:

    Andrew, thanks for the photography and for your and your wife’s assessment of the risks involved. I remember my mother being vilified for letting me walk on walls in my early years with comments like “suppose he falls and hurts himself” My mom’s response was “He’s going to walk on walls anyway. Isn’t it better to let him do it when I’m there to help if he falls?”

    The world is full of risks; it is populated with predators: animal, financial, political and so on. People can coach their children to react to situations with overwhelming fear, foolhardy abandon, or calculated precaution. I am a little less fearful, partly because of my mother’s calculated precautions. Elsa’s coaching may give her the risk-conscious sense to be a fearless explorer or courageous campaigner for saving whales. That’s a good thing in my book.

    • Pastor Syl says:

      @ Stuart: Dang!1 I wanna be like you when I grow up. You have such a way with words that ex
      presses succinctly what I took a couple of paragraphs to say, and still didn’t do it as well as you did.

      Ditto what Stuart said, Andrew!

  20. MeesterJeem says:

    I’m sorry to hear all the “drive-by” parents who wish to put in their two cents worth on how to raise a child. Regardless of *when* Elsa slept on her own or swam with whales, the bottom line is, – she’s fine and also a brilliant child (I’ve been fortunate to have known the family when I lived in Bermuda).

    I know the Stevenson’s have the BEST intentions for their two children and they absolutely love and take great care of them. Let’s not judge others for exposing the world to their adventures.

    I’m sure those of us who are parents can reflect back on many occasions when we let our children take their first adventures (such as riding their bike for the first time)… we all worry that they may get hurt in the process but when they’ve accomplished their task, we know that it has added a little bit more confidence and accomplishment to their lives.

    Godspeed, Elsa! You and Somers will be our future adventurers. I look forward to hearing of your next worldly experiences.

  21. Rosalitta says:

    @ Amanda – way to go, mean spirited, girl !!! Your last comment “I have nothing more to say on the subject” was a god send!! I’m with Pastor…..Lighten Up !!!!!

  22. Pastor Syl says:

    Just one more comment: I think it is amazing and beyond commendable that a 6 or 7 year old could be so committed to a dream (swimming with whales) that she would persevere, study and practice for a YEAR AND A HALF to prepare herself! I struggle to remain committed to an exercise program for more than a few days. I am in awe, Elsa!

  23. andrew says:

    For anyone interested, Pinball, the whale Elsa swam with, has been seen in her feeding grounds with her calf. They have arrived safely in the Gulf of Maine after migrating across the North Atlantic Ocean. They were identified by Granite State Whale Watch