Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic is about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Puerto Plata and is only accessible on a liveaboard. It is one of two places in the world where you can legally get in the water with humpback whales and only about 630 snorkelers are allowed to go each season (January – April). However, in water encounters are restricted to a few situations only that include sleeping whales, singing males or a “Valentine” when the male is courting the female and the two are gently dancing around each other.
The majority of the expedition had no in water encounters as the whales were constantly on the move so it turned into a glorified whale watching trip. However, the above water interactions were numerous and close and included breaches and pectoral slaps. For those who have not experienced humpbacks then these encounters were second to none. Unable to get in the water we resorted to hanging our cameras over the boat and blindly shooting towards the whales hoping to capture them under water. Fortunately, we were able to get some reasonable shots.
A female that has given birth to a calf will generally have males competing for her attention and mating rights. There is an escort, a male that currently has battled off his competitors and swims next to the female and calf. Then there is the challenger, another male that is attempting to replace the escort. Battles between males occur and the winner temporarily becomes the escort until another males challenges. The mother and calf, as well as the escort and challenger, can be seen in this photo.
Unfortunately, it was not until the last day that we came across a mother and a calf that had no accompanying males. The mother can sleep for 25 minutes but the calf needs to come up for air every few minutes. This mother was stationary at about 40 feet and the calf would swim from beside her or under her to the surface, breath and return to her. This was our only good underwater encounter of the week.
Upon reflection, these are wild animals and interactions with them are on their terms. Sometimes they give us only a brief moment to share their world and at other times we get lucky and have numerous and spectacular encounters.
Larry & I have committed ourselves to help with the Village of Hope and the farm in Bulale. Each year we spend a couple of months helping on site. While Larry was busy at the farm developing infrastructure projects (future post), I enjoyed spending time with the children at the Village of Hope. This school is one of 10 Village of Hope locations in Africa and opened in April 2018. Both the Lower Class (Junior Kindergarten in North America) & Upper Class (Senior Kindergarten) have approximately 17 children who were chosen because they were ‘at risk’ for a variety of reasons and may not have otherwise had the chance to attend school. I spent most of my time with the Upper Class and really came to know them & their amazing teacher, Betty.
I was really impressed that these kids didn’t know English when they started school and only 6 months later are taught exclusively in English. They take pride in their work and were happy to show me what they were working on.
A huge advantage of the small class size is the chance for one-on-one attention when needed.
Mid-morning they are served a nutritious porridge which they really look forward to.
Two different encounters with humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) during our Mexican holiday make up this post. The first experience was breaching humpbacks while in Cabo San Lucas (Baja California Sur) on the Pacific Ocean side. We followed three whales for about an hour and only had them break the surface to breathe. Shortly after this, they got more active and for about 5 minutes and they breached a number of times.
We have over 500 dives and have never encountered humpback whales underwater. In Hawaii, we have heard the males singing during our dives but they always seem to avoid us. All that changed in the Socorro islands (Revillagigedo Archipelago). We had a very brief encounter (about 10 -15 seconds) with a mother and her calf. They were moving toward us but immediately turned away to avoid us, but this allowed for a couple of quick photographs. This was a very surreal experience to see a 13-15 meter (40-50 foot) whale and calf such a short distance from us!
Our first liveaboard experience was to Guadalupe Island off Mexico in the Pacific Ocean. The sea conditions were rough with waves 7-9 feet and many people were very seasick. The good news is that we handled the conditions quite well and just felt a bit nauseated. It proved to us that we could handle very adverse sea conditions. The 400 km (250 mile) trip started from Ensenada, Mexico and took about 24 hours to cross on the 33 meter (110 foot) vessel called the Sea Escape. Guadalupe Island is a volcanic island and home to some very large great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).
The great white shark, also called the white shark, can grow extremely large with some females capable of reaching 6+ meters (20 feet). As the females mature their girth increases considerably for every foot of growth. It was hard to imagine a 1900 kg (4,000 pounds) great white shark swimming a meter or two away from us and we had big expectations. Sadly, the largest shark we experienced was about 4 meters (12-13 feet). Certainly, not a monster female but a very large shark none the less.
Our first experience with great white sharks was in South Africa but the water was not very clear (green water) so it was difficult to get good pictures. As our photographs show, Guadalupe is a great place to photograph these majestic creatures. We will certainly do Guadalupe island again with hopes of photographing a massive female.
Our previous posts on the Revillagigedo Archipelago, also called the Socorro islands, have included the giant mantas(Manta birostris), whitetip reef sharks(Triaenodon obesus), and silky sharks (Carcharhinus falciformis). Although Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis) are fairly common especially at Roca Partida, we did not have any encounters with them there. However, on one dive we did come across a few juveniles at Socorro island and this gave us an opportunity to photograph this species.
Older sharks of all species have very scarred bodies which are simply a result of surviving in a dangerous ocean environment. However, these juvenile Galapagos sharks, which were about a meter (2-3 feet) in length, had skin with very few blemishes. Adult Galapagos sharks can reach 3 meters (9-10 feet) in length.
The silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) gets its name from the smooth texture and silky look of its skin especially when it is young. These sharks can grow to 2.5 meters (8 feet) in length and are very abundant in the Revillagigedo Archipelago. Generally referred to as the Socorro Islands, these volcanic islands lie approximately 390 kilometers (240 miles) off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico.
Although we encountered scalloped hammerheads, tigers, Galapagos, whitetip reef, and silvertip sharks the most numerous were the silky sharks. At dusk, as the sun was setting, a few of us slipped into the water behind the boat in an attempt to photograph these sharks with the sun’s rays penetrating behind them to give a visually stunning look. Thank you to Andy Murch of Big Fish Expeditions for showing us this technique as we are relatively new to underwater photography.
The focus of our trip was to photograph the giant mantas (Manta birostris) at San Benedicto Island in the Revillagigedo Archipelago. These are the largest mantas in the world and can be more than 20 feet (6 meters) across and weigh up to 3,500 pounds (1600 kilograms). The dive site called “the Boiler” is a cleaning station for these mantas where fish remove parasites from their bodies. Consequently, this site provides the best opportunities to see and photograph these gentle giants.
The Revillagigedo Archipelago lies approximately 390 kilometers (240 miles) off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. These Pacific islands are more commonly referred to as the Socorro Islands. Aboard the Southern Sport, we dove 3 of the 4 islands (Roca Partida, San Benedicto, and Socorro).
A color variant from the more common black and white manta is an all black or nearly all black manta. It is not a different species of Manta birostris. However, it is exciting when one showed up as it looks so different.
San Benedicto is the island for the giant mantas. They are used to divers and show no fear of people. They swim It seems a bit surreal, even a few weeks after our encounter with them, to have had huge mantas swim within a few meters of us.