It’s All About the Escort
It’s that time of the week again: time for the weekly Cruise Report from Conscious Breath Adventures 2023 Silver Bank humpback whale season. It is the end of Week 2 and our guests are off to a great start.
This week’s guests included a couple couples from the US, as well as a large group from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Another great mix! Listening to their stories, these folks have been to some of the most exciting wilderness locations on Earth but it was their first visit to the Silver Bank. The whales did not disappoint (click on images for larger view).
Every week’s whale action is different and this week it was the male “escort” whales that were the stars of the show. An escort is a male whale who is hanging round with a female, or a female and her calf, in the hopes of winning her affections and possibly mating with her. In the case of a mother and calf, he’s not the father, but just a wanna-be suitor trying to win his way into the mother’s heart.
Any resting or stationary whales present us an opportunity for in in-water interaction, including a female with an escort. But not all escorts have the same attitude. Usually, an escort pays us swimmers no mind whatsoever, just hanging by her side except maybe giving us a passing look as it breathes and settles back down again. And sometimes the escorts can be a little unsure or insecure and will nudge off a short way away. But best scenario of all is that sometimes, maybe about ten percent of the time, the escort will be the star and command the attention of everybody in the water. In this case he is showing the female his attentiveness and protectiveness by circling and patrolling, being a very diligent escort, indeed. And that was the path the escorts chose this week.
On Monday Gene’s boat found a female and escort resting near the reef to the southeast. They offered the swimmers a good view as they hung sleeping in the water column fifty feel below. Every twenty minutes or so the pair would rise, swim a semicircle around the swimmers, looking us in the eye before settling again. But after one cycle, this particular escort gave us a rare treat, something we sometimes see from the boats above but much less frequently in the water.
After one typical cycle, and without any warning, the escort released a burst of air from its blowhole creating a giant shimmering blast of bubbles as it rose to the surface. In this context I interpret this behavior as the escort letting us know that he knows we are there and is watching us, and that any intentions we may have toward the female will have to go through him first. It’s a beautiful sight that we only see in the water just a few times a season.
Meanwhile Jeff’s team happened upon a mom, calf and escort who was also eager to check us out, although he was happy to let the curious calf get a look in, too. These whales stayed with Jeff‘s folks for multiple close passes, staying for long enough that Gene’s bunch were able to swap out with us later. In the end guests had so much whale-time they chose to get out of the water to warm up!
Curious escorts can show their interest in multiple different ways, with close passes being an obvious example. It really gives you a sense of just how giant these animals are when they glide slowly past, giving you a moment to fully take in the enormity of the whale floating besides you. They can also show their curiosity through a behavior known as spy hopping, which we saw several times this week. Spy hopping is where the whale rises vertically in the water column and slowly surfaces, poking several feet of their rostrum out of the water. Usually their eyes stay just below the sea surface as they examine you from below the water, hopping their head up to spy their surroundings. It also gives a great look at the ventral pleats under their chins, too.
Diligent escorts with more attitude to display will also exhibit exaggerated body postures, twisting or bending themselves in unusual positions, as a way to intimidate potential rivals. This is called a threat display and is intended to discourage a challenger from even thinking about starting a fight in the first place. Works for us!
We had all these behaviors on display and one more, the most rare of all and an unexpected surprise every time. On this one occasion, the big male rose to the surface with his – shall we say – “male whaleness” on full and unashamed display. Nothing to be bashful about there! Okay, given all that, his position at the female’s side was not at all jeopardized by our feeble presence. This is something that we only see once every few years – a very rare sighting indeed.
The mother humpbacks and their cute calves get a lot of the spotlight out on the Silver Bank, and they should, but it is great to have the escorts stand up and be recognized, too. Here is a cheer to the escorts, one and all!
Toss in a couple endearing moms and calves, some great topside action (really good, but another subject for another day!), great stargazing and even a green flash and it was a heck of a good week on the Silver Bank.
We look forward to seeing who the star of the show will be next week, Week 3, February 11-18. Tune in next weekend to find out.
Until then, we wish you whale!
Capt. Gene, Jeff & Cat