March 18 – March 25, 2017
Week Nine of our 27th Season
We are approaching the tail end of the season here on the Silver Bank, the largest of the Caribbean breeding and calving grounds, ninety nautical miles off shore of the Dominican Republic. However, for this, our ninth week, there were still plenty of humpbacks around and the encounters certainly did not decrease. Straight away on the very first day we had two very contrasting and special encounters; another visit from our playful friends the spotted dolphins and some of our guests had the chance to enter the water with a snoozing single male whale!
Day two brought mirror calm seas, stunning Dominican sunshine and more incredible whale encounters! We spotted a mother whale with her calf at the surface, ever so slowly moving along. Mother logged at the surface while baby played, gently splashing and rolling at her side. We stayed with the relaxed pair for a while, keeping our distance to gain the confidence of the mother and we were soon able to enter the water for a closer look. Mother and babe appeared completely at ease with our presence and most of the time the mother whale had her eyes shut resting while the calf flopped over her head and gently flapped its pectoral fins. This wonderfully tranquil encounter lasted so long that we actually were able to share these generous whales with our other tender. A “dine and dash” (where one group heads back to the mother ship for a quick lunch while the other enjoys the encounter and vice versa) meant that everyone had the opportunity to be in the water with this peaceful mom and calf. After the whole morning with these sleepy whales and the “dine and dash” the pair began to wake up a little and we were treated to some more energetic surface activity. The mother whale chin breached and baby followed suit, and then they did it again in unison!
The term chin breach is used when the whale rises up out of the water half way, cups in its ventral pleats and slams its body back down on the surface. This breach makes a lot of noise and is thought to be used for communication, however with mother and calf doing it together it was most likely baby training time and calf was receiving a demonstration from mom. The mother needs to build her calf’s strength, with both swimming and breaching skills, before they embark on the long journey to the northern feeding grounds. The lesson continued with spinning head breaching and lob tailing; it was very cute to watch the young calf’s attempts, barely lifting its little fluke out of the water and splashing it down again, over and over. This entertaining show of surface activity brought our in-water encounter to an end but provided great photographic opportunities before the pair moved on. This generous mother allowed us to stay with her and her calf from 9am until 4:30pm giving us a rare insight into a day in the life of a North Atlantic humpback whale and her babe.
As well as wonderfully calm encounters like this we have also seen some spectacular surface activity this week. One morning we came across four adult whales in a rowdy group, a female, an escort and two challenging males. The escort blew bubble streams, thought to act as a way to obscure the challenger’s view of the female but could also be an efficiency in breathing allowing the whale to take in a quick breath and return down into the fray with minimal time at the surface. A lot of the action occurred under the water but with the bright sunshine and clear water we could see the massive beasts maneuvering around each other, their bright white pectoral fins clearly visible from above the surface. All the while the female continued to fin slap, soliciting for more attention, presumably to widen her options for a potential mate!
The wonderful thing about observing nature is its unpredictability and our next encounter was completely different once again. This time we spotted two adults surfacing to breathe. Each time the pair came up for a few breaths between periods of resting below they would do some kind of surface activity, breaching or lob tailing. After a while they calmed down and we slipped into the water. Now, rather than sleeping the female began a ballet of sorts, turning gracefully and curiously cruising by our on looking snorkelers while the male hung around a short distance away. The female did this moving on a few body lengths each time, and in this way all the guests on that tender were able to enter the water several times with her and her escort. In another encounter with two adults we were treated to some more interesting surface behavior. This time the female rested below while the male performed some spectacular tail breaches and lob tailing. He no doubt also considered our tender to be a distraction for his female as he proceeded to fin slap over and over, more than thirty times, at the surface above her. He did this while rotating, rolling to take a breath every five or six slaps. This was surely an impressive show of testosterone and masculinity to ward off any challengers in the area.
This week our guests enjoyed beautiful sunshine and also bravely endured rain and clouds but the awesome encounters, both serenely peaceful and full of high octane action, more than made up for some grey skies. After our last day, with whales breaching on the horizon and rainbows adorning the clouds we headed back to the mother ship for our final beautiful Caribbean sunset of the week!
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!
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Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures