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.
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!
The blue whales in the Sea of Cortez (see the previous post) was a neat experience but the grey whale encounters on the Pacific side of the Baja Penisula were breathtaking. Often female grey whales with calves will come up alongside the boat and occasionally let you touch and rub them. This is the experience we had. Grey whales can reach 15 metres (50 feet), weigh about 35 tonnes (75,000 pounds) and live approximately 60 years.
Each winter the whales migrate from Canada and Alaska south to The Baja Peninsula traveling up to 11,000 kilometres. There are a number of bays and lagoons along the Pacific (western side) where the pregnant mothers deliver their babies. At birth, the calves are about 4 meters (13 feet) long and weigh approximately 800 kg (1,764 pounds)! The babies are often playful and occasionally bring their heads out of the water making interesting photographs.
We were hoping to get some good underwater shots with our underwater cameras to get a different perspective of them as most people see then only from the surface. The water, however, is very green filled with phytoplankton and visibility was maybe 10 feet. Therefore, it proved difficult to get any good photographs but we have included a few to give a different perspective.
If someone is wanting a wonderful whale experience for themselves or for their family then we would highly recommend the grey whales at the fishing town of Adolfo Lopez Mateos, Magdelena Bay, Baja California Sur, Mexico. We were there towards the end of February.
Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) are the largest whales in the world reaching lengths approaching 30 metres (100 feet) and weighs up to 180 tonnes (400,000 pounds). They start arriving in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park, Mexico in February each year. There seems to be a sweet spot called the blue triangle where they are regularly seen. Danzante Island, Del Carmen Island and Monserrate Island make up this blue triangle in the Sea of Cortez. Some whales like humpbacks with their spectacular breaches, or grey whales that come next to your boat are more photogenic. However, blue whales just break the surface of the water to exhale, take in more air and descend.
On our way to our dive site, we saw some large waterspouts caused by the exhaling blue whales off in the distance so a detour was in order. Marine park rules dictate that you keep your boat a specific distance away from the whales. The way it works is that you see the blue whale in the distance, you move the boat towards them but by then they have descended again. The boat captain guesses where he thinks they will come back up (usually 6-9 minutes later) hoping they will surface closer to the boat. We played this game about 8 times and each time they came up a long distance from the boat. Great experience but now it was time to go to our dive site so off we went. Unexpectedly, the whale surfaced about 30-40 metres (100-130 feet) away from the boat which was close enough to get these photographs!