Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W4

February 14 ~ February 21, 2015
Curious Calves

The relationship between a humpback mother and calf appears to be an extraordinarily intimate and involved one, as one might expect of creatures with such enormous intelligence and investment in their young (a humpback will typically give birth only every 2-3 years, and calf mortality is high). Mothers will lead their calves on long traverses to build strength, and will keep constant vigilance as baby masters complicated behaviors. When baby tires, mom will provide a welcoming pec fin for baby to rest under until he recovers, and gallons of fattening milk to fuel his endeavors. A mother humpback quite literally gives everything of herself, fasting for months even as her body continues to nourish her rapidly growing calf.

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This week on the Silver Bank we are fortunate to share many varied encounters with mothers and calves. In the first, we are granted over two hours with a mother and calf pair, with frequent nursing behavior early on from baby (later, baby becomes increasingly interested in us rather than feeding, returning to mom only to gain courage for his next shy pass). A second encounter goes very differently in that mom and baby don’t “settle” – rather mom takes a curious interest in us and begins circling closely. While this new mom is accompanied by a rather pushy escort, for awhile she ignores his advances in favor of investigating us. Her tiny baby stays reassuringly close to his mama, rolling about and draping himself over her nose.

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In later mother and calf encounters, baby would prove to be more ambitious. Under a sublime sunshiny sky and with outstanding visibility, we come across our first such pair. Mom hangs shallow in the water column, while her energetic calf makes multiple close passes towards us. Young humpbacks lack the grace and agility of their parents, and this baby’s enthusiasm is thrilling to watch. Occasionally baby ranges quite far from mom, and in one such episode he takes off altogether, mom fin slapping and breaching in alarm (and perhaps irritation) at her wayward boy. The in-water encounter ends at this point, but it isn’t long before we find another pair. This baby starts out shy, peering over mom’s head at us, but later becomes very busy, jetting off on big circles. Eventually baby begins to pass quite close to us, even kicking off for a series of breaches to end the session on a literal high note.

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The action doesn’t stop at mom and calf encounters this week, as we are also treated to plenty of spectacular surface activity. At one point, five whales circle the tender demonstrating moves from tail breach to fin slap, and in another occasion an escort performs a series of chin breaches directly in front of, and towards, the tender. While they certainly look big under water, nothing quite compares to them launching out of the water just in front of you!

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A last special treat this week was a visit from Jenn Tackaberry, of the Center for Coastal Studies. Aquatic Adventures has paired with CCS to help study and preserve humpback whales and their habitats, and Jenn gave a great presentation on the research currently being conducted at CCS. It was an educational and inspiring end to another great week on the Silver Bank.

 

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

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W3

February 7 ~ February 14, 2015
Dance Like Nobody’s Watching 

Humpback whales live largely mysterious lives, their watery world beyond easy observation. Even gathered in the clear waters of the Silver Bank, they maintain many of their secrets. No human has seen humpback mating, and none has seen a humpback birth. The fast-paced competitive battles that precede mating and the intimacies of courtship are more obvious, but even these behaviors often escape obvious interpretation. Nevertheless, they are fascinating to watch, and this week on the Silver Bank we are privileged to have ample opportunity.

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An early encounter with a rowdy group demonstrates the violent behavior often seen with humpback mate competition. Once upon the group, we are able to maintain position in its midst, little distinguishable from the enormous animals arcing around us. Faces and fins are bloodied as one male after another muscles his considerable weight into another, all fast in pursuit of the lovely lady in the lead. The action is nearly continuous for over an hour as males enter and leave the fray, and then just as quickly it is disrupted when the group intercepts a mother, calf and escort. The action quiets and the whales disperse, scarred dorsal fins of the males in sharp contrast to the unmarred ones of the fleeing female and her tiny calf.

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A second “rowdy” group spotted this week shows not all such affairs are violent though: this group of five whales (likely 4 males and a female) is more sensuous than rowdy. The males slowly trail the female as she rolls about, intertwining among themselves in comparatively leisurely fashion. The female appears drawn to the tender, fin slapping in a loose circle all the way around, then repeatedly rolling on her back to expose her round white belly above the surface. Later, she even follows the bow of the tender crocodile-style, necessitating a quick reverse. What does such seemingly flirtatious behavior mean when it is directed towards us? Is she trying to lose her other suitors, and using the boat to distract or thwart them? Regardless, it is certainly entertaining behavior and we are universally transfixed. A last big breach next to the tender ends the nearly hourlong interaction.

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Even in a week marked with spectacular surface activity, the underwater action certainly doesn’t disappoint. In addition to frequent mother and calf interactions and a handful of sleepers, we are extremely fortunate to be in water with a lone dancer as she slowly twists and spins just under the surface. Dancing is a term for the intimate courtship (presumably) behavior generally seen between two whales; why this female is dancing alone is unclear. With her smooth lines and a constellation of white spots scattered over her dorsal fin, she certainly looks like a good catch to us (and perhaps we to her, as she sticks close for over an hour and a half). It may be that she is a young whale practicing – the hormones coursing through her body needing expression. After a time, a mother, calf and escort trio displace the dancer, passing just by us in the water. It is a perfect grand finale to an extraordinary encounter.

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Another great session on the Silver Bank, with glassy waters and sunshine for the crossing home. Looking forward to next week!

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

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W2

January 31 ~ February 7, 2015
Singers, Sleepers and a Soap Opera?

Although humpback whales associate only transiently with others, their lives are nevertheless rich in communication. Mothers “talk” to their calves in groans and squeaks, and whales paired in courtship no doubt have their own language of love. The most famous of the humpback communications, the complex and lengthy “song”, likely serves as solicitation in some form (sexual or possibly antagonistic). Heard across hundreds of miles, the songs sung by multiple whales can make the ocean depths sound like a crowded coffee shop full of whoops and whistles. No doubt these communications form only the surface of our awareness – a humpback whale is never truly alone in the vast seas. This week on the Silver Bank we have an early and extended encounter with just such a singer. He is positioned head down, and we are able to position ourselves just above him. At this proximity, the song is not only heard underwater but also felt throughout, sound waves bouncing off the internal surfaces of our bodies. It is a powerful experience in more ways than one, and an intriguing reminder that there is still much we don’t know about these enigmatic animals. Is he hoping to attract a mate? Issuing a challenge to others? After three satisfying sessions with the singer, he moves off, and so we do too.

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After another early series of in-water encounters with sleeping whales, we get a surprise example of the saying “anything can happen at any time”: as we make our way back to the Explorer to close the day, we are intercepted by two traveling adult whales. Rather than continuing on their way, they stop in front of us, spy hopping just off the bow. A spy hop (when the whale raises its head and/or eye above the surface) may indicate curiosity; certainly these whales appear curious. They begin circling the tender over and over, swirling and rolling around each other and us, and generally putting on quite a show. As the centerpiece to this intricate dance, we feel more participants than observers. Eventually the golden light begins to wane and we start home again, but not without “our” whales in tow. We watch them around the Explorer for 30 more minutes, until they are lost to the darkness.

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Another encounter this week leads to more dramatic surface activity: a mother and calf accompanied by a handsome escort are repeatedly approached by challengers. Ever wary, the escort chases the challengers off with some vigorous physical contact (obviously intimidated and clearly bloodied, the challengers retreat quickly). In the interim moments between these bouts, escort repeatedly breaches and displays between mom and the tender, close enough for us to count the acorn barnacles on his chin and to be overcome by his pungent scent. Not to be outdone, baby breaches and lobtails in perfect (albeit miniature) imitation of escort. Clearly mom and baby approve of this escort, sticking close to him and allowing him to maneuver them through the corals. All in all, it’s nearly two hours of continuous surface activity, with enough lust, possessiveness and conflict to fuel a soap opera.

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Our last day on the bank dawns clear under a honey-colored full moon, but approaching storm clouds bring squalls. Fortunately they dissipate quickly, and we are treated to the last of several lovely mother and calf encounters this week. While young calves are generally rather shy, this calf is keeping mom busy: ranging widely from her and periodically jetting off in a series of breaches. While mom seems inclined to rest, baby seems intent on making trouble. Nevertheless, we are able to take advantage of quiet moments to slip into the water with the pair, and they grant us several hours of interaction before moving off.

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Gentle seas make for a smooth crossing back to Puerto Plata this week and cap another great session on the Silver Bank.

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

 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W1

Week One: January 24-January 31, 2015

The Silver Anniversary Celebration Begins! 

Early winter on the Silver Bank is heralded by the return of the humpbacks.  Seas quiet for most of the year awaken again to whale song, as the spectacular mating and calving rituals of these charismatic creatures begins. As the whales have once again migrated great distances to arrive in these warm waters, we too have returned from distant locales to kick off a new season (our 25th!). While late January marks the first Aquatic Adventures journey of the season to the Silver Bank, many of the whales have preceded us by weeks. Some females have even become new moms already; in several instances, we see a tiny dorsal fin arcing alongside mom’s massive one. 

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Our very first interaction of the season is with just such a new mom and calf pair, accompanied by a patient escort. Although likely only a couple of weeks old, this baby is quite precocious, and closely circles the group several times. Very young calves will generally stick quite close to mom, peeking shyly at the snorkelers; this little one is unusually adventurous. It will be interesting to see if we encounter this youngster again, and if his outsized personality keeps track with his physical growth.

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The following day brings a second mother and calf pair with escort, but with an atypical twist: this baby is a yearling, not a newborn. Humpback whale calves typically start to mix nursing and feeding at 6 months (and are weaned completely within several more months), but occasionally a calf will stay with its mother through an additional winter. This calf demonstrates some babyish traits typical of the very young, but also shows an older calf’s tendency to get up close and personal. Indeed, the large juvenile calf still tucks himself safely below mom’s pec fin, but emerges frequently to chase off the escort and approach us. Several 25 minute sessions in the water later, we’ve all had some extremely close encounters with “baby”.

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In another dynamic encounter shortly after, a pair of curious adults grants us dozens of slow passes, rolling on several occasions to expose their bellies. Apparently interested in the boat, they circle back over and over again. They often pass just below us as well, providing thrillingly near views from every angle. Although rarely settling for long, this pair is far from disturbed by our presence. Instead, they seem to be actively engaging us.

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Midweek squalls lend dark drama to the skies, but we are undeterred. And a  last in-water encounter this week certainly rewards us for our perseverance: a mother, calf and escort trio circling us and the boat multiple times, pausing briefly to rest, then circling again. Mom is repeatedly interested in the boat, even briefly touching the keel, but escort (perhaps jealous of the interloper) repeatedly pushes her away. Later, mom and baby settle nicely for awhile, but escort makes his presence felt again with a series of nearby breaches and fin slaps. It’s back to the boat for us at this point, but all enjoy the aerial display.

© Elisabete Mendes

© Elisabete Mendes

 

All in all, a great start to the season!

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