Awe-inspiring Humpbacks in the Silver Bank

Even though I had hoped to have a longer underwater encounter with the whales today, I have to say we had a good final day despite the conditions. The wind was howling and white caps were everywhere making it hard to spot any blows as they dissipated quickly. Rob captained our tender today, and thankfully he had an eye for spotting whales.

We tooled around for a bit and finally found a mom, baby, escort and challenger. After a short time deciphering their behavior, Rob sent AZ in to see how they would react. It appeared to be the beginning of a Valentine…or whale foreplay between the mom and escort. We all jumped in to watch them until the challenger broke up the group, and they swam away.

Eventually, we spotted some tail slapping in the distance. We were motoring against the wind and waves, so by the time we got there the playful male had stopped his antics. The morning somewhat continued that way, so we opted for a comfort break. As we were hanging out in six foot seas relieving ourselves, I thought to myself, ‘how many people would voluntarily jump into the middle of the Atlantic to float around in bad weather.’ I didn’t feel like the sharpest tool in the shed, despite feeling perfectly safe!

It was time to end our morning cycle when we lost a man overboard. It was no big deal as he grabbed hold of the rope along side the orange pontoons, but as I’ve mentioned the seas were rocky! We returned for lunch (burgers on the grill, portobello mushrooms, grilled zucchini and grilled watermelon), after a slow morning. With the forecast for the winds to increase in the afternoon, Rootie and I were not feeling too enthusiastic about going out again to be drenched by cold spray, but it was the last day.

Our afternoon had only just begun when a small squall headed right for us. We got a quick spattering of rain. Luckily it left as fast as it arrived, and we began searching for whales again. Rob, once again, spotted some blows. We found a male and female swimming around, but not too fast. We opted to join them. They swam off, stopped and circled around to look at us before leaving again. It seemed this was the pattern, though only a few people saw all three times they circled, as Amanda our spotter for the afternoon wanted us to stop. While bobbing in the waves, I wasn’t sure exactly why she wanted us to stop as the faster swimmers were hand signaling the whales were beneath them and not too far away. She quickly mentioned we were too spread out before she chased and hollered at the others to return to the tender. The more I thought about it, it was probably hard for Rob to spot us all in the waves, and it could have been potentially dangerous.

When Drew and Julie heaved themselves back into the tender, Amanda asked, somewhat scolded in her English accent, “I would appreciate it if you looked back every once in a while. That was not behavior of whales that wanted to hang out with us!”

Quick witted Drew quipped, “Really? They kept circling back toward us. I have the video of it!”

To which Amanda responded, “Did you see how far you swam?” See they should be on the Olympic team! On a serious note, for our group they didn’t seem like they swam off as fast as many others, but by the same token the next hour or so supported Amanda’s knowledge.

All safe and sound in the boat, we tooled around some more and found the same two again. We know they were the same two again by the markings on their flukes. Each humpback whale’s fluke has a different marking, like a finger print. In fact, Amanda had seen a few of my photos from when I was on Lowell’s boat and remarked that these were the feisty whales you saw three days ago. Her comment reminded me that Lowell noticed the closer we got to them on the surface, the feistier they got, which I relayed to Rob. Apparently, it was true again as we inched nearer, they reacted with some spunk. The whales began pec slapping, tail lobbing, tail slapping and spy hopping. The spy hopping was great! One whale poked its head very high out of the water and turned 180 degrees while checking us out. It was totally awesome! We could see the under side of its jaw covered in barnacles as it circled around while the other whale was tail slapping behind it. They are so amazing, entertaining, and gentle all at the same time!

While shutters clicked and videos captured their amazing antics as oohs and awes echoed around the tender, another whale joined the mix. Suddenly, the group turned rowdy and sped through the swells. Things change fast…I’m glad we weren’t snorkeling with them then! It was going to be one wet and bumpy ride if we chased them, so we dumped them off to one of the competitors’ nearby tenders, and they raced around.

As soon as we spotted some more blows by the right side of our main boat, our other tender called us over for an in water encounter with a mama and a baby. A competitor had been sharing the whale with Predator, and were returning to their boat, so we were let into the action. This was going to be an exciting way to end our last day! We jumped in twice but both times the mom moved off quickly with her baby in tow, though stopped nearby. The other tended then took a turn and had more luck, enjoying a nice encounter before the mama got spooked again and traveled farther into the nursery of coral heads. Given the time of day, the light was getting low and we had to go in while we could spot the coral heads. I was a little bummed as I had gotten my hopes up for a rare calm encounter this week, but honestly the whales were spectacular!

Of course, we returned to a feast of food…Thanksgiving dinner which is a TRADITION on the boat. We also got to watch a fun video that AZ took of our experience and take a tour of the engine room. If I could spout off some facts about the engine room, I would, but my brain has a difficult time retaining information that I hardly understand! We are preparing for the crossing tomorrow….hopefully it will be smooth! ETB

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Another Day in Whale Country…the Silver Bank

February 19, 2014

Generally I mention our lunches and dinners in my posts. But I have failed to mention breakfast. There is a continental style option set out on the counter every day at 6:30 a.m. which includes a variety of cereals, breads, jams, and fruits from which to choose. If that’s not enough, yogurt is always available, and Chef Dave cooks eggs and bacon to order! His scrambled eggs were excellent.

IMG_3125 breakfast

As I mentioned in a previous post, with our group of 17 split into two, we alternate which chase boat we go out on each day. This is for two reasons. First, Predator always goes out first and second, we get to experience different whale spotters and drivers. Today we were with Lowell and Carlos.

I think we are a little bit spoiled when we see two whales breach in sync, twice, right by the boat; a baby breaching time and time again; and a mama and baby breaching simultaneously in the distance, and we consider our whale encounters for the day as not great. The “rough” day could have also had something to do with the strong winds and high seas!

As we are traveling around in the tender, I don’t feel like I’m in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean because generally our boats are in sight, and we have to dodge corals, so it sort of makes me feel like we are near land. But the reality is, we are 125 miles off shore and there is no land in sight, so the swells can get quite large. While I don’t know for sure and they were probably smaller, it felt like six foot seas this morning as storms brewed all around us. Rain fell on the horizon and was coming toward us, but somehow we managed to dodge it. Not that it mattered, the spray of the waves coming in from all sides of the boat easily made up for it as we got soaked from head to toe!

Thankfully, the sun started poking through the clouds and the winds started dying down in the late morning so we weren’t too cold. As I mentioned above, we saw some surface action today. We followed adult whales for a while, and decided we’d rather find a mom and calf that were settled so we could swim. Having said that, I think I would have let others swim to the whales to make sure they stayed put before I jumped into mix. High seas and cold wind didn’t sound like the most tasty recipe for the early morning, especially if the whales were just going to move!

With the exception of watching a small calf breach a little bit, the highlight of the morning outing for the first two hours may have been the rainbows that were coming and going. We eventually asked Carlos and Lowell to drive us back toward the boat as we were a good distance away and had to travel back into the winds and waves which was going to be a slow chore. Not to mention, it’s difficult to spot the whales and the blows in these conditions…as the blows disperse quickly among white caps! As we made our way back, however, it was not difficult to see two adults breach beside the boat! Each twice. It was so fun to see so closely. They started following us, which was exciting, and teased us with a lazy tail wag once in while.

Once we neared the boats and were in the protected area, we found a few whales that weren’t moving too quickly, so we tried for a fly by. Basically everyone jumps in at once as the whales swim by. They ditched us before we got in. Oh well…we just returned for an early pasta with bolognese sauce lunch and lounged on the upper deck before heading into the trenches this afternoon.

Blessed with better weather, we enjoyed a lot of excitement with a baby breaching over and over again. It seemed like its mom wanted to settled down and their breathing cycles slowed. The baby who was consistently on the surface started diving for three minutes at a time…a good sign for us. The mama and the escort went from a five minute breathing cycle to resting below for eleven or more minutes. The breathing cycles and weather conditions were conducive to snorkeling. Lowell, our spotter, slid into the water in search of the whales, but unfortunately he was never able to raise his arm overhead and point down to the water with his hand like he had just finished a hook shot. This would have indicated he found a sleeping whale. Instead we were waving him back as we saw them swim off…DARN!

That chance ended up being the last whale action of the day, but we managed some action of our own. We ran aground after we lost steering in the tender! At low tide, the coral heads get quite close to the surface, and the waves pushed us right into the reef! No damage was done to the boat, the coral head was still there, and no one fell in, so it was just a small added adventure. After filling the steering column with fluid, we regained control of the tender and decided to check out the wreck near our mooring as the whales weren’t cooperating.

The freighter Polyxeni sunk in the Silver Bank thirty plus years ago after being chased by the coast guard under the suspicion it was running drugs. The rusted remains tilted sideways in the coral reef were spattered with white bird droppings. It must just be a resting spot for the birds, as we hadn’t seen any until we pulled up close and two frigate birds flew away. Without many fish around, I can’t imagine it is much of a feeding ground for the birds either! But what do I know…there was a lot of white. It would have been cool to dive around the coral and the wreck, but no one is allowed on the wreck without a permit, except of course right after its mishap. Rumor has it, the ship was raided and stripped of all its belongings except a jar of hot sauce and its papers in three days!

There were no blows to speak of for at least an hour, so we called it a day. Showers and cocktail hour were waiting for us. In the meantime, the other boat found a singer. They could feel the vibrations of the whale’s song through the tender and could hear the song on the surface when they slipped in the water. Generally speaking we could free dive down to about ten feet anytime we wanted to hear the whales singing, this event was just up close and personal! Our captain, Amanda, recorded the singing and played it for us on the boat.

While the whales make a variety of noises, each year the humpbacks sing a specific song too. They alter it only slightly the following year, and within seven years the whole song has changed. The song today sounded like the cross between a parrot, a cow, a creaking door, and a dripping faucet…to name a few of the sounds. At times, it sounded like a child practicing a violin. I never would have thought there would be so many noises. I really expected to hear a constant sound. I’m glad I got to hear it…really cool!

Fishing boats near our mooring
Fishing boats near our mooring

During dinner of a NY strip, grilled cabbage, beans and banana bread pudding, we enjoyed a slide show from Rob’s underwater diving experiences in the Turks and Caicos. While it was an interesting day, here’s to hoping for smoother sailing tomorrow, so we can see more whales! ETB

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Unbelievable Encounters with the Humpbacks!

February 18, 2014

There is no other way to describe our day, but spectacular! I think it only took 30 minutes to latch on to a male a few hundred yards south of the boat. We spotted him while he was tail slapping and by the time we reached him in the choppy seas, he put on a show. I don’t know if it was for us or to attract other whales as they aren’t sure why they do that, but we were entertained. The only disappointment was the auto focus on my camera got knocked to manual focus while it was in my dry box, and while I knew something wasn’t right, I was shooting on a setting I wasn’t that familiar with and wasn’t sure what was wrong…not to mention our whale was so active there wasn’t time to be messing with my camera, only time to hold down the shutter!

He went from tail slapping (moving his tail up and down while smacking the water), to tail lobbing where he would twist, and slap, and splash. He was like a kid playing in the pool, as he even tail slapped while he was upside down. Then he moved on to pec slapping, where he swung his fin back and forth pounding the water. His white pec eventually turned to a pinkish hue as he flailed away. He took us out toward a delapidated fishing boat (one of the only other boats on the water). Dominicans have the natural born right to fish, thus no permit is required. They came to the Silver Bank to spearfish. Amanda says there aren’t any fish out here except an occasional parrotfish, so their pickings were few and far between. At the current moment, however, the eight men on board were not fishing! They were cheering on the whale, as his antics were spectacular! All I could think of when looking at that boat, was where do they all sleep? And I couldn’t help but laugh when Amanda mistakenly answered a radio call saying, “She was headed toward the wreck instead of the fishing boat!” She also remarked, “Always travel by this boat upwind.”

So, one of the reasons the Silver Bank is a safe birthing place for the whales is because there are no fish and therefore there are no predators! The whales do not feed here either. They only feed on krill in the cold water for 120 days during the year. They sustain themselves and the calf for the other eight months of the year from only these three months eating. The moms can lose up to 50 pounds while traveling, birthing, and feeding there calves by shooting a cottage cheese like substance out of her tail while swimming. Imagine traveling thousands of miles not eating for eight months!

It seemed after two hours, our whale slowed down a bit. I don’t blame him…I was exhausted watching him. He dove beneath the surface and stayed there for a few minutes, so we thought the show might be over when he suddenly breached! It was crazy…he breached at least three times. Then whales were showing up everywhere…coming toward him, but not too close. Two were breaching just 100 yards away as he settled down. We were finicky as we thought about turning toward one of the others nearby! While we were idling, one that we were spying breached at full speed toward our guy. Breaching awes everybody. We never got tired of it and cheers of excitement filtered from the boat…ooh…awe…wow…OMG! The humpbacks always breach into the wind, so at least we knew which direction to point the camera…then it was just the matter of capturing the photo when they launched through the ocean’s surface. As soon as the male attracted its playmate, however, it became far less interested in us. The activity slowed just for a minute when three more whales joined in and we got a “rowdy”.

Rowdies are a group of whales that travel really fast. We briefly followed them, but they were traveling into the current and the wind, which made it hard for us to keep up without getting soaked by the three foot swells. After the rowdies, we found two sleeper adults which means they rest in the depths for a period of time. They seemed settled enough for us to join them, so we slid in as quietly as possible, which doesn’t sound very quiet. We could hardly see them while they were resting…only an outline and the white pectoral fins were visible in the murky water. But as they came to the surface to breathe we got a good look, but boy do they swim fast!! I felt like I was going to drown as we chased them. The good swimmers with free diving fins (Julie, Dustin, Drew and our whale spotter AZ) kept up pretty well, but snorkelers like me (and only me) were caught in between the tender and the whales with waves crashing into my head once in a while. The other half of the group swam back to the boat. Bobbing like a cork, I contemplated my options…return to the boat or join my fellow snorkelers who have hand signaled that the whales haves topped beneath them. Located equidistant, I kicked and splashed my way to the whales. Once again, they surfaced, and this time I did a better job keeping up, though still lagged behind. I’ve never claimed to be a strong swimmer and felt a little better when Amanda stated she once owned the type of fins I was wearing and hated them, but my goodness, Julie should join the Olympic swimming team. She moved as fast and as gracefully as the whales! She claims it was the fins…I don’t think so!!

After that encounter, it was lunchtime, so we started heading in to the boat for pork carnitas tacos and hot soup, but we got a call from our other tender, named Predator (we were on the Conquerer today as we alternate daily), who were working a cow, calf, and escort that were settled enough to join, so we detoured to them. Taking turns, passengers from Predator swam with the threesome, then we did. Our first two encounters frightened the mom. I’m not sure if it was us or other whales coming through that breached nearby, but the mother slip streamed with the baby which means the baby rested on her back as she swam away. Slip streaming helps them move faster if she feels in danger, which was cool to see, but bad for hanging out with them in the water. The did eventually settle down, and we were able to enjoy several minutes with all three of them. Both the mom and the baby bubbled. The baby came vertically to the surface with its mouth open, swam a semi circle around its mom on the surface while breathing, and then it swam beneath her as they swam away. Some of the folks wanted to go in for lunch while others didn’t, so we went in, leaving Predator out there, and we invited the competitors over to share the whale. The idea being that they would share the whale until we came back, but our hour lunch must have been too long, as they lost them…bummer!

So after lunch we went out for a few more hours. This time Rob, the ship’s engineer and Amanda’s husband, took over the tender driving while AZ remained our spotter. We tracked another feisty guy that was tail slapping and tail lobbing and breaching for us for 30 minutes or so before he stopped. Then we followed a mom, calf, and escort that wouldn’t settle down until the light got low, so we had to head back to the boat as the coral heads are hard to see. Right by our boat, we found another mom, baby, and escort. They were slightly more settled, so we jumped in for a quick swim before ending the day.

Cocktail hour included BLT sandwiches with avocado ailoli and dinner included a Cesar salad, cornflake encrusted fish with sweet potatoes, green beans, and a spicy mango sauce…delicious. And we topped off all this food with chocolate cake. I may gain weight on this trip I’m eating so much. Dave, a substitute chef on the boat for two weeks, grew up in the Turks and Caicos, and is currently a private chef there. He will cook for anyone that wants to hire him, whether it be one meal or a whole week! Looking forward to another amazing day tomorrow…ETB

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Humpback Whales Putting on a Show in the Silver Bank!

February 16, 2014

The sun rose around seven every morning, at it was lovely every time! Ready to tackle the whales, we ventured out on the tenders after breakfast. Overall the whales were either difficult to spot or very feisty today. There were not too many that wanted to settle down for us to join them in the water. We tooled around for a few hours following a few groups of whales when finally we set upon a male trying to impress a female. When we approached them closely, we riled them up!

The series of three, are photos in succession (I really have a series of about 10 for some of then so it almost looks like a video when scrolling through quickly).

They rolled on their sides while pec slapping, lobbed their tail at us sideways, and spy hopped to check us out! They circled around the tender. Coming from the stern to the bow on the port side of the tender, they were so close we could have reached out and touched them! Once in a while, I stuck my GoPro in the water to catch below surface action. They also crossed the bow and swished their tail so closely that we were riding waves. Thankfully, the wind was behind us so we weren’t sprayed by their oily blows.

Entranced by the action, we followed them so far out that our main boat wasn’t in sight and it took us about an hour to get back in for lunch. It was such an amazing spectacle, and to be able to see the barnacles on their flukes, and the tubercles on their rostrum and fins was awesome. Each tubercle, which are the bumps on the whale, has a hair protruding from it, which helps the whale sense things.

Watching them frolic was a treat, as the morning encounter otherwise was slightly slow. We tried an underwater encounter with two other whales, but with one sweep of their pectoral fins, they were gone. No playtime for us!

After a delicious, warm lunch we went back out on the chasers at two o’clock. The agreement among the boats is all tenders go out at the same time. We came upon five whales together. A mom was hanging with her calf and escort while two other males tried to butt in. The group never settled, so continued scanning the surface for any blows. They were few and far between. Yesterday, the were blowing and breaching constantly, today they seemed to have moved to another nearby bank like Navidad or Mouchoir.

We finally found another male and female who were much more sedate. They stayed in the general area of the tender for some time, and after taking breaths, they settled below for 18 minutes or so. We thought we might see a “Valentine” which is basically whale foreplay (no one has seen humpbacks mate). Apparently, the female wasn’t that interested in the male, so there wasn’t any touching or spinning, and by the time we reached the whales, but we did get to hang out with them for a few minutes before they decided they wanted more privacy. We visited them underwater twice before we called it the day. The visibility was challenging as the light was getting low near 5 p.m. so we headed in.

Cocktail hour included mojitos, mango salsa and a lovely sunset. Lowell, who was our whale spotter today, seconded as the bartender and photographer. Everyone posed for sunset pictures. Michael and Ramona are so different in height, she stood on a chair! All the crew switch up jobs with serving dinner, driving the tenders, and more. They can all drive the big boat too. On this adventure, Lowell is the 2nd captain as well. We had a really AMAZING day of surface action, and hope to have some under water encounters tomorrow!! ETB

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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

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