February 11 – February 18, 2017
Week Four of our 27th Season
After a windy start that unfortunately blew out our first day on the Silver Bank, Mother Nature repaid us with some absolutely perfect whale watching conditions. With flat calm seas, beautiful Dominican sunshine and just a hint of a cooling breeze on day two we could see the whales’ blows from miles away, but what we hoped for was something a little more up close and personal, and we certainly got that, making up for the day we lost! After only a very short time of scanning the horizon we were rewarded with a pair of adult humpbacks that came right up to our tender and floated at the surface to check us out only a few feet from the stern of our boat. As is usually the case in this kind of situation, the female was most inquisitive and proceeded to circle our tender while her male escort hung around close by. The curious couple was so relaxed that we were able to have our first “soft in-water” encounter of the week, meaning that our lucky guests were able to float at the surface and see the whales in their domain in a meeting of mutually curious mammals. Staying close to the tender the snorkelers watched in wonder as the female whale hung just under the surface, nose pointed towards the tender, taking in the sights and vibrations of her human observers for several minutes. We were still very close to our mother ship, the Turks and Caicos Explorer II, when we found these whales, so much so that after a while longer of checking out our tender and guests the pair then moved just a few hundred feet away and circled the mother ship several times, giving our cook and purser a very special encounter as well! While this was going on we called over our other tender and sure enough they circled that boat too, many times and so all our guests were able to be in the water with these gentle giants as they peacefully investigated us and our vessels. Overall we spent more than three hours with this fascinating and generous couple of whales!
That afternoon we had another very special encounter, this time with a mother humpback and her calf. The North Atlantic humpback whales are here in the Silver Bank exclusively to breed and give birth and they will not feed until they return to the nutrient rich northern waters. While a mother whale nurses her calf she may lose up to a third of her body fat before she can feed again, so they really need their rest. We stayed with this mother and babe for a while and after gaining her confidence she allowed us to enter the water. While she rested below, our snorkelers floated overhead and watched as the young calf came to the surface to breathe every three to four minutes. At first the baby was quite shy but curiosity soon got the better of the youngster and with each ascent the little circle above it’s mother’s head got larger and larger, giving our lucky guests a wonderful up close view.
Of course these new calves need exercise too and later in the week we came across a mother and much more active calf, this time with an escort. The mother humpbacks go back into estrus within thirty days after giving birth, however with a calf to nurse and strengthen up and a long journey north still to make, it is extremely unlikely that she would add the extra stress of getting pregnant again so soon. Despite this it’s not uncommon to see a mom and babe with a male in tow, as he will hope to mate with her regardless. The escort will stay for a few days and if the female does not show any interest he will leave to find a more promising mate. In this case the three whales were traveling together and resting was the last thing on the calf’s mind. This bouncy baby had boundless energy and we were treated to some spectacular surface activity. The young calf had obviously only recently discovered the joys of breaching and like most children when they find out they can do something fun, they do it over and over and over again! The babe thrilled us with a continuous display of spinning head breaches, chin breaches and tail breaches for more than half an hour and we counted nearly fifty! This tremendously entertaining show was experienced by one of our tenders early one afternoon and luckily our other tender encountered the same set of whales later that very same afternoon. Unbelievably the calf still had plenty of energy and gave these guests yet another show of it’s strength breaching again, over and over. For sure this calf would have slept well that night, and as the sun began to set over the Silver Bank we left the trio to return to our mother ship after another beautiful day with the whales.
This week was another extended charter and on our last morning we again had beautiful sunshine and mirror calm seas, and most importantly more wonderful whale encounters! In less than four hours that morning we heard a singing whale, got in the water with sleeping whales and came across a rowdy group! Our guests this week had already had the chance to hear the whales with the hydrophone but it is always such a special treat to locate a singing whale and feel the vibration in your chest as you listen in the water. The sleeping whales allowed our guests to have one last opportunity to get in the water and say their farewells in person, looking down on the resting pair only fifty feet below. We stayed in the water with the whales for two breathing cycles; as they slowly rose to the surface they would swim by our snorkelers and the second time the female took a few breaths and circled our guests before heading back down to sleep again.
The icing on the cake this week was a brief but very exciting bout of surface activity from a rowdy group of just three whales, a female with an escort and a challenger. We first spotted them as the female was fin slapping at the surface and as the males jostled to be next to her, fighting for the position of escort they gave us a great show of tail breaches and slashes. You can really appreciate the size of these powerful beasts as they plow though the water raising their dorsals high up before diving back down into the fight. If the escort sees that another male has managed to get close to the female he can push him away with a maneuver called an S-curve. He will throw out his fifteen foot long pectoral fins to “slam on the brakes”, raise his head out of the water and swoop down to one side to replace the challenger and maintaining position as her potential mate. With all this excitement only feet away from our tender we had some fantastic photographic opportunities and it made for a great finale for the week!
Want to hear an excerpt of this year’s song from a North Atlantic humpback whale? Recorded 1/30/17 on 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