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
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: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:W7

March 5 – March 12, 2016
Week Seven of our 26th Season  

Humpback whales are found in every major ocean on our planet and our guests this week were also once again drawn from far and wide to see the graceful giants of the Silver Bank, coming from as far as Germany, Switzerland and Russia as well as the relatively short hop down from the United States. As the new mothers and calves are preparing for their long journey up to the northern feeding grounds, we were treated on this seventh week of the season to plenty of exciting surface activity and in-water encounters from several sets of mums and babes.

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© Virginia Huang

Well over halfway through the season now and this year’s new calves are growing fast! Consuming approximately fifty gallons of milk a day, putting on 100 lbs and growing an inch a day, the tiny newborns are becoming big babies right before our eyes! Not only have we seen them grow dramatically over the past weeks but also have witnessed their increasing confidence; whereas before they would stick close to mum, they are now venturing further and further afield, playing and exploring the shallow calm waters of the Silver Bank and proving to be quite the handful for their mothers. Right from the start on day one this week we encountered a mother and calf fin slapping and lob tailing in the Caribbean sunshine.

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© Virginia Huang

As we watched from the tender, the excited youngster would breach further and further away from mum until eventually she would have to call the precocious calf back. To do this, the mother needs to create a loud sound; slapping their fins and flukes on the surface of the water will usually work but if the babe is lost in the excitement of their new found skills, only one action is going to be loud enough and that is the maneuver that Humpbacks are famous for, the breach! This mother found that two consecutive spinning head breaches, where she would lunge nearly her entire body out of the water, fling her pectoral fins out to spin and slap down on the surface, was just the right measure to alert her distracted calf while our lucky guests enjoyed the show from only a hundred feet away!

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Second only to the spinning head breach for noise level is the chin breach. This breach is often carried out after a spinning head breach as it requires less energy but still makes an impressive impact. By lunging straight up out of the water until half the body is exposed and then folding forward whilst cupping their ventral pleats, a loud hollow sound is produced. We saw plenty of this behavior too this week.

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As the calves get stronger and are able to travel for longer periods, the mothers will start their migration north, and as the numbers of females here on the Silver Bank decrease, so the eagerness of the males to mate increases. With this higher ratio of males to females, the likelihood of finding rowdy groups improves. Mid week we encountered one such rowdy group made up of six individuals. In an impressive display of testosterone and virility, five male whales, looking to impress the lone female, lunge breached and tail breached in a high speed battle, on and below the surface. We watched for an hour and a half as the drama unfolded, but rowdy groups such as this can go on for many hours until one male finally secures position next to the female as her escort in the hope of mating with her.

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All this excitement top side was unaffected by increasing winds as the week went on but despite the choppy seas, our guests were still able to spend plenty of time in the water with the peaceful giants once they calmed down; twice with sleeping whales and again with two more mother and calf pairs.

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© Virginia Huang

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© Virginia Huang

After another week of beautiful sunrises and sunsets out on the Silver Bank, we return to the Dominican Republic to drop off our guests with their memories and hearts full of wonderful whale encounters and with a new appreciation for these most enigmatic and graceful creatures.

 

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!

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© 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!

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© 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:W5

February 20 ~ February 27, 2016
Week Five of our 26th Season  

Mid season on the Silver Bank and the whales are everywhere! It is thought that between five and seven thousand North Atlantic Humpback whales come and go through this area over the five month calving and breeding season and as time goes by we are seeing more and more new mothers and their babies.  Newly born calves are able to swim, breathe and nurse but they stay very close to their mothers in these first few months while they build their confidence.

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This week we encountered numerous mother and calf pairs and on a sunny Tuesday afternoon one mother whale in particular allowed us a wonderful in-water encounter with her and her babe. The mother and calf were accompanied by an escort and all three whales were completely relaxed and unfazed by the presence of our two tenders and excited snorkelers. While mother and escort rested below the surface at fifteen feet, the new babe, still perfecting her buoyancy, bobbed gently to the surface every five minutes or so to take a few breaths before returning to tuck neatly under mum’s pectoral fin or chin. The relaxed trio chose to stay with us for more than five hours allowing all of our guests their turn in sharing in this most tender and special encounter with these awe-inspiring mammals. In between snoozes, when the mother rose to take breaths, she would gently balance the babe over her head in a behavior called the nose push.  This very intimate action is thought to be done directly after birth when the mother assists the calf to take her first breath and so must undoubtedly provide a comforting and bonding experience for the young whale and new mum. The encounter was made all the more special by a spectacular back drop of coral heads and crystal clear waters, very much appreciated by photographers in the group!

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Although we are thankful for every encounter no matter how long or short, with mother and calf groups at every turn it almost seemed inevitable that we would have another chance to enter the water, and sure enough, we did!  This time, as incredible as it sounds the whales actually chose us rather than the other way around! Whilst in the water with one mother/calf pair we were disheartened when they quickly moved away. However we soon discovered that the reason was because another mother/calf pair was making a bee-line for our tender and proceeded to settle right below us!!  Not wanting to miss this opportunity given to us by the mother whale, we slipped into the water and had yet another beautiful encounter. This boisterous youngster was a little livelier than the last and playfully bobbed around on the surface showing off his new found moves as a budding acrobat of the sea. We can only assume that the new mother was glad to have her energetic boy kept entertained by us as much as we were entertained by him, while she napped peacefully below. After more than an hour with the two whales we exited the water for the last time and, as if in reward for our babysitting, the mother whale awoke and performed two consecutive spinning head breaches. A perfect end to a perfect day!

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Along with the wonderful in-water encounters this week we also enjoyed dramatic top-side activity with two adult whales fin slapping for more than an hour and numerous opportunities to get that perfect fluke shot with lob-tailing whales.

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And to top off another great charter we were extremely lucky one night to hear the lullaby of a singing whale through the hull of the mother ship while we all lay in our bunks!!! The chances of a whale happening to be right under the mother ship, singing at a time when the whole boat is quiet are so slim that the phenomenon is a very rare and special thing.

Seeing humpback whales in the water for the first time is an extremely emotional and memorable experience, and this week for three very talented guests the whales got their creative juices flowing!  Thank you Cathleen, Allegra and Alicia for sharing your sketches, paintings and songs with us this week, all inspired by the beautiful Whales of the Silver Bank!

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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:W4

February 13 ~ February 20, 2016
Week Four of our 26th Season  

In perfect timing for this Valentine’s Day week on the Silver Bank, love was definitely in the air! In a dramatic change in pace from the rowdy groups of the previous week, this week brought us stunningly beautiful displays of tenderness and affection from the Whales of the Silver Bank. On both the first and second day of the charter we encountered pairs of dancing whales. It is not known precisely what this most graceful of all humpback whale behavior means but it most certainly appears to be some kind of pre-mating courtship. During one of these very special encounters all the Aquatic Adventure guests were fortunate enough to witness the spectacular and yet extremely intimate show as a male and female slowly spun and maneuvered around each other. The whales appeared to incorporate the Aquatic Adventure tenders into their ballet as they approached each tender in turn while guests and crew alike looked on in wonder. The whales would hold elegant poses, nose to nose or back to back, vertical in the water with their pectoral fins outstretched and then over and over again they would gently rise above the surface in unison for perfectly choreographed double spy hops. Spy hopping is an intriguing behavior where the whale will emerge slowly from the water showing only the top of their head, sometimes as far as the eyes but not always. It is believed that this is done in order to gather environmental data using their tubercles, located on the top of the head and chin. Every tubercle contains a single short hair named the vibrissa that acts like a cat’s whisker and can detect atmospheric conditions like wind speed and direction or to check for top-side activity like whale watching boats!  On this occasion the spy hopping, fluke raising and gentle fin slapping was all part of the dance.

©Heather Reser

©Heather Reser


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©Heather Reser

Almost half the group this week were returning guests eager to experience the serenity and thrills of the Silver Bank Whales again. And for several lucky guests these dancing giants were their very first humpback whale sightings! Regardless of whether it was for the first, second or thirteenth time (!) all the guests felt privileged to have been able to enter the water with these graceful giants and share in this unique performance. The male and female stayed with our boats for more than three and a half hours, apparently enjoying the attention and happy to interact with the lucky snorkelers.  After the whales allowing us so much time with them we decided to give the romantic couple some privacy and as we returned to the mother ship for a well earned lunch we were bid farewell with a finale of a spinning head breach!

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With this encounter alone all of our guests would have gone home happy but the excitement didn’t end there. With more and more humpbacks traveling down from northern waters, coming here for calving and breeding, even in our little corner of the bank we saw whales at every turn. We had an extended in-water encounter for close to two hours with two sleeping whales and some spectacular top-side activity from a mother, calf and escort. The new baby, most likely only a few weeks old, but still measuring in at around fourteen feet long and weighing close to two tons, practiced their newly learnt behavior of lob tailing over and over again while the mother and escort swam on either side. When the escort and mother began fin slapping too we dropped back and enjoyed the show from a distance, not wanting to interfere in the young calf’s training! Over the next few weeks this season’s new calves will continue to develop their skills and build up their strength in preparation for when their mothers guide them on their long journey up to the northern feeding grounds. Until then, we can enjoy watching the babies as they grow up and look forward to seeing many more as the season goes on.

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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:W3

February 6 ~ February 13, 2016
Week Three of our 26th Season  

As the sun rose over the horizon on the Silver Bank, so began our third week of the Humpback Whale season here in the Dominican Republic. Three of our guests this week had birthdays during the charter and what better way to celebrate your birthday than to be out on the open sea, watching The Whales of the Silver Bank in all their splendor!

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Spirits were high as the week kicked off with some spectacular surface activity from more than three different mother and calf pairs on our first day out on the tenders. Mothers and calves are often accompanied by an adult male whale, termed an Escort, that will swim alongside or in the general vicinity of the female in the hope of mating with her. Although an Escort would never normally show any aggression towards the female or her calf, their presence can sometimes be an irritation to a mother whose only focus is to wean and teach her newborn. If other males challenge the escort’s position, the resulting heated battles between the escort and challengers can be stressful for the new mum and babe.  On this first morning of whale watching the mother and calf pairs that we encountered were unencumbered by escorts and appeared to be relaxed and happy in the Dominican sunshine. The first juvenile we observed was full of the joys of spring, practicing their newly learnt postures and poses with multiple chin breaches and full body breaches, over and over again with seemingly unending energy! This provided fantastic photographic opportunities for our guests and as both mother and baby began to calm down and rest we were able to enter the water and capture priceless images and memories of the two whales as they cruised under the tender, mere feet below the snorkelers at the surface.

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© Michael Housley

The lucky guests had many opportunities throughout the week to experience the whales up close and personal. We had more in-water encounters with mothers and calves and some spectacular surface activity from rowdy groups. One of the rowdy groups consisted of six whales; a mother, calf, escort and three challenging males vying for the attentions of the female. A maelstrom of fin slapping, lob-tailing, breaching and lunging, often only 10 or 20 feet from the tender! After all that excitement we had a wonderful chance to really appreciate the gentle giants with both tenders getting to spend nearly an hour in the water with a pair of sleeping adults, observing from only a few feet away as the sleepy marine mammals gracefully made their way to the surface to breathe every 25 minutes or so.

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The highlight of the week for many of our guests and crew alike was the chance to hear a singing whale for the second week in a row!  While exiting the water after a fly-by with a mother, calf and escort, one of our whale crew recognized the distinctive whoops and squeals of a singing whale some distance away. After some exploratory dips in the area by Aquatic Adventures team member of 13 years, Lorenzo Martinez – the human hydrophone! – we were able to pin-point the singer’s exact location and spend several minutes in the water with the musical whale before he moved on to serenade in another area of the Silver Bank.

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© Al Weisher

Our last afternoon out on the water brought some wet and windy weather but this deterred neither the guests nor the whales and we were treated to the awesome sight of a triple full-body breach by three adult whales providing an impressive finale for the week!

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© Michael Housley

 

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

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

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W9

March 21 ~ March 28, 2015
Week Nine of our 25th Season

Lengthening days on the Silver Bank mark the return of Spring, and coincide with a stirring inside its cetacean visitors. Whales steeped in the warm waters of the tropics begin to consider the long journey home, back to the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the North. Although five to seven thousand humpbacks pass through the Silver Bank in a given winter, most will not stay the entire duration. Some arrive early and leave early, others arrive later or remain longer. Mothers with growing calves tend to be in this latter group, allowing the vulnerable young the best opportunity to gain strength and coordination.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

Accordingly, this week’s in-water encounters are dominated by mother and calf pairs. In one instance, we enjoy multiple rounds with a sleeping mother and active calf, mama immobile below while her baby spins and splashes above. The demands of caring for an active, growing calf are extreme, and rest for humpback mothers is undoubtedly a rare and valued commodity (especially late in the season as baby gets more autonomous and therefore harder to manage). This mother appears oblivious to the humans floating quietly above, but another visitor nevertheless interrupts her nap: a large spotted eagle ray passing just over her head startles her into kicking off. Not for long though; she quickly settles again, granting us an extra hour in her presence. Another encounter with a mother, calf and escort trio also comes with a unique twist: a pod of curious dolphins materializes around the trio, weaving among and around their heads. Baby appears delighted, but escort less so: he tail slashes at the much smaller cetaceans as if their presence were a nuisance to him (it seems dolphins are like gnats to a grown whale: inconsequential and unacknowledged, except when they invade personal space). Unlike escort, we enjoy the dolphin presence for several minutes before they dart away again, high-pitched squeaks fading into the distance.

© Susan Bird

© Susan Bird

Other mother and calf encounters result in some fantastic surface activity this week. Babies grown strong on mother’s milk are showing off their skills now, and the effort is always exciting to watch. Multiple breach sequences by baby are frequent, with occasional demonstrations by mom as well. One baby breaches for nearly an hour, his growing coordination readily evident, as mom lazily fin slaps in the background.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

Other surface activity is picking up as well: rowdy groups form frequently in late season as competition heightens for a dwindling number of estrous females.  Like mothers with calves, lone males tend to linger on the Silver Bank, eager for a last chance to contribute their genes to the next generation. We are witness to several different rowdy groups in our first 24 hours this week, and another to finish off the week. The early rowdy group encounters this week exemplify grace more than violence: rows of arcing backs streaming with water, turquoise pec fins gliding just below the surface. The last group is more violent: bloody tubercles and dorsal fins testament to the heated nature of this battle. Nature has established the imperative to mate, and these males are certainly answering the call.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

A last encounter with a singer completes a varied week. Like several before him this season, this male pauses head down in the water column, perhaps the better to project his mournful-sounding song. Seemingly unlike the others, though, this singer includes a number of extremely prolonged squeals. All humpbacks in a given population sing the same song, though it does evolve throughout the year; perhaps this individual is adding his own unique twist to the template.

Another varied week on the Silver Bank, and another week of beautiful sunny days and starry nights!

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