An adventure trip offers a week of close encounters
|by Mary L. Peachin
Published January 25, 2004
|PUERTO PLATA, Dominican Republic — Here we are, in the midst of a three-month-long orgy.
All around us, whales are breaching, finning and slapping their tails on the water, as males–their testosterone off the scale–single-mindedly focus on one goal: finding and copulating with an agreeable female.
And we are in the water with them.
Our weeklong snorkeling adventure began the night before, 85 miles away at Puerto Plata, when we boarded the Wind Dancer, a 120-foot, live-aboard scuba boat that sleeps 18.
In the morning, while we are moored on Silver Bank, the ships whale expert, Tom Conlin, gives us our introductory briefing.
Conlin is passionate about the whales–his “darlings.” Since whales are afraid of bubbles from dive regulators, we e limited to snorkeling–no scuba diving. He cautions us that anyone who chases or threatens a whale will be asked to get out of the water. His goal is for everyone to leave the Banks wanting to help the conservation of all whales.
“Our first encounter will probably be a fly-by so all of you can get your first whale fix,” he tells us. During this “blow and go,” well just watch the whales surfacing, but if we are downwind, he advises, don breathe their mist. “Its smelly and oily, and not good for camera lenses–just turn around.”
As for spotting the whales, “The bow is 12 oclock, and distance is measured by boat lengths; just tell us, 2 oclock, three lengths away.” Whales follow a pattern, he explains, and when they sound (dive) they leave a fluke print.
Whales don typically swim toward snorkelers. Well approach only females, especially those with calves; a nursing whale doesn move as rapidly and isn as likely to move off when swimmers cautiously approach. Well even approach a female with a male escort since the male is more interested in her than the snorkelers.
But, he assures us, “we won drop you into an aggressive, rowdy group [within which whales use their barnacle-covered dorsal fins to slash each other] or any fin slappers.”
With more than a dozen males sometimes competing for a single female, the scene can be like “a Friday night happy-hour at the rowdiest bar in town,” he says. “By 2 in the morning, there are only a few males left.”
To better track the whales, Conlin and Wind Dancers captain, Brett Sussman, use stopwatches to time the calves, who surface every four to five minutes to breathe. Most of the youngsters are like kids in their “terrible twos,” Conlin says. “The calves may be curious about us, but we need moms permission. If a whale turns direction twice, we leave them alone. We always give them their space.”
We begin our in-water experience on a ship tender, learning the “seal” entry. On our bellies, with mask and fins on and cameras in hand, we are to ease quietly into the water, trying not to make a splash.
When we sight a whale, we should “seal” quietly into the water, hoping it will become curious and swim toward us. We are told to swim barely moving our fins.
The Wave Dancer has never had a whale accident, but an encounter can change in a minute if another whale shows up. Dive fins are a necessity for the current and to help in avoiding the danger of a tail slap.
Each day, we board the tenders at 8:30 a.m., then take a break back on the boat from noon to 2 p.m., before heading out again for three more hours each afternoon. We are all responsible for scanning for whales, especially the obliging, slow-moving ones that will provide the best “soft-in-water” close-up encounters rather than “fly-bys.”
Even when the “whale waiting” seems slow, there is exciting surface activity to watch. Nearby and in the distance, we see whales breaching. A rowdy group, their dorsal fins bloodied from fighting to become the alpha male, pass near a tender, chasing a female and calf away from us. Several times Conlin drops hydrophones into the water so we can hear the range of the whales song.
One morning, the group on the ships other tender has a dozen whale encounters–plus one “soft-in-water” experience with a school of a half dozen offshore spotted dolphins and their 2-foot newborns. “It went,” says one of the group later, “beyond the script.”
In our tender, we are satisfied with four immature “rowdies” (a group which, for some unknown reason, sometimes includes females) that give us a close-up view of their bloody dorsal fins as they swim under our boat.
Then we find a 45-foot mom and her 15-foot calf being followed by an escort, a young male hoping to court her. “Sealing” into the water, we watch as they circle us no more than 5 to 10 feet away, rising to the surface, in one of our best encounters. Two more fly-bys, and it is time to break for lunch.
Another day, we are on the lucky tender. We have been following a mother and a calf for a while when she turns radically twice–a signal that she isn interested in us. Sussman, who is piloting this tender, steers away. But then we find another female with a baby.
The first of our in-water encounters is probably the most exciting, as the calf plays and nuzzles with its mother at a depth of about 30 feet. We float and watch for about 15 minutes, but the third time the baby surfaces for air, he breaches nearby, missing us by only a few feet. Then mom tail-breaches, slapping the water to tell us “enough.” We have worn out our welcome, and we get out of the water.
After the whales “settle,” we again enter the water, and this time we see the baby nursing. Sussman calls Conlin to bring over the other tender, and we leave the water so their snorkelers can share this spectacular experience. Later, when it is our turn to enter the water again, the baby is upright as if standing on its tail. Altogether, we spend about three hours with this mom and her calf.
Every day there are new experiences. One day we find another female and calf settled in deeper water. At a hundred feet below us, our best view initially is of the white pectoral fins and the calf coming to the surface to breathe. She nuzzles her mom, frolics before surfacing, then flaps her pectoral fins before rejoining her mother. Every third or fourth time, the mother surfaces with the calf and moves off. Throughout the morning both tenders take turns observing this routine until mom tires of us and leaves.
That same afternoon we find a mom and calf with two escorts. The calf, we determine by observing its hemispherical lobe, is a female. But we are unable to determine the sex of the escorts, though we assume one or both are males.
As on any dive trip, there are days when you see lots of stuff, and days when you don . The same is true when snorkeling with Silver Bank humpbacks, and on our last day, we have only about half a dozen quick “fly-bys” in the morning and even fewer in the afternoon.
As Conlin had told us, this “is not Sea World or Shamu.” But despite cloudy skies and poor visibility, the waters had been calm, and we have had a good week of encounters.
Only about 20,000 people in the entire world, we had been told, have ever been in the water with humpback whales. And now we are among them too.
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