There is a lot to share. But I will start by saying that I hope you and all your family and friends stay healthy and safe during these challenging times.
And how the times have changed, so quickly. If everything were normal in the world, right now we’d be on the Silver Bank for the last day of our humpback whale season, originally scheduled to end April 4. Instead all our guests are at home and so am I, just finishing 14 days of self-quarantine. I’m very happy Cloe is here, too, looking after us all. Jeff is home in California after the first five weeks with us on the Silver Bank followed by a few more weeks with the grey whales in San Ignacio Lagoon. Ben decided to remain in the Dominican Republic and is staying with a friend there. And our new intern, Cat, finally got home to the UK after a suspenseful week and a half of trying.
As readers of this season’s previous Cruise Reports know, we were having an exciting enough season already, joyfully sharing life on the Silver Bank with the humpback whales while getting to know and love the M/V Sea Hunter and her crew. What was not to like? The boat is a comfortable beast, a very impressive and beautifully maintained vessel with a strong character of her own. And the crew really made it special, with sunrise yoga or tea and meditation, the Wednesday evening dance party followed by dinner alfresco and a moon-and-stars show, or the most fantastic birthday celebrations ever, and always with a smile. When we weren’t out with the whales we just plain old had fun aboard. Pura Vida, indeed! And of course there were the whales which gave us so much to be excited about, including some of our best interactions ever, both above and below the water’s surface. It was all going just fine.
But it was about halfway through the season that events on the outside were starting to cloud the distant horizon…
Along the way we did have some news of what had been going on from Cloe; a German couple from Week 7 had difficulties flying home; and there were some last minute cancellations coming in for our last few cruises. But, for the most part, operationally everything was going on as usual. Our international group from Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, New Zealand and the US came aboard Saturday afternoon, settled in and we departed on our usual schedule.
The first few days were Silver Bank-special, with fine weather and lots of activity from the whales. On top we watched mothers with exuberantly calves, sometimes breaching more than a hundred times in a row, all sorts of great surface social behaviors including some very intense rowdy groups. The variety of behaviors and proximity was fantastic. Underwater the mothers and calves were just as exciting as above and one day we even had a swim with a singing male humpback, one of the peak experiences any guest can have.
In between excursions I was getting increasingly worrisome updates from Cloe who was watching over things ashore, always a big job even in the best of circumstances. I have a device that allows me to send and receive text messages via satellite, 160 characters at a time. It was in these highly condensed summaries that I first learned the Dominican Republic was preparing to shut down all air traffic to and from Europe starting on Friday. Given that our two German guests from Week 7 had already had outbound issues before development, this was very serious news. It looked like the real world was finally catching up to our peaceful life out on the Silver Bank.
And that was one of the strangest things about the last couple weeks out there. We all knew something was afoot ashore, a growing situation, but on the Silver Bank life went on completely unaffected by the wider events around the globe. The weather was fair or excellent, the whales were all going about their day-to-day business as always and we had wonderful times that we shared with them. The food stayed delicious and the guests all were happy. But we all, guests and crew alike, had a wider awareness that somewhere over the horizon things were not the same, and changing fast. It was a strange experience. We all felt like we were living the plot to a sci-fi action movie where a group of people becomes isolated from society only to return to find it crumbling. It was all rather surreal, almost impossible to integrate the unsettling news coming in with the beauty and life that surrounded us. We were having fun but there was an underlying tension growing, too.
Tuesday evening, after an animated, intense but cooperative discussion, a plan was made to leave the Silver Bank on Wednesday afternoon. That would allow us to get to the dock early Thursday morning, giving the eleven Europeans aboard a chance to arrange flights out before the Friday evening deadline took effect. Everyone retired for the night disappointed but realistic, concerned about family and travel home, but looking forward at least to one last day on and in the water with the whales. But the situation was still changing.
At 6:30AM Wednesday morning I checked my communications as usual and was jolted fully awake by the discovery that starting at 5:00AM Cloe had been sending many increasingly urgent messages that we needed to leave the Silver Bank right away, immediately, NOW! On Tuesday night Dominican Republic President Danilo Medina had addressed the nation. Overnight Cloe had learned the details of President Danilo’s address from one of our 2019 guests, Tanya Pastrano. As it so happens, Tanya is currently in the DR doing volunteer work teaching schoolchildren about the humpbacks that live off their shore, and she had been keeping in touch with us throughout her time there. Tanya shared that in his address President Danilo stated that, instead of shutting down only European air traffic Friday evening, ALL air and seaports were being shut down to regular commercial traffic starting at 6am Thursday morning, in less than 24 hours! If our guests and we had any hope of getting out we needed to get going, going, going!
Breakfast was interrupted with the shock of the news and the startling pace at which the situation was changing. There was also the sad realization for all of us that our time with the whales was over.
I have to pause and give my sincerest thanks to the wonderful group of guests who were aboard when this happened. Through out it all, as the situation evolved and escalated, everyone was supportive, understanding and positive and that attitude made a world of difference. Every single person aboard the boat was torn between the desire to stay with the whales and the undeniable reality that life was changing for everyone around the world. There was disappointment about the abbreviated trip, sure, and worry about families and what it would take to get home to them. There was a lot of understandable stress and tension but not once was there disagreement or argument as to what we were doing or why. No pun intended, but we were all in the same boat. The camaraderie brought us together and we all pulled in one direction and that made a very difficult situation so much easier.
With that, the crew literally leapt into action (you should see these guys move), clearing the decks, pulling the two whaleboats out of the water for transport, stowing equipment, and finally pulling the heavy moorings that had secured us on the Silver Bank over the past seven and a half weeks.
While all this was going on aboard Sea Hunter I had a brief radio conversation with the other Silver Bank operators, one of which had much of the same info, the other did not. Once the news was quickly discussed and digested, all earlier plans were thrown out and what can only be described as an evacuation began. Looking across the moorings on a beautiful, sunny morning you could see crews on every boat scrambling back and forth, whaleboats being lifted or readied to tow, gear being pulled and stowed, divers hitting the water to unshackle their moorings from the sea floor, dozens of guests hurriedly packing their equipment. Meanwhile close around the anchorage many humpbacks could be seen blowing on just another typical day for them.
By 9am, all three boats, with around sixty guests and a couple dozen crew between them, were underway and pushing hard for Puerto Plata. The 2020 Silver Bank humpback whale season was over.
As we leave the Silver Bank on the last morning, I always spend a bit of time on deck to say my thanks and goodbyes to the whales. This time I spent more time than usual and it was one of the most poignant trips off the Bank I can remember. It was a beautiful, calm, sunny day – perfect for swimming with whales – and there were whales and activity just all over the place, with breaching, rowdy groups, lobtailing and pec slapping and more, near and far. Then, just as we got to the deep water drop off to leave the Bank behind, there was a pair of whales that were undoubtedly dancing, showing all the surface signs, swishing, rolling and spyhopping. In spite of the dark clouds over our horizon it was just another perfect day for the whales on the Silver Bank. I wish them all safe migrations, happy feeding this summer and I look forward to meeting them here again next year.
With all her communications resources ashore, good information was hard to come by and the situation was changing by the hour. Word had it that there may still be some repatriation flights going out after the official Dominican Republic deadline. As we motored back to shore Cloe worked hard on the internet and phones, communicating with guests’ emergency contacts and their travel agents, trying to find any seats for guests on any flights they could. It was a hectic, stressful few hours with busy signals on the phone, bogged down websites and flights booked then suddenly cancelled.
During all this word came in that, while there would be no more commercial air passengers flying into the country, there would be ferry flights coming in empty from Europe to carry stranded European tourists out. That was good news. It meant that even if the original flights were cancelled, rescheduled or missed, everyone should be able to get home, it just might take a few tense days – assuming nothing else changed. The news was a relief because guests were supposed to be aboard until Saturday anyway, so now they could use the boat as a base of operations at the dock while details got sorted out, a big help.
After motoring into deep water off the Silver Bank, everyone settled in for a lovely ride, maybe with a book, all with their thoughts. We arrived to the dock around 5pm where, now, all the dock staff wore masks and gloves, our first visible, tangible confirmation that things really have changed, just like the plot line in that movie. There was a heightened energy in the air, an unmistakable urgency, a charge that was palpable, maybe similar to what animals feel before an approaching storm.
A short while later, while everyone hustled off to try to get online or contact family, the port authorities informed the captains of the Silver Bank boats that if they did not leave the dock by 6am the following morning they would be held in port for at least 15 days, possibly much longer. Never mind the plan to stay aboard until Saturday, everyone had to get off the boat tonight, as soon as possible!
Now it was the Sea Hunter office’s time to jump into action and amazingly they were able to find accommodations for everyone in an apartment block very close by; many hotels were not taking new guests either. After a quick dinner and farewell between guests and crew, everyone jammed their stuff in their bags and shuttled off to the apartments for the night. It wasn’t until after 11:00pm that all the guests, along with Ben, Cat and I, were set up for the night.
Finally things were calm for the moment. Once secure ashore Ben, Cat and I went back to the boat to say our own farewells. Saying goodbye to the boat and crew after a season working together on the Silver Bank is never easy. This was harder than usual because it was the first season I’d worked with them, it had been a great experience and such a pleasure, and now it had ended so abruptly and under such unusual circumstances. We paid our respects, said our goodbyes and left the boat around midnight. By 4:30AM they were underway.
As our European guests had to travel to the larger airports in either Santo Domingo or Punta Cana to catch flights out, 4 and 7 hours away. It still felt like an evacuation. Some got out that day, others had to wait a few days more, but ultimately all were able to get back home. Myself and a few US citizens were able to fly out of Puerto Plata Thursday afternoon on one of the last scheduled flights out of Puerto Plata. Ben weighed his options and, with his parents cruising on their boat in Guatemala and no immediate job to run back to, decided to stay on in the DR. Cat initially wanted to fly home to the U.K. but her flight was cancelled, with no apparent alternatives. Ben and Cat ended up traveling out toward Samana to stay with their mutual friend – guess who? – Tanya Pastrano! Their complete story is a good one but I’ll save it for another day. Right now Ben is still in the DR but Cat was able to fly home out of Santo Domingo after a week and a half of trying.
After leaving that Thursday morning, the M/V Sea Hunter motored to Panama and was granted clearance to cross the canal as long as everyone stayed aboard for the transit. After more than ten days they were able to get back to their homeport where they are now completing their own 14 day home quarantine.
As for the Dominican Republic, while their government’s fast-changing restrictions did create disappointment, inconvenience and stress for all of us, they were relatively proactive and so far their efforts have helped. The number of cases of COVID-19 and resulting deaths is still increasing there but overall are relatively low and the DR is still considered a low risk country. This is good news for our many friends who call the DR home and we hope it stays that way.
Like you, we are all worried but grateful to be home, stocking up on supplies and watching the news, looking forward to a return to normalcy that feels a long way off right now. It is hard to believe how much has happened since I left home in January and I’m looking forward to next January when we will be headed back out to the Silver Bank to be with the humpback whales again. Until then, watch for our regular Whale eMails to be coming your way with photos, video, fun whale tales, and whale and conservation news, and other interesting stuff, too. I also will be sending out our Week 7 Cruise Report that unfortunately was delayed by the situation as it was developing.
It has been an unforgettable, crazy few weeks. It hasn’t been easy but we’ve had the help of many wonderful supporters who did so much for our guests and us. Cloe I would like to thank Tanya Pastrano for her very timely information, as well our friend, Tomas Ackermann, proprietor of our Friday night restaurant, Le Papillon (our favorite restaurant in the world), who in the middle of it all gave us valuable information from the German Embassy. Thanks to agents Wendy Sermon of WildWater, as well as Rainer Wittkopp and the rest of the team at Schoner Tauchen for their help working on flights and travel logistics to get all their folks safely home. Many heartfelt thanks to the crew of the M/V Sea Hunter and all the background support from everyone in their home office. Kind thanks to all the support staff at the Ocean World Marina, our friends now for many years. And of course huge thanks to Cloe for keeping things grounded, and to Jeff Pantukhoff, Ben Vieyra and Catherine Cushenan for everything they’ve done on the Silver Bank. And lastly thank to our readers, all of our guests, and to the humpback whales of the Silver Bank. I’m glad all are a part of this story.
There is plenty to worry about but plenty to be happy about, too. Stay informed, be prepared and take care but turn off the news once in a while and focus on those closest to you right now. Get in touch with old friends. Share some love and support with those who might need it. Be grateful for the family and friends that reach out to you, too. Give your pets some extra love, they earn it every day! Breathe consciously for ten minutes – it is a wonderful thing that we as humans can do if we put our minds to it – try it! And take some time to think about and appreciate all the beauty of the natural world that you’ve been fortunate to experience and think about how together we can all make it better after all this is over.
The future is unknown, but that’s true every day, really, isn’t it? So until we meet again, take care, stay healthy and be safe,
And that is the story of what happened to the guests scheduled to travel on cancelled Weeks 9 & 10? Obviously their chapter has an unhappy start but the end is not yet written. CBA is working with the generous support of the Sea Hunter’s home office to reschedule those folks over the next few seasons. We are all sorry for the circumstances and I thank them for their patience and understanding. I’ll be looking forward to meeting them all and you can read the end of their stories in our 2021 or 2022 Cruise Reports!
(click images for larger view)