Guests of Conscious Breath Adventures all know that every day in the Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic is a new opportunity and you never know what you will see and experience as you set out on the whale boats to swim with whales. March 3, 2011 is just one remarkable example.
The morning dawned calm and clear, with no wind, waves or clouds to speak of, perfect conditions for finding and swimming with whales. After breakfast everyone eagerly geared up for what looked like a very promising day and they were not to be disappointed. We loaded into our whale boats and set off on our search.
We find whales!
As we pulled slowly away from the M/V Sun Dancer II, looking into the sun toward the wreck of the Polyxeni, less than half a mile away, one of our boats immediately spotted the commotion of a mother humpback with her calf, accompanied by an escort whale and a challenger.
In these cases the mother has a male companion whale who is probably hoping to mate and he will stay at the female’s side to “escort” her. If another male shows up interested to displace the escort and take his place, he is known as a challenger. More than one challenger is the beginning of a competitive group, known as a rowdy group on the Silver Bank, but that is a story for another time.
It’s always exciting to see the jousting of an escort and challenger so we eased closer to follow and watch the action. The smooth water reflected the morning sun like a mirror, and as the whales moved closer in toward the reef and wreck we had to proceed with great caution to avoid hitting any of the coral heads that rise to just below the surface and which were only visible at the very last moment.
We slowly zigged and zagged around the rocks in the wake of the whales until they actually approached as close to the wreck as possible without running aground themselves! (see photo) The wreck is in bad shape and as we passed, with no wind or wave noise, all we could hear was the gentle and relaxed blows of the mother and calf, the harder blows of the competing males, and an eerie moaning and groaning of the wreck’s steel hull plates swaying back and forth in the gentle ocean swell. What a sound effect it all was!
It was not long after this that the challenger gave up and departed because we soon found ourselves in the company of only three remaining whales, the mother, her calf and the steadfast escort, who all continued along the thickest part of the Silver Bank reef at a leisurely pace. With the sun at our shoulders now, we idled along parallel watching the whales cruise in the calm and clear water. The whales were moving so slowly that at times we had to put the motors in neutral to keep from passing by.
Our time to swim with whales
On one of these occasions it took us a little while to realize that we had been floating dead in the water for some time. The whales had come to a complete stop and were now resting a few yards from the boat! They rose to breathe in turn at their leisure and were always easily visible through the glassy surface of the water. Sometimes the curious calf would drift a little closer for a better look and it was always a great show.
Now these whales were prime candidates for a swim, but we were still a little bit too close to make a quiet entry. While there was no wind, there was just enough tidal flow to slowly drift the boat away as everyone quietly put on our snorkeling gear. Once we were at a respectful distance we slipped into the water to meet the whales face to face. It was the start of an unforgettable day!
Conditions were perfect: not a breath of wind, calm clear water and three whales resting peacefully in the middle of the reef. The swimmers in the water followed my directions perfectly and we slowly eased a little bit closer. With visibility so good, we didn’t have to get too close for a great view and the reef provided a good backdrop for us to float next to as cover: we were just fellow denizens of the reef!.
Our day with the whales
For the next few hours we shared the glorious day with our new friends. Mother, calf and escort continued to relax peacefully. Every so often the calf would wander over out of curiosity to have a closer look at the swimmers, looking everyone in the eye.
What makes an encounter like this so special is the time you have to really see all the behaviors of the whales and in such good conditions, too. Initially they were all sleeping and the calf would make the occasional slow pass. After a while the calf became more energetic and curious and approached us all very closely. All we swimmers had to do was fin or paddle slowly every once in a while to maintain position. When the mother would rise for a breath she would float motionless at the surface, logging, while she went through her breath cycle and then submerged again, right in front of us. Because we were in the midst of the reef the water was shallow, less than 45’, so the whales were never more than 25’ below the surface, offering amazing views.
Eventually the calf woke up and began to engage with us more actively which attracted the attention of the escort who now glided and circled slowly beneath us as he investigated these curious beings floating like seaweed at the surface. If you think seeing a calf up close is fun, imagine having a 40′ whale pass under you twenty feet down as he weaves through the coral heads; or better yet, both at once!
And of course, after all this action, a little whale is going to get hungry so we were also able to share one of the most intimate moments in the mother/calf relationship when the calf nursed for lunch.
At one point it was fun to watch as the whales all went back into a resting cycle. Tidal currents flow on and off the Silver Bank and as the whales napped we all, whales and swimmers alike, drifted through the reef being carried slowly by the outgoing tide. I watched carefully, concerned that a snoozing whale might drift into a coral head and wake with a start, but it never happened! We just floated like logs in a lazy river, effortlessly avoiding all obstacles in our way.
It went on like this for hours, whales and swimmers at peace watching – not glimpsing but really seeing each other – until finally the whales gradually energized and finally moved off, leaving dreams fulfilled in their wakes