A Quick Look at What a Week With the Whales is Like
June 30, 2019
Enjoy a few highlights, without getting wet!
Photos and video give us a great way to capture and study the animal behaviors we see when swimming with the whales. Afterwards they also show what a week with the humpback whales on the Silver Bank is like. Each week of our ten week season we compile a 20-30 minute video summary of the action and events. No two weeks are ever the same.
This is a short version of one of those videos, from our 2019 season. It has some of my favorite segments from the week. It is always fun to look through and edit video during the offseason, it really brings home what an amazing adventure swimming with whales actually is (this really happens!). Watch the video and read my brief description of the action below. Try as I might, even video and words can’t capture the scope of the experience…
Sunrise on the Silver Bank
Every week we cross from the marina to our mooring 75 nautical miles offshore overnight on Saturday nights, so the video opens with a very short look at Sunday morning’s sunrise. This is when guests see the Silver Bank for the first time, and whales very soon after. If you are up on deck while traveling across the bank you will see the whales, simple as that.
After sunrise is a short clip of the mooring area behind the reef. It was taken with our drone from a height of more than 1,000’. The reef could be the subject of an entire video all on its own. The average depth of the water in the area seen is 45’-70’. You can clearly see the massive coral heads that rise to the surface to create the barrier reef. The reef shelters the boats where we are moored during the week.
The video then jumps right into the water for a look at one of the peak experiences with the humpbacks on the Silver Bank: swimming with a pair of “dancing” whales. Dancers are usually a male/female pair that are far along in their courtship. Their relationship is deepening and things are getting more serious between them. Sometimes at this point the very social pair can become highly interactive with boats and swimmers, like this. The sounds you can hear were recorded by the camera. First you can hear me vocalizing toward the closest whale trying to elicit a response. Then at the 00:35 mark you can clearly hear its high pitched chirp/squeak twice! You can also hear it faintly at 01:41 and 01:45. These are social sounds that the whales often make during the most dynamic interactions.
All the while the most active dancer is rolling and swishing, using its tail and pectoral fins to create bubble trails or bank and swoop around like a big jet airplane. The whales show their incredible maneuverability. Thanks to those big fins, humpbacks are the most agile of all the great whales. They can turn around in their own body length, like a dolphin! The whales seem to move in slow motion but when you are in the water swimming with whales, an hour feels like ten minutes. It is a phenomenon we call “Whale Time”.
A Flirtatious Female
In the next topside segment we see a flirty female performing for her suitor and his competition. Starting upright, she slowly rolls onto her back where first she seductively slaps one fin, then the other, then both for good measure. It is a lovely demonstration of the flexibility in their ball-and-socket “shoulder” joints. Her overtures works well and the escort responds. She does more of the same and the second time we can see a third whale, the male “challenger” who is attracted by her flirtations, too. Sometimes a female like this one will slap her pec fins to be provocative. She wants to stir up her suitors so she can see who’s most assertive. The escort is careful to keep his position between her and the new challenger.
Mom and Calf
Back underwater we have a mother and calf. These were a great pair of whales, we had a very good swim with them. Conditions were nice, it was easy to see them in the clear water. The best thing about the interaction was mom’s tendency to turn and come straight up and at the swimmers whenever she surfaced to breathe. I was filming with a wide angle lens, so everything looks twice as far away as it is; she was close! This curious mother paused just right there before moving slowly on. In the second clip she comes to a stop right in front of the swimmers before settling back down to her snooze. What a great look at a humpback whale!
Mom & Calf at Play
Following, we have a little more pec slapping, this time a mother playing with her calf, before going back underwater for one last look from a curious calf. This one is fun because the energetic calf quickly swims close for a look. When it turns and passes you can see the school of fish, known as bar jack, following along. All the whales create their own little ecosystems, with barnacles, anemones, whale lice, several different species of fish and more all tagging along. The bar jack like to peck at the whales’ flaking skin when the whales are resting; these jack are waiting for the calf to slow down already. Then if you watch closely after the calf has turned and is moving away, you can also see several skinny little fish following along at the surface. These are ballyhoo, a common baitfish, and they like to eat the flakes of skin that slough off when the whales are swimming.
The calf zips over and rejoins mom, on her way up for air, and they slowly move off to end the show…
It is said a picture is worth a thousand words, and video is worth at least a thousand more. Humpback whales are big! But it is all the little things that you see when you watch closely that add so much depth to the experience. Not knowing what you will see next is a big part of what brings folks back to swim with the whales again and again.