Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S27:W4

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!

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Ken Greenwood

Photo Credit: Ken Greenwood

Photo Credit: Anne O'Herron

Photo Credit: Anne O’Herron

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.

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Don Coons

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.

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Ken Greenwood

Photo Credit: Ken Greenwood

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!

Photo Credit: Pippa Swannell

Photo Credit: Ken Greenwood

Photo Credit: Ken Greenwood

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Don Coons

Photo Credit: Anne O'Herron

Photo Credit: Anne O’Herron

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:

www.coastalstudies.org/aquaticadventures

Thanks to all who have generously donated! 

LIKE us on Facebook

FOLLOW us on Twitter

Learn more about Aquatic Adventures here.

Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures

Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S27:W3

February 4 – February 11, 2017

Week Three of our 27th Season  

As we arrived at the Silver Bank for week three of the breeding and calving season we saw plenty of surface activity from the mother ship and felt confident it was going to be a great week. And we were not disappointed, with tranquil sleeping whales, fast paced rowdy groups and everything in between!

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

On the second day we found three adult whales together, a female and two males, an escort and challenger. The trio were very calm, resting and slowly traveling, however when we came closer the female turned to us and appeared to be more interested in our tender than her suitors.  She would circle the tender, rolling on her back, spreading her pectoral fins and gently slapping at the surface with her fins and fluke. We were treated to some close up views of her tubercles (modified hair follicles all over her head) as she slowly raised the tip of her head out of the water in a behavior called spy hopping. Spy hopping is most likely done to gather information via a whisker-like hair in each tubercle and this curious, seemingly playful whale was as interested in us as we were in her.  At one point she even opened her mouth and showed us her baleen! The two males were also very calm, allowing our guests and guides on both Aquatic Adventures’ tenders to rotate in and out of the water and observe the trio as they gracefully maneuvered around each other and our boats. It was almost as if the female enjoyed the noise or vibration of our engines because she returned to circle one of the tenders over and over again resulting in a fascinating and intimate encounter for more than three hours. The escort and challenger stayed close by and rather than pushing the female away and battling for her attention they seemed content to wait for her as she indulged in the happy cries of our guests. Often when a female humpback is seen with more than one male whale, the males are competing to be chosen as a mate resulting in a high energy rowdy group that’s great for surface activity photo opportunities but not for an in-water encounter. So our guests this week were very lucky to experience such a relaxed set of whales, and have the rare chance to enter the water with them.

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

As the season goes on we are seeing more of this kind of flirtatious behavior between males and females as they choose their mates. Later in the week we came across another group of adult whales where the calm female was clearly controlling the tempo of the encounter. This time the female was initially with just an escort but they were soon joined by a challenger, then another and another, and another! Even though the males showed interest in the female they weren’t in a rowdy mood and we were able to get in the water once again. This time our snorkelers floated above the female as she rested under our tender with her tail up and head down and watched as the males made perimeter checks, circling her and our guests at the surface. To be in the water with this many fully grown humpback whales really was an awe-inspiring experience and for an incredible two and a half hours each tender took a turn to be with the whales. Then the female seemed to rouse and began fin slapping and moving faster, spurring the males to display to her their less sensitive side and show her who would be the strongest mate. More rowdy behavior ensued with bubble streams, trumpet blows and tail slashing. We certainly got out of the water but the excitement didn’t end there and we enjoyed the surface activity for a while longer.

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Not only did we have these fascinating encounters with adult whales we also saw several pairs of mothers and calves this week. We saw surface activity like breaching and lob tailing from both mother and calf as the new mama exercises and trains her baby and on three occasions we were very fortunate to gain the confidence of the mother and get into the water with them. One sunny morning we found a mother with her very young babe resting in a shallow area of the Silver Bank where there are many coral pinnacles, making for a beautiful back drop. While a mother humpback whale sleeps she only needs to breathe every twenty minutes or so, however for a calf this young it’s every two to three minutes. We had a wonderful view from the surface as the baby would peak out from under mom’s chin, resting there while they napped because they still can’t really control their buoyancy. Then baby would gently bob to the surface for a breath. As the calves grow they become more confident but this little boy was quite shy, staying over mom’s head making what we call the “little circle thing” before returning to tuck back under mom once again.

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

This week was one of our extended weeks on the Silver Bank and on the last day we were treated to beautiful calm seas and sunshine and another wonderful mother and calf encounter. This time the pair was not sleeping, they were slowly traveling at the surface and after observing them for a little while we slipped into the water and watched as they very leisurely cruised by for several minutes. The calf was playing alongside the mother and sometimes would lay on top of her head. It truly is a rare and precious thing for a mother whale to allow people to share in the tender bond between her and her calf and we are so happy when our guests leave with these very special memories.

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Looking back over the week we really have seen an incredible variety of behaviors and feel privileged to have been able to see the whales in their natural habitat both above and below the waves. Thank you humpback whales of the Silver Bank!

Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Juvenile brown boobies and frigate birds on the wreck of the Polyxeni | Photo Credit: Tammy McCorkle

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

Photo Credit: Nancy Gaudino

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:

www.coastalstudies.org/aquaticadventures

 

Thanks to all who have generously donated! 

LIKE us on Facebook

FOLLOW us on Twitter

Learn more about Aquatic Adventures here.

Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures

Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S27:W2

January 28 – February 4, 2017

Week Two of our 27th Season  

As the season goes on, more and more North Atlantic humpback whales are arriving to the Silver Bank. The pregnant females come here to give birth to their calves and then nurse and exercise them until they are ready for the journey back north, whereas the males come here with only one thing on their minds, and that is to mate. So it was no surprise when our second week here on the Bank was kick started with some impressive rowdy group action!  A rowdy group, or surface active group as they are sometimes called, is composed of one female and at least two males competing to be her mate. The male that stays closest to the female is called the escort and in a rowdy group any number of challenging males could be vying for that position. On the morning of the first full day out on our tenders we encountered a female with an escort and one challenger. This is technically a rowdy group, however for the female it was apparently not enough excitement as she proceeded to slap her pectoral fins on the surface of the water in a manner that certainly seemed provocative, in the hope of attracting more males to the area. Sure enough, after a few minutes more challengers arrived and soon the surface activity heated up. Now with five fully grown forty to fifty ton male whales competing for the prized position of escort, our on looking guests were treated to quite the show of testosterone as the whales slashed their tails, lob tailed and slapped their fins. In battles like this, whales are rarely seriously injured but it can get very violent and it was possible to see fresh wounds on the white pectoral fins and the tubercles on the head and chin were rubbed raw and bloody by the animals slamming into each other under and above the water. We stayed with this high energy group for nearly two hours and meanwhile our other tender was enjoying a very different but equally special encounter only a mile away.

©Bruce Miller

©Bruce Miller

As we quietly approached a single whale that we had seen coming to the surface for a few breaths, we could just hear the distinctive whoop and squeak of whale song even above the water and over the sound of the engines and we were able to locate it by following the sound. Whale song can be heard with the use of a hydrophone all over the Silver Bank this time of year but finding the singers and getting into the water with them is another story entirely as they will often move around as they sing. Fortunately this whale was staying motionless, perfectly neutrally buoyant in the typical position of horizontal but with the head pointed downward, at a depth of about forty feet.  Our lucky snorkelers were able to slip into the water and see as well as hear the whale from the surface. It has been found that all the singing humpback whales in a given population will sing the same song during the mating and calving season and that song will partially change from year to year. The song is approximately twenty five minutes long, depending on the tempo of the singer and a whale may sing continuously for up to twenty four hours. Luckily this singing whale stayed in one area for several breathing and singing cycles, allowing us to call over the other tender so that all our guests could hear him. Many species of whales vocalize but only humpbacks are famous for their prolonged and complex series of whoops, moans and squeaks that make up their song. Even if you’ve heard a recording, nothing really prepares you for the sensation of hearing and feeling the sound as it vibrates through your body as you lie at the surface of the water over the head of a singer. Later that day we came across a second singer so even though singers themselves are not rare, to be in the water with them is an experience that really very few people in the world can say they have had. Despite several of the guests this week being return visitors to the Silver Bank, this very special experience was a life changing first for most of them.

Shortly after leaving the singer we were very fortunate to find two adult whales resting calmly just below the surface. When we looked closer we could see they were dancers, a male and female, and we watched as they swam around each other slowly in a beautiful ballet that we believe to be a prelude to mating. Our guests from both tenders were able to take turns entering the water and watching this graceful performance for an hour. The female, totally at ease with our presence, would pirouette around the male displaying her belly to us with her pectoral fins outstretched. It was clear that the escort had been though the wars somewhat as he showed many scars across his back, possibly old entanglement scars, and a shortened right pec fin. However this didn’t seem to make him any less attractive to this female! We tend to see more of this kind of courting behavior at the beginning of the season because there are more single females than towards the end. Once a female becomes pregnant she will not waste time before embarking on her return journey to the nutrient rich northern waters.

Even after these incredible encounters the excitement continued, as we also encountered several sets of mothers and calves, two of which swam together for a while with an escort. This was an unusual occurrence as we have observed that mothers tend to prefer to stay away from other mothers and calves. In this case the five whales swam along side each other and the calves even breached in close succession. But after a few minutes the escort encouraged one of the pairs to move away. We stayed with the other mom and babe and were treated to a spectacular show of lob tailing from the mother before they settled down and allowed us to enter the water with them. The mother rested down below and every few minutes the baby would surface, staying over the mother’s head giving our patient snorkelers an intimate insight into the gentle bond between mother and calf. On another occasion with a mother and calf we were able to rotate the guests from both tenders in the water with the whales while they rested calmly. After a few breathing cycles the baby decided to try out a breach, swimming about a hundred feet away from our snorkelers and heaving it’s relatively small (but still fourteen foot long) body mostly out of the water, landing on its back with a splash. After this the mother seemed to say “I’ll show you how to do it!” and took off up wind a few more hundred feet away from our guests in the water and did an impressive full body, spinning head breach! Wow! A spectacular finale to the encounter!


Photo Credit: Pippa Swannell

 

This week was a real mixed bag full of emotion and excitement. Not only did we have the thrilling topside action of breaching and rowdy groups but also the peace and calm of being in the water with mothers, calves and singers.

Just another extraordinary week 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:

www.coastalstudies.org/aquaticadventures

 

Thanks to all who have generously donated! 

LIKE us on Facebook

FOLLOW us on Twitter

Learn more about Aquatic Adventures here.

Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures

Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures