Our 2020 Humpback Whale Snorkeling Expedition in a Nutshell
by Jennifer Idol
Whale whale whale, what a trip. Snorkeling with humpback whales in the Dominican Republic is a unique peek into the breeding season with calves, mothers, escorts, challengers, and heat runs. We saw all the action, from tail slapping fun to bubbly “little” calves.
The first day is always a half day, which turned out to be a weather day from 27 knot winds. If there must be a weather day, the first day is best. We used it well to set up a plethora of cameras and for guests to get acquainted with rental gear. Though it was gusty, the coral reef pinnacles that define the eastern boundary of Silver Bank adequately offer protection from wild seas. This is also why vulnerable calves and mothers rest here before heading north to their feeding grounds.
Songs for the Ages
We found a singing whale on our first day and easily spent an hour listening to an elaborate song. Only male humpbacks sing on the Silver Bank and are found only when they come up to breathe. When you come up to them and are near their song, the vibrations are so strong it’s felt in your chest. We all had the opportunity to listen to the young male share his song in hopes for attracting a mate. I put together a short video that includes some of his singing and also offers a glimpse into the delightful group we had exploring the Silver Bank.
We were fortunate that the entire group was eager to see whales and followed the guidelines to ensure we didn’t disturb sleeping or nursing whales. It’s important to encounter whales in a way that doesn’t frighten them or get between them during aggressive mating behavior.
It’s all about the mommas and babies
Mother humpback whales like to keep a watchful eye on their calves and do not like them to become too curious or stray far from their mother. The calves generally breathe every 3-8 minutes, depending on their age, so they come to the surface more frequently than the mothers, which can breathe from 12-20 minutes. Ideally, we’re looking for relaxed moms and calves the exhibit behavior where the mom permits the calve to swim freely and not right next to her body.
We found a cooperative mother and calf our second day in the water. Everyone was elated and became extremely passionate for more encounters like that. Seeing a bouncy calf swim circles around the group was exciting, though mom didn’t appreciate her curious calf and escorted her away. We waved goodbye to the pair and hung out in the water sharing the experience before jumping back in the tender.
Topside behaviors are diverse on the Silver Bank
From pectoral fin slaps to full body breaches, both calves and adult humpback whales display a variety of behaviors. It’s not precisely known what the whales intend by their actions, but we do believe they are displaying behavior to communicate. We suspect some behavior such as full body breaching is used to attract attention for mating behavior. Tail slaps can be perceived as a dominant behavior. Other less usual behaviors include spy hopping, where the face is exposed to the surface purportedly to take a look around.
Pectoral fin slapping is sometimes guessed to be used to remove barnacles and parasites from skin. We observed several whales seemingly rolling around the water with this behavior.
Up Close and Personal
Though there are strict rules with the humpbacks, encounters are magical as seen here where guests got a close look at a calf. We didn’t come away with as many photos as we wanted or as many encounters, especially since the last two days, things got rowdy with the whales and they were definitely not settled. At one point, we even saw seven whales running around the coral heads bashing into one another. It was exciting to see and we certainly appreciated all our encounters. We just always want more, so we’re going back next year.
A 360º View
Whales surrounded us, including a few opportunities such as heat runs and curious swim throughs by male whales. Throughout the trip, we observed whales above and below water and on occasions such as this, we were able to dunk cameras in and get a better look at the activity. These two male humpbacks clearly took a look at our boat and circled around us briefly while we paused to look for more whale blows on the surface.
Everyone on the trip had an opportunity to find their own whale action and learned how to become keen observers for watching whale blow and tracking their movements. Tracking whales is an art and takes time to see how settled whales are between their blows. Whale behavior can be seen from as far away as 4 miles on the Silver Bank, limited only by the curvature of the Earth. Our goal is to find nearby whales and limit the amount of time we have to spend traveling. Visibility can also be challenging, as it was during our first few days. Visibility cleared our last two days during the rowdy action and we could easily follow whales across the reef.
Only three operators have permits to observe the humpback whales on the Silver Bank. This means a maximum of six small boats, tenders, out on the water to find whales. Our group took two of those boats so that we could have a reasonable amount of space and follow the limits for how many people are allowed in the water at a time with a whale. The other boats were also personable and our crew shared a camaraderie with the other operators that kept our encounters pleasant and sharing adventures. We all set out for areas of water that avoided other boats.
It should be noted that we observed fishermen rolling across the reef and we reported this because they should only be fishing outside the reef. The Dominican Republic certainly cares about our eco tourism, so we are hopeful that they will address any potential interruption in whale behavior from their fishing activity. In any case, we filmed them too. All subjects were fair game 🙂
The sun set on our adventure, but left us with beautiful memories of our in water calf and singer and connections with some wonderful like-minded humans. Next year we will be back in the Silver Bank for more encounters with humpbacks. We have a few spots left on our 2021 trip, scheduled for February 13-20.
Join trip leader Jennifer Idol for a week in the company of playful, gentle giants: Silver Banks Humpback Whale Expedition 2021