February 25 – March 4, 2017
Week Six of our 27th Season
As we enter mid season here on the Silver Bank, North Atlantic humpback whales are still coming down to the warm Caribbean waters of the Dominican Republic. The females that came here to give birth are now spending more and more time exercising and training their energetic and precocious young. Every day of this sixth week of the season we saw several sets of mothers and calves, some calm, allowing us to have treasured in-water encounters and some active, giving us unforgettable shows of surface activity.
Right from the get go, on our first afternoon we saw the blows of two whales, the full and puffy cloud of condensation shot ten feet into the sky of a mother alongside the distinctive little baby puff of her young calf. As we tentatively approached, both baby and mother did a full spinning head breach and then the rambunctious little whale calf continued to breach over and over again giving our new guests the show of a lifetime within their first few minutes out on the tenders. Why a humpback breaches has always been very much speculation and theory however in a situation like this it certainly looks as if the mother is demonstrating the maneuver to her growing babe and the calf is practicing again and again! It also looks pretty fun! It wasn’t long before the young calf needed a bit of a break and while the mother slowly swam and logged at the surface, the baby rolled and flopped adorably over its mother’s head in a behavior known as the nose push. When the mother dropped below the surface to rest the calf tucked itself under her chin. At that point we took the opportunity for our guide and guests to slip into the water just in time to see the youngster come up for one breath before they both moved on a few body lengths away. That first afternoon we were with the same mother and calf pair for over three hours and during that time she attracted two different escorts. The mother was only interested in nursing and training her calf and showed little interest in the males that would swim close by and circle the pair, sometimes positioning themselves between the mother and our tender. In between rest stops on mom’s nose the baby continued to breach over and over and over. We went on to see lots of surface activity from more pairs of mothers and calves making for a fantastic first day!
The next morning we were again rewarded with another mother and calf encounter. This time there was no escort in tow and the relaxed mother allowed our lucky snorkelers to enter the water several times. The pair was resting in an area of the Silver Bank protected from the elements by many coral pinnacles making a beautiful backdrop for the intimate encounter as the sun shone on the turquoise water. In between the “soft in-water” sessions we looked on from the tender while mother and babe enjoyed the sunshine, baby gently flapping around at the surface and over mom’s nose. We were with this generous mother and playful calf most of the morning and all our guests on both Aquatic Adventures tenders had the chance to be in the water with them.
This week we were also fortunate to have our first “in-water” encounter with off shore Atlantic spotted dolphins! The day started out with yet another mother and calf sighting but we soon realized that they were not going to settle as four adult whales came through the area – two challengers in pursuit of a female and escort. As they passed by we noticed the dolphins heading towards our tender. Swimming with dolphins is so much fun and such a different experience to being with whales. Rather than calm, quiet, tranquil encounters with gentle giants, it’s fast paced, exhilarating and playful! The dozen or so dolphins were attracted to the sound of the engines, bow riding and circling the tender but once the people got in the water the dolphins swam around and dived back and forth with our snorkelers for twenty minutes or so. Definitely a fun way to exercise!! While we were in the water with the dolphins the four adult humpbacks from earlier cruised by below us and carried on off to another area of the bank! In the water with dolphins and humpback whales!! Not many people can say they’ve done that!!
With barely enough time to dry off we next encountered two adult humpbacks sleeping together. The female would stay down for approximately twenty four minutes while the male would nap for a shorter time rising every so often to do perimeter checks for challenging males in the area. As the female rose from her slumber each time she would turn towards us and spread her pectoral fins, oh so gracefully. We were in the water with this sleepy pair for two breathing cycles and after the first ascent the couple actually circled around and returned to swim by our lucky snorkelers twice before moving on a few body lengths.
During this baby boom week we witnessed plenty of surface activity, far on the horizon and close up. Whether it was the young calves honing their skills or the mothers attempting to control their rapidly growing babies or the males displaying their prowess and worthiness to father the next generation, the result was a spectacular demonstration of breaching repertoire from these ‘acrobats of the sea’.
On Wednesday we were again in the water with mothers and calves. However one encounter with humpbacks is very different to the next and these two were like night and day. In the morning the calf was rambunctious and frisky, making wide circles far from her mother and giving our snorkelers exciting close-up views. In the afternoon the pace calmed and we had a forty five minute long and peaceful in-water encounter with a mother and young calf as the mother rested below and babe rose every couple of minutes before returning to rest under mom’s chin. This kind of experience is a real treat as it gives you time to really soak up the tranquil atmosphere and contemplate just how unique a place this really is.
On the last day of this charter, after, yes you guessed it, another mother and calf encounter first thing in the morning, the afternoon brought us the opportunity to experience something completely different. Humpback calves will stay with their mothers for up to four months here in the breeding and calving grounds and after traveling back to the northern feeding grounds together they will stay a total of about eleven months before they begin to fend for themselves. Once the young whales reach sexual maturity at around four years of age they will return to the same breeding grounds but that’s not to say that they won’t come down a couple of years early to see how it’s all done! That afternoon we came across a single sleepy juvenile female, possibly just two or three years old. Size is not a reliable measure of age. Like humans, humpbacks can be small or big no matter how old they are, however we could assume she was young as it is rare to see a female without an escort if she is sexually mature. This sleeping beauty also appeared to still be perfecting her buoyancy skills as every time she swam down to nap she would swim on a body length or two and then slowly rise again to the surface and float there for a few minutes while taking breaths. Up, down, up, down, the pretty young whale continued in this way for over an hour completely at ease with the on looking snorkelers. If this were not entertainment enough we could also hear whale song the whole time we were in the water and it was getting steadily louder and louder. We couldn’t help but wonder if this sleeping beauty was drawn to the sound and sure enough not more than ten minutes after leaving the immature female we located the singer. For the third time this season all our incredibly lucky guests got to experience not only the 2017 humpback number one tune in person, but thanks to the keen ear of Denise (Aquatic Adventures tender captain and whale guide of the Silver Bank of ten years), we were able to locate the lone singer and look down on him from above as his melody vibrated through our bodies.
With the song of the Silver Bank still in our heads and our hearts, we headed back to the mother ship to watch the sunset and look back over another fantastic week with the whales.
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