“The world is much larger than our senses appreciate”

By Nicolas Truong

Posted today at 01:10

Doctor of oceanography, professional diver, expedition leader for thirteen years aboard the Calypso by Commander Cousteau, François Sarano notably published Moby Dick Returns (Actes Sud, 2017) and, with his wife, Véronique, Save the ocean! (Rustica Editions, 2020). The career of this research director of the Deep Ocean Odyssey program and co-founder of the Longitude 181 association was recently traced by Coralie Schaub in Francois Sarano. Reconciling men with wild life (Southern Acts, 2020).

An incredible scene of meeting a young sperm whale, in 2013, off the coast of Mauritius, was, for you, initiatory. How did your dance with Eliot make you understand the singularity of living things?

The meeting with Eliot was overwhelming because it was he, the wild animal, who gave it to me. An encounter with a wild animal is something visceral, primal, it is experienced with the heart, eye to eye; it is experienced with all its senses. It comes from the bottom of the body. It is not something cerebral or intellectual. We are at the mercy of the animal, it is he who decides whether or not to give you his attention, an “audience”. We are at the mercy of his flight. You have to be humble, benevolent, respectful. You have to know how to receive. It is he who grants the happiness of the moment. The encounter is genuine or it is not. You can’t cheat, negotiate, tack. This is why it is upsetting.

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How did this strange encounter come about?

Eliot, a young male sperm whale, free, untamed, comes without consideration, without constraint, to meet me. He has the ocean for him where I am quite unable to follow him. He comes to satisfy his curiosity, he comes to study me. There are twelve minutes left, that’s a very long time. It means he is confident. A wild animal that is not well goes. Eliot is delicate, he doesn’t hurt me, nor does he hurt my friend, cameraman René Heuzey. He even twists to pass between the two of us without jostling us. He lies on his back, he offers himself, belly turned towards the surface. Clearly, through these attitudes he asks for physical contact. Then he emits the “coda” forty times [des séries de clics baptisées ainsi par les scientifiques] eight-click feature [son créé en expulsant de l’air depuis la partie avant de leur nez] which is a request for physical contact, caresses.

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So I translate that he wants to enter into a relationship with me, a different species, that he is in search of otherness. He wants to tame me, that is to say to create links without bondage, links which offer each one a reciprocal well-being. This shows that we humans have neither the monopoly of wanting to study, nor the monopoly of wanting to tame others. Not only is it overwhelming to be called upon by a wild animal, but it is even more overwhelming to understand that this is not an attitude characteristic of the sperm whale species, but that it is specific to the individual, Eliot.

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