April 1 – April 8, 2017
Week Eleven of our 27th Season
We could not have asked for a better start to our eleventh and final week of the season here on the Silver Bank, Dominican Republic, the largest Caribbean mating and breeding grounds. Between now and the end of April the whales will be making their way back up to their feeding grounds on the east coast of the United States, Newfoundland, Iceland and even Norway. Whether their goal here was to spread their genes or give birth and raise their calves, all the whale activity this season has proven to be not only enormously entertaining but also essential in understanding more about the lives of our North Atlantic humpback whales. Our Aquatic Adventures guests that join us here can feel honored and proud that they are among the very few people in the world who have taken the opportunity to be in the water with these most enigmatic and graceful giants. And they have most surely spent just as much, if not more time in the water as well as observing them top side, than most whale biologists in the world!
On our very first day out on the tenders we got off to a great start, encountering four sets of mothers and calves in the first couple of hours! The first three had male escorts in tow and with only one thing on their mind, mating, they were adamant in keeping our distracting tender of excited guests from their chosen female. They also had challenging male whales to contend with making for some great surface activity to start our week! The third set however was simply resting in the Caribbean sunshine and allowed us to enter the water with them for an incredible encounter that lasted most of the day! For more than five hours mom and babe slowly moved along, sometimes logging at the surface and sometimes the mother rested below while babe rose up to breathe every two or three minutes. This late in the season the calves can most likely stay down for six or seven minutes but this playful youngster seemed to want to spend less time napping and more time with our awe-struck snorkelers! While at the surface the baby would flop and roll over mom’s nose in the very intimate and tender behavior, the “nose push” a comforting and bonding action for both mother and calf. The baby rolled off its mother’s nose, held itself vertically in the water and performed a few “spy-hops” where the calf pushed its little nose out of the water a few inches, exposing its tubercles to the air to take in sensory information. This behavior is always entertaining, intriguing and fun to watch from both under the water and top side. With these whales being as relaxed as they were we were able to call over our sister tender and take turns to be in the water so everyone could share in this very special encounter. After a long while the mother began fin slapping and the baby became a little more boisterous, rolling about at the surface, flopping and flapping, tail breaching and lob tailing. The young calf appeared to be practicing his moves, building up his strength to join its mother in the long journey to the northern feeding grounds.
The next morning we spotted two adults, most likely a male and female. As the pair fluked down they left the distinctive circular stillness at the surface, an up-welling of water made by the power stroke of the whale’s tail base, the caudal peduncle, as it swims down and away. This is known as the “fluke print” and this helps us locate the whale after they have left the surface. Initially we thought that the pair might have been sleeping but as our scout and guests approached them they circled round and slowly swam by with their pectoral fins stretched out. The graceful pair banked round and circled our tender and snorkelers again and then passed underneath showing them their awesome size as they glided like fifty foot long submarines just thirty feet below. Our next encounter with a mother whale and her bouncing baby was much livelier! We are overjoyed to have seen so many mothers with calves this season and for this pair it was clearly exercise time. We stayed with the mom and babe, watching from our tender, for over half an hour while both breached over and over again! Fantastic strength building for baby and fantastic photo-ops for us!!
Soon after heading out on the tenders that afternoon the pace slowed down once again with our next sighting, another mother-calf pair. This time they were resting in shallow water. This new mom must have had her hands full with her precocious youngster earlier in the day as she took long naps in between breaths, sometimes up to twenty four minutes and the calf as much as five to eight minutes. Both slept peacefully while our guests floated at the surface a short distance away. It didn’t take long however for the young calf to become curious of its new observers and began rising to the surface every couple of minutes to circle round, intrigued with us as much as we were with it! The calf began to show off and play around, twirling and stretching and showing its ventral side to our snorkelers. And we could clearly see she was a flirtatious little girl! All the while the mother was content to rest below, so I guess we were good baby sitters! As well as the eight minute breath hold, the infant also had pretty good buoyancy. Being able to stay down and sleep next to its mother rather than having to tuck under her chin is another indication that this calf was well on her way to being ready for the long migration north. We were able to again share this amazing encounter and both Aquatic Adventures tenders took it in turns to be in the water with this relaxed couple. Over all we were with them for more than five hours!
Later in the week we had another fantastic encounter with yet another mother and calf. And we were again so fortunate to be able to enter the water with this peaceful pair and look down from the surface as they slept. The mother would rest with her tail elevated and the calf tucked under her chin. Perhaps this young calf had yet to perfect the buoyancy skills to the level of the last one we saw. The mother would stay down for around fifteen minutes and the calf, four to five minutes. Each time the baby needed to breathe it would peak its little head out from under its mom and ever so slowly rise up. As it rose up below us we could see many little fish, bar jacks, feeding around the calf’s mouth and as it got closer to the surface it would shake off the fish and bob up to take a few breaths just a few feet from us before returning down to the comfort of its mother. After more than two hours of this wonderful in-water encounter the pair woke up and the boisterous baby began breaching over and over and over for at least half an hour. Once again we were with this patient mom and entertaining calf for almost the whole morning, nearly three hours!
At this late date in the season when many of the single adults that came here to breed have already started to make their way back up to the feeding grounds, a large proportion of the remaining whales are mothers still here to train and strengthen their calves in preparation for the long journey north. This week and every week during the season we have been treated to plenty of exciting surface activity and different in-water behaviors from single adults, couples and groups but it is fair to say that this week has been exceptional for prolonged up-close, in-water encounters with mothers and calves. We feel grateful and privileged to have enjoyed such an action packed season and although we will have to wait a few years to see this year’s crop of new calves return to their birthing grounds for mating, we look forward to next season and reuniting in this magical place to spend time with our gentle giant friends, the “Whales of the Silver Bank”.
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