The journey begins in Puerto Plata, the largest city on the Atlantic side of the Dominican Republic and home to a large industrial shipping center. Opinion varies on the origin of the name, but it is surmised that Puerto Plata took its moniker either from the lucrative Spanish trade in silver, or the way the morning sun glinted silver from its waters. Either way, it is a city of contrasts. To the south sit the forested flanks of Mount Isabel de Torres, and to the north the Atlantic Ocean. Narrow streets lined with faded Victorian facades and tiny shops rub shoulders with broad avenues, bright nightclubs, and a shining swath of oceanfront hotels. Our vessel for the expedition, the Turks and Caicos Explorer II, is docked at Ocean World marina, approximately 30 minutes from the Puerto Plata airport. The Explorer is a 130 ft. custom-designed liveaboard dive boat, housing 20 guests in 10 well-appointed cabins.
We set off for the Silver Bank, the calving and breeding grounds for the humpback whales, an hour or so before midnight. The excitement is palpable for the inaugural journey of the season, but the day has been long and all quickly settle in for sleep. Good fortune prevails and our overnight crossing is gentle, putting us on the bank shortly after sunrise. The crew sets the mooring while the guests enjoy breakfast, then Tom Conlin gives his introductory talk. We’ll be spending 4 1/2 days with the whales, and all must learn the techniques for safely and respectfully approaching them. Distilled from decades of experience and popularized by Tom, the soft-in-water encounter allows us to spend time with the whales on their terms, free from harassment or aggressive moves.
Our third day brings a number of morning fly-bys from a large female and heavily scarred male, and then from a mother, calf, and escort (female humpbacks on the Silver Bank are often found in the presence of escorts, or male humpbacks hopingto take advantage of proximity to quickly mate). We also witness three juveniles racing along and playing, with the occasional breach thrown in. And finally, a resting mother and calf. Guests slip into the water and are able to spend several sessions with the pair as they drift slowly along, then a big breach from mama brings an exciting end to that in-water encounter. Midday brings action spicier than the Mexican cuisine – multiple whales breaching and fin-slapping just meters off the Explorer’s starboard side for at least 15 minutes – lunch and entertainment! And finally, the afternoon action includes an exuberant calf showing off with lots of breaching, lob tailing, and fin slapping while mom rests below.
Day Four brings action right out of the gate with a rowdy group encounter. Rowdy groups are composed of male humpbacks vying for mating rights through strength and aggression, and witnessing their formation is always exciting. And then to provide contrast: a mother and her tiny calf, less than a week old and still sporting the folded dorsal fin characteristic of the newly born. The Escort tender group is treated to a visit by a pod of at least a dozen dolphins intermixed with a pair of whales, and both groups spend at least a half hour in-water with a lone male juvenile rolling about in the water. Practicing his own dance moves for when he’s all grown up? Perhaps.
Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures