During mating season, between January and March, the humpback whales of the North Atlantic congregate at the Silver Banks, approximately 100km north of the Dominican Republic. They travel thousands of miles to give birth, rear their calves and mate anew.
The Silver Banks are part of a sanctuary for marine mammals and the number of ships that have permission to enter the area for the purpose of whale watching is tightly regulated to avoid disturbing the whales. At the time of the trip only three yachts had the required license (Turks and Caicos Aggressor, Explorer and Dancer). As I had had an excellent trip with the Galapagos Aggressor, I chose to go with them again – this time on the Turks and Caicos Aggressor. The yacht departs from Ocean World Marina at Cofresi Beach, Puerto Plata. It took most of the night in relatively choppy seas to get to our destination but the mooring site there is protected by reefs, so it didn’t take long for the group to relax. An excellent crew, with great service, good food and a very beautiful yacht practically guarantee a nice trip. Plus, I really enjoyed the atmosphere on board and talking to people with different backgrounds.
Compared to other whale watching destinations, the Silver Banks have the distinct advantage of allowing people to actually get into the water and snorkel with the whales, in so-called soft in-water encounters. The rules for these encounters are set up to ensure that the whales do not feel disturbed by our presence. Whether and when an encounter actually happens (or not) is entirely up to the whales. Even a relaxed whale is moving so effortlessly through the water that they can easily reach speeds of 10 knots while their maximum speed is about 20 knots (much faster than the dinghies). So what you need for an in-water encounter is a very relaxed, more or less stationary whale. While it can be quite difficult to find one of those, there is also a lot of action on the surface to enjoy:
- pectoral fin slapping
- tail slapping (either while the whale is on its back or its stomach)
- breaches (it is a spectacular thing to see a 40 ton whale propel itself out of the water and land in a big splash)
- spy hops
- bubble blowing (either out of annoyance or to hide the female from the other males; can be done by blowing air from their air hole or first swallowing air at the surface and then pushing it out of their mouth (in humpbacks there is no connection between their lungs and their mouth))
Most of these behaviours can be observed when following a rowdy group. This is typically a group of several males competing for the attention of the female, who is at the head of the group and in complete control of all the variables like speed and direction. If she suddenly decides to have a break and go to sleep, the males will patiently wait behind her until she is ready to set off again. We saw a large rowdy group of 9 males on our first day out – they are so focused on the female in front that they don’t even seem to notice the little boat following them. They travel close to the surface and when they come up for air directly in front or beside the boat you get your first close up impression of just how huge they are. For comparison our dinghy was about 6 meters long while an adult humpback whale is 15 to 16m long and weighs 40 to 45 tons. Because of all the action and the splashing, rowdy groups are quite easy to spot and we followed several during our stay at the Silver Banks.
On our first day out with the humpbacks we also saw our first singer. The singing is only done by males and it can be loud enough to hear even above the surface. When you actually get into the water with a singer (they usually don’t move much while singing) you can feel the vibrations of the sound in your chest. A typical song lasts 10 to 15 minutes, until the whale has to come up for air. Then it will move on a bit, go back down and continue to sing or it will just head further out into the ocean. We had a few excellent in water encounters with singers, a few times with the whale coming up right beside us in the water, looking directly at us. Just an amazing experience!
Here’s a size comparison. You have to see a humpback whale to really appreciate just how huge they are but I think this will give you an idea:
Following a mom and calf (again this is only possible if they don’t mind your presence), we also saw other behaviours like the calf relaxing on mom’s nose, being pushed by her or being taught how to do tail slaps, pec slaps or breaches. If the calf gets too adventurous and moves away too far from his mother, she will do a so-called tail lob, a sideway slap of her tail to call the calf back.
Once, when a mother wasn’t comfortable with our presence, she swam around our boat, decided she didn’t like the looks of this strange orange thing, took the calf on her back and demonstrated a technique called “slip streaming” in which the calf gets pulled along through the movement of the mother in the water. This way they can get away quickly without tiring the calf.
Mom and calf are often followed by an escort, a male humpback who is in pole position for mating with the mother. We were also really lucky to see the beginnings of a valentine, a sort of dance that male and female perform as part of their mating ritual, which so far has never been captured on film or even been seen by humans. They were moving very slowly around each other and kept rolling around. At this point, I had an additional, un-planned in-water encounter. Our boat was idling and one of our guides was already in the water to see whether it would make sense for the rest of us to get in. Then one of the other guests (Ken) put on his mask on and stuck his head into the water from the boat. I thought this was a brilliant idea. Trying to follow his example I leaned over, got too much weight on my hands and found myself sliding in. One of the whales was just diving below me, under the boat, turning on its axis, the other about 5 meters away from me slightly in front of the boat. it may have been accidental but it was absolutely awesome to see these huge(!) whales up close. As I was already in the water I stayed there with the whales for a few minutes until they moved on and the guide, too, got back into the boat.
On the fourth and last day, we had a whale breaching directly in front of our boat. We had seen a lot of breaches (many very close to us) at that point, but this one took us completely by surprise because we had no idea there was a whale so close to us! Of course no pictures because we were all too busy gawking and nobody reacted in time to get the camera up 🙂
On our very last ride on the very last day, we had an absolutely breathtaking in-water encounter with a mother, calf and escort. The mother was extremely relaxed and the calf was playful and curious, coming close, checking us out and once even crashing into us because it had gotten so close that it couldn’t quite get around the corner in time. We saw the mother interact with the calf in the water, nudging it to come up and breath while she stayed down, the calf going back to her for reassurance and relaxing, and then coming back up to us to see what we were doing floating there. We were in the water with them several times until they finally picked up the pace and we headed home to our yacht – all of us deliriously happy and feeling absolutely privileged to have witnessed this amazing encounter.
Here are some more whale facts that I picked up during the trip:
- the gestation period for humpbacks is 10 to 12 months
- in theory females can mate as soon as 48 hours after giving birth. however, they usually don’t unless the whale population is small
- mom can only feed the calf when she is swimming, pressing out thick milk from her tail, while the calf swims behind her and swallows the milk with the surrounding water. the calf then presses out the water through its baleen plates and is left with the milk -> a calf needs about 50 galleons per day
- a newborn calf is about 5-6m long and weighs about 18 tons
- newborn calves are mostly white and get more and more black the older they become
- an adult humpback is about 15-16m long and weighs 40 to 45 tons;
- their pectoral fin is about a third of their body length (so about 4m long), and their flukes are 5-6m long
- the pattern on their flukes is unique (comparable to fingerprints) and can be used to identify individual whales
- adult humpbacks can stay down for 15 to 20 minutes whereas a calf has to come up every 3 minutes to breathe
- adult humpback whales do not feed for the 2-3 months that they spend at the silver banks
(their feeding grounds are in the north – Greenland, Iceland, Canada etc.)
- the tubercles at the rostrum are believed to provide some kind of sensory information
- it is currently not known how exactly a singer produces the sounds
Before the trip to the humpbacks I stayed a few nights at the Casa Colonial, situated directly at the famous Playa Dorada. As the name suggests the hotel is built in the colonial style, very beautiful with excellent staff and fantastic food. After the liveaboard, I stayed a week at the Sublime Samana, on Samana Peninsula, also directly at the beach and ideal for relaxing. Both hotels are members of “small luxury hotels” and I can unreservedly recommend them.