Snorkeling with Humbacks at the Silver Bank!

February 16, 2014

For the smoothest crossing of the year, it sure was a rocky and sleepless night! The captain started up the engines around midnight and we crossed to the Silver Bank, 125 miles offshore. The Silver Bank is a shallow water area in the Atlantic Ocean covering 1,680 km. The average depth is 65 feet, but some of the coral head come close to the surface, especially during low tide. The Silver Bank, located between the Navidad Bank and the Mouchoir Bank, is owned by the Dominican Republic and got its name from a ship wreck (not the one in the pictures) that lost its silver. We arrived Sunday morning around 8 a.m., and spotted humpback whales immediately, as this is a breeding and calving area for the humpbacks. We saw blows coming from a mama with its baby and an escort. The escort is male who wants to mate with the female, but generally doesn’t get that lucky with the mama who has a calf. They were a curious group and came right up to the boat before we even got into the nursery and mooring area.

Just as we set up to moor, a calf began breaching just beyond the bouy. The calves have to breath every two to three minutes or so, while the adults can lay sleeping below the surface for close to 25 minutes. Whales have to breathe consciously and can only sleep with half their brain “off”. The other half reminds them to breathe and the babies are told to breath by their mom!

After we moored around 9 a.m., the staff unloaded the tenders and we went through two briefings. By this time, lunch of amazing homemade mushroom soup and chicken curry was ready. We filled our bellies and prepared to load the “chase” boats at 2 p.m.. Chase is a bit of a misnomer. We spot the whales and head toward them in the tender. We are very quiet when near, as noises are loud to the whales, and let the mamas get used to us as we idle along side. We wait watch to see their breathing cycles. If the mama rests below the surface for 11 minutes or more and the calf is on a three minute breathing cycle, they are relaxed enough for us to try an underwater encounter in the 78 degree water. If they are moving around more frequently, we follow them for a while to see what will happen, as conditions change quickly.

There are only three boats with 20 or so passengers on board that are permitted to go to the Silver Bank. By courtesy, the tenders go different directions for whale encounters and do not encroach on each other’s space. A few of the tenders were having fantastic encounters with the whales. Our chase boat was a bit more challenged with uncooperative whales. We found several…a mama and her calf who didn’t want to play with us, two males passing through, a single whale, and a mama, calf and escort. The escort was showing off a bit, so I was able to snap a few surface shots of its fluke, but it wasn’t until 5 p.m. when we usually go in that another tender called us over and we were able to get in for a snorkel.

This whale encounter included a mama, baby, and an escort. When snorkeling with the whales we are supposed to stay on the mama’s side between its rostrum and pectoral fin, which is white for the Atlantic humpbacks and makes them easier to spot in the water. As a group, we weren’t quite good at this on our first try. People were everywhere! I felt like I was constantly backing up to try to position accordingly when one of whales swam right at me and turned at the last second. I’m certain my video has a curse word as I panicked when I got a close up view its eye. I certainly swam backwards as fast as possible! The adult whales are very aware of their bodies, and we’ve been told they will lift their pectoral fin or stop the flip of their flukes just to avoid hitting the snorkelers. The baby whales aren’t quite as careful.

They move so gracefully, and a few flaps of their fins make us have to kick ferociously in order to get back into position. As long as we are to the downwind side of the female, the baby will “semi-circle” above her for air and always come back. The whales sleep diagonally with their nose facing downward toward the ocean floor. Their interactions interesting to see as they criss-crossed one another coming and going.

The calf then started playing, twirling around in spirals below us, coming up for air and then swimming directly toward us. Despite, it still being much larger than us, I didn’t find it quite as intimidating as the larger whale even with its lack of body awareness. It was so cool to snorkel with the whales, and we improved on orderliness as we went. I’m anxious to see my GoPro video. I imagine it will be all over the map!

We eventually came in just before the sunset, enjoyed some red pepper hummus, and aimed to take a shower though the water pressure and hot water were non-existent. Eventually we got clean, and had a New York Strip cooked to order! Our chef Dave is fantastic. He grew up in the Turks and Caicos. Our captain, Amanda, is quite extraordinary as well.

We are turning in, and hoping for a bit more cooperative whales tomorrow. The other tender did enjoy an encounter with dancing whales. All in all, it was a good test run for me and all my cameras!! Until tomorrow…ETB

For notecards, key chains, and photos on canvas, visit http://www.notablenotecards.com or http://www.etsy.com/shop/nichenotecards

humpback whale website copy

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