Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S26:W9

March 19 ~ March 26, 2016
Week Nine of our 26th Season

As the weeks roll on and we approach the end of the Humpback whale mating and calving season here on the Silver Bank, 90 miles offshore of the Dominican Republic, the very special and unique encounters with our acrobatic friends have not diminished in any way. In fact the excitement, certainly top side, has been increasing as the need to breed before returning to the feeding grounds becomes all the more urgent! Mothers and calves have also this week been providing us with some spectacular shows as the calves continue to grow and gain strength. One morning we encountered a mother with her baby who proved to be quite the handful for the new mum but to the delight of our on looking guests, the calf, full of the joys of spring, breached thirty five times in a row! A new calf will do this quite often when they start to realize their abilities and want to practice over and over; simply because they can! Wonderful photographic opportunities and a great way to start the week off with a bang!

Not only was the surface activity spectacular but our fortunate guests got to witness something quite unusual this week when we encountered two whales at the surface that appeared a little different…they were very small! Most of the North Atlantic Humpbacks that migrate down to the Silver Bank are here for the very specific reason of calving or  mating. Humpbacks reach sexual maturity at around four years of age. Although it is difficult to age a humpback whale without proper DNA testing, these two youngsters could not have been more than one or two years old and so their reason for being here in the Dominican Republic was not so apparent. Like some of the dancing whales we have been fortunate to see this season, these whales could have been a male and a female engaging in some kind of pre-mating flirtation but to our casual observers it appeared more like a couple of young friends “hanging out”. The whales rolled and bobbed at the surface for more than three hours close to our tenders, allowing our excited snorkelers to watch from a few meters away as they spy-hopped and gently slashed their tails in the surf. This interesting encounter reminds us that we are still guessing at the meaning of much of the behavior we see from these fascinating creatures and that we still have so much to learn about these mysterious giants.

We may travel from all over the world to see the Whales of the Silver Bank, but occasionally we do see other marine mammals here too! This week we were treated to an encounter with a twenty strong pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins! These wonderfully playful and curious animals delighted in swimming and jumping around our tender and snorkelers, allowing yet another rare and special opportunity to experience wild animals in their natural environment.

 

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

LIKE us on Facebook
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Learn more about Aquatic Adventures here.

Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S26:W8

March 12 ~ March 19, 2016
Week Eight of our 26th Season  

This all singing, all dancing week on the Silver Bank got off to a great start and our guests had no idea just how lucky they were when the very first whale we encountered turned out to be a singer! For almost all of our guests, this was the first time they had heard a Humpback whale sing and everyone was fascinated by the complexity and range of sounds produced by the lone male who was most likely searching for a mate. The Humpback’s song is usually around twenty five minutes long and some have been recorded singing it over and over for more than twenty four hours. Some singers will remain in one place while they sing, rising to the surface to breathe every 15 minutes or so and returning to the same spot, while others will slowly swim while they sing. With this whale we were able to float over the musical giant for two breath cycles before he moved on to serenade in a different area of the Bank.

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The good fortune continued when the very next morning we encountered another not so common phenomenon, dancing whales! Although this season we have actually been very lucky to have encountered several sets of dancers, it is always a privilege to see this beautiful behavior between a male and female whale. More often than not, the female will lead the graceful dance while the male simply stays close by but on this occasion the male appeared to be posturing along with the female and at one point the female held motionless, head down in the water while the male circled around her. It was a stunningly beautiful show and one we will never forget.

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As the week went on with beautiful sunshine and calm seas, the whale encounters heated up with four sightings of large rowdy groups. As the season goes by and many females start their journey back to the northern feeding grounds, the numbers of males fighting over potential mates increase and the rowdy groups this week were larger and more violent than before, providing us with some spectacular surface activity! It is an awe-inspiring sight to see eight fully grown male whales all come to the surface at once in a high speed race to defend their position next to a female. As the whales surfaced we saw bubble streams, lunge breaches and tail breaches as displays of virility and strength. We were also lucky enough to see a behavior called the “S curve” which is when a whale moving at high speed suddenly throws out their pectoral fins, effectively “slamming on the brakes”, and maneuvers to displace a challenging whale from their position next to the female. During one rowdy group encounter this week, two whales actually slammed into each other, dorsal to dorsal as they surfaced only a hundred feet from one of the tenders! Watery battles like this can go on for hours and it is common to see bloody tubercles and damaged dorsal fins as evidence that the fight was going on a lot longer before we came across them!

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With the beautiful singer, the graceful dancers and the excitement of the rowdy groups, the week was made even more perfect by in-water encounters with a mother and calf and a pair of sleeping whales. Our guests really couldn’t have wished for a better week out 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

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 S26:W6

February 27 ~ March 5, 2016
Week Six of our 26th Season  

The North Atlantic Humpback Whales travel great distances every year from the feeding grounds of the North East coast of the United States, Iceland, Newfoundland and even Norway to the Silver Bank, approximately 90 miles north of the Dominican Republic. Like many migrating animals the reason is unknown but is surely for a combination of benefitting factors such as a safe environment with no predators to give birth and rear their young and warm waters to rid themselves of the cold water parasites from northern seas. But no matter what the reason, thousands of whales make their way here, enduring weeks or months of fasting in order to do so. Those that are not giving birth this season will have only one thing on their minds and that is procreation. Adult male Humpbacks will travel here with the intention of mating with as many females as possible in order to pass their genes on to the next generation. Young males will travel here to learn from the older males and perfect their techniques in fighting in order to be able to compete with the older males when they return as sexually mature adults. The females, however, just need to get pregnant and once they do they will hastily return to the productive and nutrient rich waters of the north, but that is not to say that some won’t take their time in choosing a suitable mate!

© Susan Bird

© Susan Bird

Almost all of the Humpback whale behaviors we encounter on the Silver Bank are in some way associated with mating, whether it is soliciting for a mate by fin slapping or singing, asserting dominance over other whales in order to impress a potential mate by breaching and lob tailing or fighting to secure position next to a potential mate by warding off challenging whales.

So far this year we have been extremely lucky to encounter many whales displaying the behavior we associate with pre-mating courtship, dancing. And this sixth week of the season was exceptional! On three consecutive days we came across the same female, identifiable by a distinctive scar on her ventral side, and each time she was with a different escort! She was certainly taking her time allowing the male humpbacks of the Silver Bank to show off their stuff and prove to her that they should be the one she should choose.  Each time we encountered the female she would begin her gentle and sultry display right under and around our tenders almost as if she were flirting with both the escort and us! Usually the male escort would simply tolerate her curiosity in us and stay with her but keep his distance, circling every so often to carry out a perimeter check for potential challenging males. However on one occasion the escort joined in with the playful female and once again we were treated to a rare and unique ballet where both male and female turned and pirouetted in unison.  This graceful and beautiful display gave us a privileged insight into the whales’ private lives, not only allowing us to observe them passively in their own environment but also to be invited into their intimate performance as they interacted with us, expertly maneuvering and gliding through the water only a few feet from the awe-inspired guests.  It was unanimous amongst the guests and crew alike that this last suitor, with his patience and artistic flare should be her choice of partner!

© Susan Bird

© Susan Bird

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With Humpback whales being as large and powerful as they are; adults measuring between 40 and 45 feet in length and weighing in at between 30 and 40 tons, when interactions become a little heated, we of course cannot enter the water, content to enjoy the top-side show and awesome photographic opportunities. On one such occasion this week we encountered an amorous trio of whales where a female had attracted the attentions of two males. While the curious female stayed close to our tender, the escort and challenging whale displayed their prowess with tail slashes and trumpet blows much to the delight of our onlooking guests. A trumpet blow is when a whale constricts their blow holes whilst exhaling to produce a loud, hollow note to demonstrate power and aggression much like the roar of a lion or the trumpet of an elephant.

On top of all this action and romance, our already overjoyed passengers experienced great surface activity as well as the chance to spend time in the water with sleeping whales and two very special encounters with mothers and calves.  It truly is a privilege every time a mother gains our confidence and allows us the great honor of watching over her calf while she rests below. If you were to ask for the most treasured memory of those who have been fortunate enough to be in the water with a humpback whale, the answer would undoubtedly be a mother and calf encounter. There is nothing quite like witnessing so intimately the bond between a new mum and babe.

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This mother whale with the disfigured fluke has been identified as “Victim” from the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue. She is often sighted by whale watchers out of Bar Harbor, ME and Brier Island, Nova Scotia as well as on the Silver Bank, with her earliest sighting possibly in 1988! Recent sightings with a calf: 2011, 2014 & 2016 (Sighting data sourced from citizen science accounts on Facebook & Flikr)Silver Bank-1729

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**Whale ID update** On returning to port after this fabulous week we were able to get online and discovered that our beautiful dancing female that we spent so much time with this week could be positively identified as the same whale we encountered in week four, dancing with another escort! It would appear that she really is quite choosy! She has already been nicknamed (an official name has not been given to this particular whale) “Mojo” by whale watch operators out of Virginia Beach and has been sighted in Newfoundland since at least 2008! It’s so wonderful to make the connections, and know that our Silver Bank whales are making their migrations safely year after year! Here’s hoping that we see “Mojo” next year, perhaps with a new calf!

 

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

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 S26:W2

January 30 – February 6, 2016
Week Two of our 26th Season

It’s week two on the Silver Bank and more Humpback Whales are making their way down to the Caribbean calving and breeding grounds. Also traveling from afar to join us were our guests this week coming all the way from Germany, Austria and Italy along with six from the USA and three home-grown guests from the Dominican Republic. We love it when people from all over the world come to share in the majesty and beauty of the Silver Bank whales and return home with unforgettable memories and photos.

Inevitably, with the steady influx of whales, including an increasing number of sexually mature males with only mating on their minds, tensions run high. We were treated this week to some spectacular Rowdy Group behavior, so named for the high spirited activities of two or more males competing over a female in estrous. A female will return to estrous directly after giving birth regardless of whether her mind is on reproduction or not and with potential suitors determined to be the one at her side no matter what, it can be difficult sometimes for a mother to keep her newly born calf a safe distance from the fighting males. During one particularly heated encounter this week a desirable female, with her calf, was being pursued by an escort and three other challenging whales. As the powerful, fully grown, 45 foot males weaved and dived around each other the mother whale appeared very distressed by the ordeal, attempting to ward off the males with high pitched trumpet blows and by slashing and lobbing her tail at them. She maneuvered her calf into the safety of her slipstream across her back so it could keep up with the group. Although we, on the Aquatic Adventures tender, attempted to maintain a safe distance from the watery brawl, we realized that the female was again and again approaching us in the hope that the males would leave her and her baby in peace. This tactic did not deter the single-minded males and made for an especially thrilling encounter for all of us on the boat, with close-up surface activity as the whales rammed and lunged at each other, fighting for pole position.

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The wonderful variety of whale encounters this week were thankfully not all so intense and every guest was lucky enough to have prolonged in-water experiences with sleeping whales, a settled and relaxed mother and calf and even a lone singing whale! Many people in their lives will have heard some kind of Humpback Whale song, whether it is on their meditation CD, the ring tone on their phone or even an actual unedited recording from a hydrophone. However to be in the water, floating only fifty feet over the head of the singing animal, is to be one of only very few people in a very exclusive club! Although other species of whales are known to vocalize, it is shown that only Humpbacks actually sing a tune with a recognizable pattern. This same complex arrangement of moans, squeaks and bellows will be sung by all the North Atlantic Humpback Whales this year and will change for next year. Different regional populations of Humpbacks, such as the Pacific Humpbacks, will sing a different arrangement, much like differing languages or regional accents amongst humans. The enigmatic song of the Humpback is thought to be sung only by males and most likely done to attract a mate. During the mating season here in the Dominican Republic, the Silver Bank (along with neighboring breeding and calving grounds, Mouchoir Bank and Navidad Bank) will of course be alive with song but to hear the singing whales first hand is a rare and special experience that we often only encounter once or twice a season.

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After a week full of contrasts, from the fast paced excitement of the rowdy groups to the tender gentleness of mother and calf interactions,  we felt privileged to have yet another special encounter on the last day. Like the proverbial icing on the cake our final encounter of the week was a dancing whale! Late in the afternoon we spotted a pair of adults, most likely a male and female. They circled the tender twice, relaxed but clearly feeling playful and curious. When we entered the water we witnessed the female gracefully turning and displaying her belly to the snorkelers while the male swam between the coral mounds below. This made for a truly beautiful end to the week as we made our way back to the mother ship and the sun slipped slowly below the horizon on the Silver Bank.

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Written by: Pippa Swannell, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures

 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S26:W1

January 23 – January 30, 2016
Week One of our 26th Season 

As thousands of North Atlantic Humpback whales make their annual migration from icy, nutrient rich northern waters down to the warmth of the tropical Southern Caribbean, Aquatic Adventures began their 26th year on the Silver Bank.

Day one, week one and the whales were already putting on a stunning show. After a wet and windy crossing with high seas (due to the winter storm that struck the Eastern seaboard) from the Dominican Republic to the shallow and protected underwater plateau that is the Silver Bank, this season’s first guests were treated to a wonderful display of surface activity from a newly arrived mother humpback, calf and adult male escort.  Mother and baby breached and fin slapped, enjoying the Caribbean sunshine while despite impressive displays of fin slapping and tail breaching, the mother seemed uninterested in the male’s advances and remained close to the tender. This acceptance of us by the mother resulted in everyone having their first unique opportunity to enter the water and see the gentle giants in their natural environment numerous times for both tenders.  By simply floating at the surface and observing the whales passively, termed a “soft-in-water encounter”, our guests get to experience the whales on their terms and in this case the mother’s ease with us led to a fantastic first day.  To see the intimate interaction between a mother and her calf as the baby returns to tuck itself under the pectoral fin of mama after taking a breath at the surface, is a truly emotional and heartwarming sight. With such a relaxed mother and calf and an escort that tolerated our presence, a few of the guests that were initially extremely anxious to get in the water, with help and guidance from the whale crew, forgot their inhibitions and couldn’t wait to get in the water again.

 
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During the week many more encounters provided great surface activity and numerous chances to enter the water, despite the windy conditions. On the final day as the sun came out and the seas calmed we decided to stay out over lunch, so as not to miss any opportunities and boy are we glad we did!!  With a light lunch and plenty of snacks to keep people’s energy up we encountered 3 separate pairs of mothers and calves with surface activity and “soft-in-water” encounters lasting from 10:30 in the morning till 4:30 in the afternoon. We found a mother, calf and escort in the sheltered clear water area where there are hundreds of large coral heads. This is a fantastic place to see the whales under the water as they maneuver between the coral, so graceful in their enormity, you really get a feel for their size; it’s a very humbling and peaceful experience.  In the afternoon the excitement picked up again when we had the season’s first sighting of a rowdy group where typically 2 or more (sometimes as many as 15 or 20) males will jostle and duel to gain access to a potential mate.  On this occasion four whales were involved but we look forward to many more impressive displays as the season unfolds.

 
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Not only was everyone entertained out on the water but also aboard the mother ship, the Turks and Caicos Explorer II, where guests and crew alike were lucky enough to have the musical talents of Blake Miller and Robert Aukerman from Colorado on acoustic guitar and Chicago boy Larry Saint Germain on drums to keep us entertained after a busy day out enjoying the “Whales of the Silver Bank”!

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A fantastic start, looks like things are shaping up for an amazing season!

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

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 S24:W9

March 22 – March 29, 2014
A Symphony of Whales 

The song of the humpback whale is unique among cetacean vocalizations in its complexity. Indeed, it has been described by one acoustics researcher as “strikingly similar” to human musical compositions. Like us, humpback whales appear to utilize the larynx to produce sound, though they lack vocal cords like ours; the exact mechanism of sound production remains unknown. We do know that the song follows a hierarchical structure, with distinct phrases and themes, and in its entirety may last up to 30 minutes. Consistent among humpbacks in a given population, the song nevertheless slowly evolves; notes rise or flatten, combinations change.

This video taken during week four has a soundtrack courtesy of a male humpback whale: Bounce and Baby

Mysterious and haunting, humpback song is detectable through the aquatic realm for hundreds or even thousands of miles. Though its exact purpose remains unclear, it’s thought that it may play a role in mate selection (only male humpbacks are known with certainty to sing; the song may help males communicate fitness to females). This week on the Silver Bank, we encounter a male singer trailing after a mother and calf pair. Mom and baby drift along at the surface, eyes closed, while the male emits a variety of squeaks and whoops below. The song is powerful enough to be felt, and (at least to us) sounds plaintive. Is she indifferent? Asleep? Or do her stillness and closed eyes indicate rapture? Later in the week, we encounter another singer, his underwater notes audible through the boat hull. This one appears to be alone and on the move, a traveling one-man band.

© Jeff Reed

© Jeff Reed

In addition to singers, we have another fantastic week of mother and calf interactions. On one day, we spend at least 6 hours with a single mother and calf. This big baby seems to have more control than most youngsters, and his impressive grace is on display for hours as he surfaces repetitively among us. On another day, we spend 5 hours with a mother who orients herself vertically, nose to the seafloor and pec fins splayed. Her baby tries to mimic her position, but without mom’s pec fin to slip beneath she keeps floating tail first to the surface. It’s not clear why this mom has assumed her atypical position, but one might posit that she is demonstrating some tough love, encouraging baby to practice her buoyancy. Midway through the latter encounter, a lovely surprise: a second mother & calf (with escort) who pass directly below us, interacting only briefly with “our” whales.

© Tom Conlin/Aquatic Adventures

© Tom Conlin/Aquatic Adventures

Another mother and calf encounter this week exemplifies the saying “anything can happen at any time.” We are with the pair for two hours before the encounter is interrupted by the arrival of four more whales: a second mother, calf and escort trio, and a challenger. The challenger has clearly been battling in recent days for mating rights; his dorsal fin is torn nearly free from his body, the wound still raw. He immediately joins the original mom and calf pair, then both trios begin interacting with us: swirling around, trailing off, turning to come right back again. There are multiple spy hops and some impressive posturing from the males; the babies frequently dart towards one another. Though the scene appears disordered from above, all six whales circle us with exceptional grace and calm, rarely impeding on our space and never acting in the least way threatening towards us. Indeed, they seem overwhelmingly curious, passing just below us and rolling sideways for a better look.  All six whales stick around for at least an hour, then abruptly depart.

© Jeff Reed

© Jeff Reed

Surface activity doesn’t disappoint this week, either: we encounter a mother and calf pair that aren’t keen on us being in the water with them, but do oblige with some fantastic tail lobbing and at least 30 breaches. On our last day, the week’s gorgeous weather and calm waters concede to rougher seas, and it’s deemed too rough (for the first time this season) to go out in the tenders. But even with this setback, expectations are more than met during an impressive and unique week on the Silver Bank!

© Heather Reser

© Heather Reser

 

 

Just 1 more week 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.

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

 

 

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