February 18 – February 25, 2017
Week Five of our 27th Season
What a fantastic start to our fifth week here on the Silver Bank, the largest calving and breeding grounds for the North Atlantic humpback whales in the Caribbean. On our first afternoon out on the water we were encouraged to see plenty of blows and breaches out on the horizon and before long we glimpsed the dorsal of a whale silently slip under the surface just a few hundred feet from our tender. As we waited patiently for the lone whale to resurface we started to notice some very faint squeaks and whoops and realized we were listening to a singer! Humpback whales have the widest frequency range of any marine animal and their song can carry for miles underwater so it is not surprising that as we came close we could hear it above water too. This one-man-traveling-band however was swimming while he was singing and we were unable to pin point his position and get into the water. The next set of whales we found were a mother and calf that we, the crew, recognized from two weeks previously because of some distinctive scarring on the mother’s front dorsal. We hoped that this relaxed mother would remember us and honor us and our new guests with a view of her beautiful baby once again. We observed the mother logging at the surface for a while with her baby playing around her and resting affectionately over her head before they both dived down to rest. At this point our scout slipped into the water to find out if she would tolerate a few spectators and luckily she seemed totally comfortable with our on looking snorkelers. While mama napped below babe came to the surface to breathe, staying more or less over it’s mother’s head and spent several minutes playing at the surface providing our enchanted guests with (for most of them) their first very special close up underwater view of a humpback whale. This wonderful encounter might have gone on for much longer if it hadn’t been for a pair of adult whales that passed close by and caused the mama and baby to move on… so yes, believe it or not, sometimes it is possible to have too many whales!!!
The next morning all our guests had the chance to be in the water with the whales. We came across a sleeping pair of adults, a female with an escort. They would stay down for around sixteen minutes often sleeping in what appeared to be an affectionate pose, nose to nose and when they rose to the surface to breathe our lucky guests were treated to an up close view as the whales cruised by before settling down again a few body lengths away. Both tenders rotated to be in the water with the pair and everyone had a chance to see these mighty beasts in their sleepy slumber state for four or five breathing cycles, more than an hour. That afternoon the action picked up considerably! As soon as we left the mother ship after lunch we saw a blow not far away. We approached and waited and only a few seconds later, BAM! A full spinning head breach less than a hundred feet from our little boat! And then another, and another!! The two adult whales that we had seen that very morning had woken up with a burst of energy! The spinning head breach is what humpback whales get their reputation as the “acrobats of the sea” for. They will haul almost all of their body out of the water (with really very little “run-up” needed), throw out their fifteen foot long pectoral fins to create the spin and slam their forty five tons down onto the water surface, creating a massive splash! After maybe five or six of these spinning head breaches they moved on to chin breaches. These take less energy but create a tremendous noise. And finally both whales did a couple of tail breaches too! After this excitement the couple calmed down and continued on their way, leaving our guests and crew aboard the tender awe struck with this impressive show and the photographers in the group overjoyed! What a performance!
As the clouds rolled in and the wind picked up we headed back to the mother ship for a hot shower and happy hour, content with our day on the water. However the whales had other plans and shortly after tying up the tenders we spotted three adult whales at the bow. The charismatic trio, almost certainly a female with an escort and challenger, entertained us for more than an hour with a beautiful ballet of spy hops, twirling and rolling around our mooring balls. It is remarkable to see such majestic giants, maneuvering so gracefully and showing such interest in our boat and on looking passengers. Once again we were stunned to see such a relaxed group of adult whales and felt extremely privileged that they had chosen to play and explore around our ship! As the sun set and the whales moved on we were left with a profound sense of love and gratitude for our giant friends here on the Silver Bank.
Our penultimate day of this week was again spectacular! We started out with a mother, calf and escort only five minutes after leaving in the tender. At first all was calm and tranquil and we entered the water for a short time to see the baby tentatively rise to the surface and take a breath. The mother and escort came up a short while after and moved on a few body lengths. We then watched from the tender as the young calf rolled and played around it’s mother’s head while the escort made a big circle around the couple – a perimeter check for any incoming challengers. Our attention returned to the mom and calf while the babe did what is undoubtedly the cutest behavior of all – the nose push. This very intimate action is thought to be done directly after birth when the mother assists the calf to take her first breath. However when we see this behavior reenacted well after birth up until the calf is at least a few weeks old we can be sure that it is a comforting and bonding experience for both the young whale and new mother. It was after this that we noticed the escort had returned and his behavior had changed. He was moving faster and blowing bubble streams. Two challengers had arrived. Our Aquatic Adventures tender stayed with the five whales as they picked up the pace and the escort fended off the challengers. When males are fighting over a female with young, even though it can get very violent between the males, it is rare that either mother or calf is harmed. This mother and calf began to travel quite fast and the baby took advantage of it’s mother’s slipstream, spending time on her back to conserve energy. After a while the challenging males moved away from the mom and calf and we did too to give them their space and calm down after the rowdiness!
We didn’t have to wait long before our next encounter! Straight away we found two adults close to our mother ship, the Turks and Caicos Explorer II. We soon realized that this was the same female that was showing great interest in us, our tenders and our mother ship from earlier in the week and quite possibly from the previous week as well! Whether it was the hum of the generator or the purr of our four stroke engines or just the excited squeals of our snorkelers, something was drawing this curious whale to us and we were happy to have the opportunity to enter the water and see her again. The female danced, slowing turning, arching her back and stretching out her pectoral fins, displaying her underside. At the surface she logged and rolled and gently swished her fluke. Just feet below the snorkelers she opened her mouth wide extending her ventral pleats and a few times she released air from her blow holes creating a stillness at the surface just like scuba diver’s bubbles. We can only speculate what unusual behaviors like this represent but the more time we spend with these mysterious animals the more we can hope to understand them and learn from them. This inquisitive female spent more than an hour circling the mother ship and spy hopping only feet away from the back deck where we threw out a line from the stern so the snorkelers from each of our tenders could take turns to float and watch in awe. For our first time guests this indescribable experience really helped to give perspective, seeing these huge animals so close and so completely at ease in their domain. For returning guests, for some of whom this was their eighth time to the Silver Bank, it really brought home the sensation that these whales really are individuals with different personalities and characters and that they do have a genuine interest in the friendly humans that come to visit. During all of this the male escort was doing big perimeter checks around the female and the boat, occasionally cruising by and eventually managed to lure the female away to rest. We located them again a short distance from the mother ship and each group got in the water one more time to observe them sleeping before they headed off to another part of the Bank. Whether these two whales mated or not we will never know but we will certainly be keeping our eyes peeled for this intriguing young female over the next few weeks.
Looking back over the last five days we had some incredible and unique encounters that more than made up for one day of bad weather. Everyone including our repeat guests went away with wonderful memories and photos and plans to return to see our majestic giants of the Silver Bank once again.
The Aquatic Adventures team hopes that you are as inspired as we are to help sustain the humpback whale population. Through our partnership with the Center for Coastal Studies, we are helping to gain critical information on these charismatic creatures, and to seek ways to protect and preserve them. To find out more about this effort, join their mailing list or to make a donation, large or small, please visit:
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Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures