January 31 ~ February 7, 2015
Singers, Sleepers and a Soap Opera?
Although humpback whales associate only transiently with others, their lives are nevertheless rich in communication. Mothers “talk” to their calves in groans and squeaks, and whales paired in courtship no doubt have their own language of love. The most famous of the humpback communications, the complex and lengthy “song”, likely serves as solicitation in some form (sexual or possibly antagonistic). Heard across hundreds of miles, the songs sung by multiple whales can make the ocean depths sound like a crowded coffee shop full of whoops and whistles. No doubt these communications form only the surface of our awareness – a humpback whale is never truly alone in the vast seas. This week on the Silver Bank we have an early and extended encounter with just such a singer. He is positioned head down, and we are able to position ourselves just above him. At this proximity, the song is not only heard underwater but also felt throughout, sound waves bouncing off the internal surfaces of our bodies. It is a powerful experience in more ways than one, and an intriguing reminder that there is still much we don’t know about these enigmatic animals. Is he hoping to attract a mate? Issuing a challenge to others? After three satisfying sessions with the singer, he moves off, and so we do too.
After another early series of in-water encounters with sleeping whales, we get a surprise example of the saying “anything can happen at any time”: as we make our way back to the Explorer to close the day, we are intercepted by two traveling adult whales. Rather than continuing on their way, they stop in front of us, spy hopping just off the bow. A spy hop (when the whale raises its head and/or eye above the surface) may indicate curiosity; certainly these whales appear curious. They begin circling the tender over and over, swirling and rolling around each other and us, and generally putting on quite a show. As the centerpiece to this intricate dance, we feel more participants than observers. Eventually the golden light begins to wane and we start home again, but not without “our” whales in tow. We watch them around the Explorer for 30 more minutes, until they are lost to the darkness.
Another encounter this week leads to more dramatic surface activity: a mother and calf accompanied by a handsome escort are repeatedly approached by challengers. Ever wary, the escort chases the challengers off with some vigorous physical contact (obviously intimidated and clearly bloodied, the challengers retreat quickly). In the interim moments between these bouts, escort repeatedly breaches and displays between mom and the tender, close enough for us to count the acorn barnacles on his chin and to be overcome by his pungent scent. Not to be outdone, baby breaches and lobtails in perfect (albeit miniature) imitation of escort. Clearly mom and baby approve of this escort, sticking close to him and allowing him to maneuver them through the corals. All in all, it’s nearly two hours of continuous surface activity, with enough lust, possessiveness and conflict to fuel a soap opera.
Our last day on the bank dawns clear under a honey-colored full moon, but approaching storm clouds bring squalls. Fortunately they dissipate quickly, and we are treated to the last of several lovely mother and calf encounters this week. While young calves are generally rather shy, this calf is keeping mom busy: ranging widely from her and periodically jetting off in a series of breaches. While mom seems inclined to rest, baby seems intent on making trouble. Nevertheless, we are able to take advantage of quiet moments to slip into the water with the pair, and they grant us several hours of interaction before moving off.
Gentle seas make for a smooth crossing back to Puerto Plata this week and cap another great session on the Silver Bank.