Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W8

March 15 – March 22, 2014
An Abundance of Whales! 

Humpback whales are making a comeback. Heavily exploited by commercial whaling (primarily in the 1920’s through to the 1950’s), their numbers are now rebounding in many areas towards pre-whaling era levels. In the northern (and central) Atlantic, humpbacks are faring particularly well, likely now numbering upwards of 12,000 individuals. While more progress is certainly needed in some areas, the recovery of the humpback whale population represents an encouraging success story, and is testament to the resiliency of the species when threats are diminished. Indeed, although they are still considered endangered throughout all of their range (and threats certainly do still exist), certain populations are now being considered for removal from the Endangered Species Act list. Read more about the requests from both Alaska and Hawaii to remove the North Pacific humpback whale from the Endangered Species Act list here.

On the Silver Bank this week, we are able to see evidence of humpback recovery and resiliency firsthand; mother and calf pairs are gratifyingly abundant. On several occasions, we are able to spot 10+ in a single outing. In one particularly memorable encounter with just such a pair, mom rests for nearly 3 hours while baby rises repeatedly towards and around the guests. Given his inexpert ability to control buoyancy, this young calf’s attempts at grace are quite comical. In contrast to mom’s controlled ascent, baby pops topsy turvy to the surface like bubbles in champagne, sweetly effervescent. Once there, he rolls and twists near the swimmers, his only cares curiosity and closeness to mom. An escort accompanying the pair is a bit more concerned, though: clearly sensing competition from a challenger in the area, he later begins to rapidly move mom and calf off. The grand finale of this encounter is a three whale breach, mom, calf and escort rising simultaneously from the sea.

© Ethan Daniels

© Ethan Daniels

Additional encounters with moms and calves are equally dramatic. In one, baby plays at tail lobbing on the surface and mom pec slaps alluringly, while escort ups the ante with multiple tail breaches towards a challenger. Escort is thrillingly close, and unimaginably powerful. And then he comes straight towards the tender, exquisitely in control of his position and turning only at the last moment to splash the crowd. Another nearby mom and calf pair (briefly separated) breach repetitively, then a third pair starts up in response. It’s an afternoon of surface action, to complement the week’s abundance of tranquil underwater encounters.

© Ethan Daniels

© Ethan Daniels

Though frequent, interactions with mothers and calves aren’t the only highlights this week. We also have an unusual (and lengthy) in-water encounter with four whales at once: a female and escort pair accompanied by two challengers. The female hangs vertical in the water column, nose to nose with a horizontal male below her. Her preference seems clear to us, but two other males remain unconvinced (or perhaps just undeterred). They circle slowly and widely around the pair, just visible on the periphery. Occasionally the escort emits a bubble stream, his readiness to defend his prize apparent despite the stillness of the scene. On a side note, more apparent resiliency: the female in this encounter displays heavy entanglement scars, healed over but evocative of a tough trauma overcome.

© Ethan Daniels

© Ethan Daniels

So all in all, a week (and season!) of interesting behaviors. And much evidence that these magnificent animals will continue to grow in numbers through the generations, bolstering their recovery. Signs too that the Silver Bank is itself experiencing a recovery: historically decimated by unsustainable fishing practices, the abundant reefs in the area are starting to show new signs of life. In addition to common reef fish, predators such as barracuda, and Ridley’s turtles spotted this week, we’ve also seen rays, dolphins and various seabirds throughout the season. Long may the trend continue!

© Ethan Daniels

© Ethan Daniels

 

To see more of Ethan Daniels’ photography, visit his website at http://oceanstockimages.com

Just 2 more weeks until this season with the whales on the Silver Bank is done!  Just like the whales know they’ll return every year, so do we!  2015 is Aquatic Adventures’ 25th year providing guests the rare opportunity to observe these majestic mammals in their natural habitat during their mating and calving season.  Join us for an adventure of a lifetime! For schedule and availability, click here.

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventure
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W7

March 8 – March 15, 2014

Humpbacks are supremely adapted to a life at sea. Their unusually long pectoral fins provide them a grace unique even among the cetaceans, and their sleek forms allow for surprising economy in movement. They can disappear into the distance with only the subtlest flutter of fins, or breach clear of the surface with only a few flips of the fluke. Their enormous power is therefore often understated. Not so in a rowdy group, though: the allure of sex brings out the the most ambitious of efforts, and it is truly exhilarating to see the drama unfold. This week on the Silver Bank we encounter nine males in amorous pursuit of a female, who without calf is potentially ready to consider a mate (rowdy groups are generally composed of a single female and multiple males, though up to 6% of presumed males have surprisingly turned out to be females). The action is fast-paced, with the female in the lead and the males straining to keep up while outmaneuvering each other for position. At speeds of up to 14 knots, the effort is clearly visible: dorsal fin after dorsal fin arc rapidly above the surface, water streaming from shining backs. Circular fluke prints hover for minutes among the waves, evidence of enormous water displacement as the animals kick off. The effort is audible too, with exhalations so forceful as to sound like trumpet blows. Quiet seas and great visibility mean we are able to see pectoral fins and even flukes raked over competitors, and there are a number of lunge breaches, one whale throwing its tremendous weight atop another. Focused on the female, the males are unconcerned with our presence: we get straight into the thick of things, close enough to see the rawness of wounds, close enough to feel condensation from their blows on our faces, close enough to be hit with spray off a fluke as one whale abruptly changes direction and rams another.

A male humpback's blowholes after a forceful "trumpet blow". © Lorenzo Martinez

A male humpback’s blowholes after a forceful “trumpet blow”. © Lorenzo Martinez

Another set of encounters this week are just as notable, though of a different sort: we are extremely privileged to spend two full days with an incredibly patient mom and exuberant calf. Mom spends much of her time either logging sedately at the surface (a behavior seen often in the North Atlantic, but less common in the warmer southern waters), or nestled amongst dense corals just below the surface. The large female calf alternates sleeping below mom’s chin with wide-ranging surface antics, making for some very exciting interactions. Obviously curious, she rises directly towards the swimmers, spinning away at the last moment, then coming back for more. Several times she circles closely around the entire group, inspecting her playmates at close range. In quieter moments, baby pauses briefly to nurse, her mother releasing long streams of fattening milk into the water column (lacking lips with which to suckle, baleen whales ingest viscous milk secreted from mammary grooves on the mother’s underside). Other times, a lovely gesture: baby and mom resting quietly, facing one another and touching nose to nose. A second mother and calf pair sticks around for 3 hours, this baby spinning and turning in far more languid fashion than the other. The surface of the sea is like glass for this encounter, providing mirror reflection to baby’s slow rolls.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

The impressive behaviors don’t stop there: later in the week we come upon a whale positioned head down in the water column, fluke breaking the surface. Getting into the water, we discover him nose to nose with a second whale, a female, her body inverted and pecs spread wide. A third whale (sex unknown) hovers close to the female, or just below her. The scene is incredibly intimate, and just as uninterpretable. What does such positioning imply? Some species of whale regularly position themselves fluke up, but the behavior is unusual in humpbacks. Later, we come upon two mother and calf pairs traveling together, the calves criss-crossing paths and sticking close to each other until we lose them among the corals 15 minutes later. Although humpbacks are often cooperative during feeding, such interactions between calves appear to be very rare. Certainly, such uncommon happenings demonstrate the behavioral complexity of these animals, and lead us to imagine what other interactions and communications take place beyond our limited ability to witness them.

Whale positioned head down in the water column, an unusual behavior for humpbacks.                © Jean-Francois Chabot

Whale positioned head down in the water column, an unusual behavior for humpbacks. © Jean-Francois Chabot

The inverted whale nose-to-nose with a female!                                  © Jean-Francois Chabot

The inverted whale nose-to-nose with a female! © Jean-Francois Chabot

 Finally, on the crossing back to Puerto Plata, we are granted a few more uncommon treats: passing pilot whales and a pod of spotted dolphins riding Explorer’s bow waves. Intriguing behaviors, calm seas and great visibility, plus a great deal of serendipity: another fantastic week on the Silver Bank!


Just 3 more weeks until this season with the whales on the Silver Bank is done!  Just like the whales know they’ll return every year, so do we!  2015 is Aquatic Adventures’ 25th year providing guests the rare opportunity to observe these majestic mammals in their natural habitat during their mating and calving season.  Join us for an adventure of a lifetime! For schedule and availability, click here.

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W6

March 1 – March 8, 2014 

Of all animals, humans claim a special bond with the cetaceans. We know relatively little about them, but dolphins and whales still populate our literature and arts, fuel our myths, and stoke our imaginations.  The bond is not superficial: although they inhabit a watery world far removed from our own, they are not in themselves so very dissimilar. Indeed, cetaceans (and all marine mammals) are far more closely related to humans than they are to most other denizens of the ocean realm. Like us, they breathe air from the atmosphere through delicate membranous lungs, not gills; like us, they produce nutrient-rich milk for their dependent young; like us, they have hair (though highly modified in comparison to ours); like us, they maintain warm bodies in constant opposition to the elements.
Up close look at tubercles with hair.    © Heather Reser

Up close look at tubercles with hair. © Heather Reser

The first “whales” were mostly terrestrial creatures, with long skulls, strong limbs, and teeth suggestive of a carnivorous diet. Though clearly designed for land, they also spent considerable time in the estuaries and bays where freshwater meets open ocean, perhaps for refuge or perhaps to lie in wait for wary prey at the water’s edge. Finding the semi-aquatic lifestyle increasingly amenable, these proto-whales then began to evolve more flattened and enlarged limbs, and a more muscular tail. Later modifications included a reduced pelvis (separated from the vertebral column for increased spinal mobility), changes in structure to the skull to enhance buoyancy and hearing, and nostrils positioned increasingly dorsal on the head. Eventually they would lose the hind legs altogether, though some modern whales have been found (on necropsy) to retain tiny vestigial hind limbs within the body wall, secret remains of a land-loving past. That past is more readily identified in the vertical undulation of the spine that propels cetaceans forward, more like the rhythmic rise and fall of a running cheetah than the horizontally directed power stroke of a swimming fish. 
 384117_10151529188606488_80878929_n Whale-skeleton
Dolphins, porpoises, and many whales (sperm, pilot, killer, etc) belong to the suborder Odontoceti, or toothed whales. They are generally fast, sleek and maneuverable, and have evolved echolocation for direction and to pinpoint their highly mobile prey. Humpback whales, like all baleen whales, belong to the second suborder of cetaceans, the Mystoceti. They are filter feeders, scooping their small prey from the water column, or actively scraping it from the sea floor (all whales have retained a carnivorous diet, requiring dense caloric intake to maintain fat stores and body temperature). Many other distinctions exist as well, including a double blowhole in mystocetes (presumably derived from the original paired nostrils) and a single blowhole in the odontocetes (one nostril dominant, the other lost to the space needs of the echolocation apparatus). Mystocetes do in general tend to be larger; the filter-feeding blue whale is the largest creature alive and one of the largest to have ever lived.
© John King

© John King

This week on the Silver Bank we are privileged to see firsthand the distinctions between the two groups, as a pod of 25-30 spotted dolphins appears suddenly to intermingle with the humpbacks. The dolphins dart among the guests (pictured above), respond to the squeals and clapping of the kids (four this week), and generally create a delightful chaos, hanging close for half an hour before departing as rapidly as they arrived. Not to be outdone, the acrobatic humpbacks also delight, with some very dynamic (and close!) surface activity, and plenty of balletic movement beneath the waves as well. Highlight among several mother and calf interactions is a pair that stays with us for seven hours, mom rising sleepily over and over as baby plays with the swimmers. Bigger and bolder this time of year, the babies are also more playful. This little female calf seems to never tire, ranging widely from mom and often circling right around the guests. Another highlight: a mother whale oriented vertically in a prolonged spyhop, as baby circles around her. Guests also witness at least two particularly impressive rowdy groups, three males with bloody tubercles and raw dorsal fins battling it out for nearly an hour in one instance, and eight whales in another. We follow them as long as we are able, then leave them still in pursuit of some (apparently) very lovely ladies.
11 yr old Estella free diving. © John King

11 yr old Estella free diving. © John King

All in all a fantastic week, on the calving and mating grounds of the Silver Bank. Plenty of time spent with calves: new life that will perpetuate their kind into the future. And plenty of time spent with rowdy groups, the display of power and virility a proxy for good genes and the raw material on which each female selects her next worthy mate. All terrestrial life on earth arose first in the the seas; whales have returned from whence they came. It seems we too have a need to return to the sea (if only in our imagination), fueling our connection with these enigmatic creatures.
Mother & calf that stayed with us for 7 hours. © John King

Mother & calf that stayed with us for 7 hours. © John King

 

Until next week….

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W5

February 22 – March 1, 2014 
Spending time on the Silver Bank, it is difficult not to anthropomorphize whales; we all have a tendency to assume our own very human thoughts, emotions, and motivations apply to animal behaviors. We can learn much by entering their watery world ourselves, but whales still live secret lives below the sea: we know so little about how these fellow mammals perceive the world, and perhaps we can never know. Do they feel love? Loss? Anticipation? Joy? Yearning? Certainly whales are intelligent and often highly cooperative creatures, and we are frequently witness to complicated social interactions here on the Silver Bank. The intertwining dance of courtship is one such example, and the impressive maneuvering of a rowdy group is another. By far the most relatable interaction, though, is that between a mother humpback and her calf: their bond is a long and strong one, and there is little doubt they exhibit tenderness and affection towards one another. Calves are born fairly precocious, but still require protection, nutrition, and much guidance from mom, and will seek reassurance through proximity to their mother (as we’ve seen, even older calves who have been deeply traumatized will continue to seek this reassurance, which mom appears to give willingly). Indeed, a young baby will spend much of it’s time tucked closely beneath mom’s pectoral fins, safely ensconced until it’s time to rise for air (calves are born without expert ability to control buoyancy, and must stay under mom in order to stay close to her).

© Leslie Rapp

© Leslie Rapp

Older calves will begin to range more widely, to develop strength and breath-holding capability, and to demonstrate more aptitude with behaviors.  All of this still happens under the close supervision of mom, though, who appears often a teacher and sometimes a weary follower. Throughout the season, calves who are frightened or exhausted will return to the embrace of their attentive mother.

© Heather Reser

© Heather Reser

Such a close bond takes a toll on a mother humpback, physically and (undoubtedly) mentally. From a nutritional standpoint, a calf requires 50-60 gallons of ultra-rich milk per day, and puts on weight at an astounding rate: up to 100 pounds per day. Without the benefit of feeding, a mother rapidly expends her fat reserves, losing up to a 1/3 of her body weight before her return to the North. Feeding a growing calf is only a fraction of her responsibility, though: she must also nourish a burgeoning young brain through play, experience, and demonstration. As any parent must surely relate to, such a task can be exhausting, and it is natural to assume mom might relish a break. While it might be flattering to think we enter their world in graceful harmony, barely noticed, it seems likely we are utilized as novelty for a curious baby. As good babysitters (or perhaps as colorful bath toys in an enormous basin), we divert baby’s attention long enough for mom to rest. And rest they do in our presence, often for hours at a time: one such interaction this week with a playful calf and resting mother lasts for over 4 hours. Another interaction this week results in mother and baby circling the guests over and over, before mom finally settles alongside her escort. Circling to show a distracted baby we might be good fun? Perhaps. Whales are often attracted to the boat and to swimmers, leaving one to guess at their impressions.
Calf learning how to open mouth.   © Patrick O'Flaherty

Calf learning how to open mouth. © Patrick O’Flaherty

Mother and calf interactions, while certainly a highlight, aren’t the only action this week. Dancers are plentiful, including a particularly impressive hourlong encounter with one pair. In an unusual twist, a single female also displays what appears to be dancing behavior, perhaps as a form of solicitation, perhaps simply for the pleasure of performing pirouettes. Another pair of whales circles the tender closely for nearly 40 minutes, enabling in-water guests to capture some outstanding close-up photographs. Surface activity is also prevalent this week; rowdy groups are forming frequently now, as males compete for a dwindling population of estrous females. It’s a week of spectacular variety suited to a similarly varied international group of guests and crew: 12 countries are represented aboard the Explorer this week and 11 languages are spoken, from Icelandic to Hungarian, Hebrew to Swahili. Although different in provenance and often in thought, all have come with common desire to experience the magic of the Silver Bank. It’s a moving and emotional week, both above and below water, as a mutual love for life and the sea meets extraordinary encounters.

A very international tender!

A very international tender!

Until next week….

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W4

February 15 – February 22, 2014

Animal migrations are extraordinary events. From butterflies to bats, wildebeest to whales, many creatures are urged by instinct to move. And move they do, often hundreds or even thousands of miles in a single journey. Motivations vary: some are drawn towards food, others sex; many seek to avoid the brutal vagaries of a northern winter. For all, there are surely additional factors beyond our human understanding. While scientists may disagree on exactly why humpbacks migrate, there is little disagreement that the journey from the North Atlantic to the Silver Bank (and surrounds) is an arduous one for them. Fat stores accumulated during the short but bountiful northern summers are rapidly depleted as adult whales rarely have opportunity (or inclination?) to feed on the calving grounds; the females fast even while producing enormous quantities of nutrient-rich milk for their rapidly growing newborns. Other physical threats are of human origin and more insidious: ship propellor strikes are not uncommon, and encounters with fishing line or other industrial implements are practically endemic (it is estimated that up to 70% of humpbacks bear scars from entanglement). Juveniles are particularly vulnerable, with whales in their naive second year of life facing the highest mortality rates from human-created threats. 

This whale was found entangled on the Silver Bank in February 2012.  To read more about the disentanglement,                     © Tom Conlin

This whale was found entangled on the Silver Bank in February 2012. To read more about the disentanglement, click here.  © Tom Conlin

The threats do not diminish on the return journey north. Indeed, mothers with young calves face additional risk from orcas, those supreme predators of the sea. Babies in their first year of life present the greatest target; those that survive predation attempts by orcas will often carry physical scars into adulthood. Psychological scars are sometimes also born, a fact unsurprising in animals of such emotional complexity. Indeed, traumatized yearlings will occasionally stay with their mothers for extended periods, returning south by her side and retaining many of the behavioral aspects of infancy. Among our early encounters on the Silver Bank this week is with just such a mother and calf pair. While it is not clear whether the mother encourages or the calf initiates this sort of arrested development, the evidence for it is clear: this heavily scarred calf sticks close to mom, even tucking himself beneath her protective pectoral fins and accepting the occasional nose push.  Despite their unusual situation, the pair are not at all reluctant to share their space with the innocuous humans. We are able to slip into the water with them for 20-25 minutes at a time, with the escort circling thrillingly close. 

Yearling that was still with mother, perhaps due to traumatic experiences during 1st year.

Yearling that was still with mother, perhaps due to trauma during 1st year.

The week brings other thrills as well: highlights include a second mother and calf pair (with patient escort) displaying some impressive surface antics within feet of the tender. Baby breaches at least 30 times, sometimes close enough to feel the spray. And then the trio are joined by an aggressive challenger, who lob tails over and over just off our bow, impressing us with his tremendous power. The female is less impressed than we are though: she leaves eventually with her original escort, his patience having paid off. A third mother and calf encounter includes a reversal of the commonly seen situation: this pair circles repetitively and eagerly around a singing male, his plaintive song clearly intriguing to mom (this escort is less tolerant of baby, even displaying a few semi-aggressive tail slashes). A series of high-pitched squeaks and moans and whoops in this situation indicate verbal communication between the potential mates, the nuances of which we can only guess at. And finally, an encounter with another mother and calf pair reinforces just how effective the soft-in-water approach is at gaining the trust of whales initially reluctant to interact: mom allows for increasingly long interactions, and displays increasing comfort with our approach. 
© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Joanne Jarzobski

First time mom “Bounce” with calf.       © Joanne Jarzobski

Remarkably, in a week filled with dramatic and touching encounters, the best was saved for last. Our last morning on the Silver Bank was dominated by dancers, pairs of whales in coordinated courtship. One encounter was particularly outstanding: far from being concerned about us witnessing their intimacy, the dancers seem to want to incorporate us in the moment, circling around the tender and even the swimmers repetitively. We are left awed and exhilarated by the proximity of the pair, and impressed with how self-aware these enigmatic animals are; each whale making subtle and continual adjustments to their position to avoid colliding with the swimmers around them.
© Joanne Jarzobski

“Samara” dancing around the swimmers.   © Joanne Jarzobski

So all in all, a fantastic and unique week, above and below water. And aboard the Explorer as well: with a special guest, Joanne Jarzobski of Hyannisport Whale Watchers, who shares her 17 years of experience and considerable knowledge about humpback whale behavior on their northern feeding grounds. Joanne also helps to maintain a considerable database of whale identification photos, and was able to recognize several whale “friends” here on the Silver Bank (see photo below), helping us fill in the blanks on their year-round stories. Aquatic Adventures looks forward to further communications with Joanne, and encourages guests to assist ongoing research on humpbacks (Joanne’s and that of other groups) by sharing their own fluke and dorsal fin photographs.

© Joanne Jarzobski

© Joanne Jarzobski

Until next week…


For more information about this exciting opportunity to get up close and IN THE WATER with humpback whales, visit our website at
http://www.aquaticadventures.com 

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W3

February 8 – February 15, 2014

Week 3 certainly starts off strongly, with an in-water mother and calf interaction the very first hour. Mom is very accommodating, allowing several hours of close observation from the guests. This is especially noteworthy considering humpback mothers are highly invested in the upbringing of their calves, and must remain constantly vigilant. Threats do exist from predators and there is also risk of inadvertent injury or stress when evading an overly amorous challenger or defensive escort. Babies also grow increasingly bold as their strength and curiosity develop, ranging further from mom’s protective shadow. Given all of the pressures and responsibilities, one can presume that this mom might welcome a bit of respite: when the calf becomes interested in the brightly-clad humans, she can steal some rest. In any case, it is an enormous privilege to be granted such tolerance, and remarkable that we can instill such confidence.C002_C029_01013Q
Our second day brings an encore encounter with the same patient mother and calf among the corals, then an additional mother and calf pair move into the area. In contrast to the first pair, this duo remains slowly on the move. We follow alongside as baby practices “becoming a whale”: first a series of exuberant but imprecise spinning head breaches, and then some chin breaches (both demonstrated properly by mom a few times as well). A few pec slaps (the immature pec fin still lacking rigidity and impact), and then baby rolls on her back, white ventral pleats exposed and all her fins lolling lazily above the surface. All of these maneuvers help to develop strength and coordination, but eventually baby does tire.  No wide ranging this time from this little calf: a nose push from momma is just the answer, with baby inverted and draped over mom’s massive head. 
C002_C035_0101OM
Midweek brings some dramatic action in the form of rowdy groups. As mentioned previously, rowdy groups are composed of 2 or more (up to 18+) males in pursuit of a female; the escort attempts to defend his proximity to the female, while other males challenge his supremacy. Female humpbacks come back into estrous approximately one month after giving birth, and while they don’t necessarily mate yearly, the males won’t be deterred from trying to win her over. The competition for a female can be quite heated and regularly results in bloody abrasions and torn dorsal fins; rarely it can end in death. Infant humpbacks must be able to keep up with their harried mother, riding her slipstream to conserve energy while the males lunge towards one another (and around baby) at high velocity. Our first rowdy group encounter this week involved a tiny infant, less than a week old, leaving us amazed at the precociousness of these “little” ones (little being a relative term, of course: the 1 ton newborns are still dwarfed by their 35-40 ton mothers). Not wishing to add to this youngster’s challenges, we do let this group go shortly (we’ll undoubtedly have more opportunities).

A male humpback with bloody tubercles.

A male humpback with bloody tubercles.

Later rowdy groups demonstrate the diversity of behavior that make these encounters so exciting: the twists, turns and maneuvers employed in an attempt to monopolize the shifting space near the female. With the female in the lead and us (mere feet away) beside her, we are able to witness the tremendous energy and aggression of the pursuing males, and to hear the roar of their forceful exhalations. First two, then three, then four males join these melees. The effort is tangible, the power unfathomable. Some groups last for tens of minutes, others disperse as quickly as they begin, leaving the escort untoppled or the challenger to his new prize.  One encounter ends in a series of enormous breaches just in front of our bow, another with 5 whales lined up abreast in a tentative stalemate. A particularly memorable rowdy group encounter concludes with the victorious escort courting his female directly underneath the tender, the dancing pair rising around us for nearly 30 minutes.
Rowdy group: bloody peduncle, bubble streams, fast & furious movements.

Rowdy group: bloody peduncle, bubble streams, fast & furious movements.

Lastly, highlights include a newly arrived juvenile (evidenced by the profusion of cold water acorn barnacles on the ventral pleat and around the genitals), who treats us to some languid logging and rolling at the surface. Although he, too, is dramatically interrupted by a pair of male interlopers, guests are still able to get really close and to capture some exquisite in-water photographs of his antics.
So, in short, another great week on Silver Bank! More next week…

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For more information about this exciting opportunity to get up close and IN THE WATER with humpback whales, visit our website at http://www.aquaticadventures.com 

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S24:W2

February 1 – February 8, 2014
The Silver Bank is named after the Spanish galleons who relinquished their precious cargo to the area’s extensive reefs. While treasure hunting on the bank continues to this day, the area’s true richness is biological: from late January to mid April the Silver Bank plays host to 5000-7000 humpback whales, who come to calve and breed in the area’s warm waters. It is not known exactly why these massive animals undertake such an extensive migration from their North Atlantic feeding grounds (not all whales calve in warm waters; therefore possible explanations for the journey include ridding themselves of cold-water parasites). It is known that they return yearly to the location of their birth, a phenomenon known as maternal-directed fidelity. An increasingly healthy Atlantic population of humpbacks therefore means plenty of wintertime action at the calving grounds of the Silver Bank, and this week certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Our week starts off on a good note – literally – during a guest encounter with a singing whale. Whales often sing positioned head down in the water column, tail fluke towards the surface, allowing us to listen from directly above. It is not entirely known whether both sexes regularly sing or what the purpose of the songs are, but we do that they are dynamic, changing in increments each year. Their songs are alternately longing and mournful, exuberant and playful, and are broadcast for miles through the watery medium. Not audible above the surface (except through the boat hull), the songs nevertheless seem to come from everywhere at once below the sea, reverberating off a swimmer’s body and wrapping him in sound.
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Following the encounter with the singer, the week just keeps getting more magical. Intermittent rain squalls bring cooler temps and a wealth of rainbows, some arcing complete (and double) from the horizon and back. Mother and calf encounters are frequent this week, with a few being particularly lengthy and impressive. By midweek, guests are treated to a nearly 3 hour encounter with a patient mom, calf, and escort trio. Baby is quite curious, approaching repeatedly within feet of us, while mom rests below. Escort is cooperative as well, allowing for repetitive rounds of baby surfacing and circling towards the group. With such close proximity and decent visibility, guests capture some outstanding underwater photographs.

 © Jennifer Sargeant

© Jennifer Sargeant

The day after our fantastic interaction with mother and calf, we are treated to an in-water encounter with a pair of dancers. Dancing is a term for two whales engaged in (what we presume is) courtship display, and is one of the most remarkable sights one can encounter on the Silver Bank. The partners intertwine in elaborate synchrony, at first hesitantly, and later with increasing intimacy. They do not often touch at this stage, preferring the drama of display. And what a display it is! We spend at least 30 minutes with the pair, and then are joined by a challenger. In seconds, the romance turns to chaos as escort and challenger compete for the affections of the female. We move out of the water for now, but are still witness to some great rowdy group behavior at the surface.*Here is a video showing a single female whale “dancing”: Dancer
The action rarely slows from here, with a number of sleepers granting some close encounters and some very obliging mothers and calves. There is a noticeable uptick in the amount of rowdy group behavior, with several spectacular breaches right next to the tender. Looking forward to seeing what next week brings!
 © Lorenzo Martinez

© Lorenzo Martinez

Check back soon for week 3!

Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Whale Tales S24:W1 January 25 – February 1, 2014

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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. Opinipuerto-plata-map-minion 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.

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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.

During the first afternoon, guests have a practice run for a soft-in-water encounter, allowing everyone to get used to their equipment and the protocol for entering the water. Time is limited, but we are still able to find several whales and witness some surface activity. Back aboard the Explorer, the elation of the day and a few cocktails brings out the playfulness of the guests.  In a theme that will recur throughout the week, an impromptu dance party forms on the sundeck (ever had the best one-hit wonders from the last three decades stuck in your head for days on end? No? Hmmm).  After dinner and a brief presentation, all head to bed early. Nothing like sunshine, salt air and a few wild dance moves to leave one pleasantly tired! And with plans for sunrise yoga on the deck before heading out, morning will come quickly.

© Simon Higton

© Simon Higton

Day Two. The more motivated among us are energized and limber post-yoga, and all are more than ready to head out for the first full day. Tom captains one of the tenders, the Escort, and Denise the other tender, the Challenger. With over 23 seasons and 9 seasons experience on the Silver Bank, respectively, our captains quickly locate the whales. Windy conditions and rolling waves prevail today, perhaps eliciting increased playfulness on the part of the whales. We witness whale after whale breaching on the horizon, but the real treat today is an in-water encounter with a mother and calf. This mom is a little nervous for now, so the interaction is short, but we still get a good glimpse of her massive size and her oddly shaped dorsal fin. She is tender with her heavily marked little calf, moving him off lazily with a nudge. We don’t push her with the interaction, in favor of giving her a positive experience she’ll remember for next time.

© Simon Higton

© Simon Higton

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.

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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.

© Eladio Fernandez

© Eladio Fernandez

Day Five, and the action keeps getting better and more intimate. The tenders spend a collective hour or more with a mother and very playful calf. Everyone watching was struck by how whales seem to have fun – at least this whale. Rolling and breaching, fin slapping and tail breaching, and the occasional spy hopping too – baby was checking us humans out both above and below the water while mom took a few moments of (undoubtedly much needed) rest away from her exuberant youngster. And then another calf breaches repeatedly nearby, but for a different reason – separated from his mama by a coral head. In response, mama also rises massively, magnificently, trailing water in the wake of her 35 ton bulk. The pair are reunited several moments later and move off together. Both tenders are also treated today to two pairs of sleepers, or whales resting in the water column for 20-30 minutes at a time. Lovely from above, sleepers are particularly impressive as they rise just below the guests for breaths.
All in all, an eventful first week on the Silver Bank. All leave grateful for some magical encounters, good camaraderie, and epic tan lines. One (hopefully) smooth crossing and one more sunset for theguests, and a great start to another season for the Aquatic Adventures crew. Until next week…
© Lorenzo Martinez

© Lorenzo Martinez

Stay tuned for weekly updates throughout the 10-week season.  If you’d like to learn more about this adventure of a lifetime, visit our Aquatic Adventures website or find us on Facebook and Twitter.


Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures 

Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures