Of humpbacks and humans

| September 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
From January through April, the world's largest gathering of humpback whales takes place in waters of the Dominican Republic's 775-square-kilometre Silver Bank. Here, photographer Mike Beedell takes a photo of a curious whale. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

From January through April, the world’s largest gathering of humpback whales takes place in waters of the Dominican Republic’s 775-square-kilometre Silver Bank. Here, photographer Mike Beedell takes a photo of a curious whale. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

People say that absolutely nothing compares to swimming eye-to-eye with a 30,000-kilogram humpback whale with a body as long as a rail box-car. They’re right.

The humans call her Canopy. She is famous among snorkellers for her friendly, relaxed and trusting way with humans and her affectionate behaviour towards her male calf.
Today, she is resting close to the ocean bottom of the Dominican Republic’s Silver Bank Sanctuary in a sheltered and shallow coral reef, ideal for a nursery. She surfaces only every 20 minutes or so. Unlike automatic breathers — humans and other land creatures — humpbacks are one of the many water mammals who are “conscious breathers.” To survive, they must decide when to seek each breath of air.
Her calf has to breathe every four or five minutes. This means, to our delight as we swim above them, that we have a chance 10 times an hour to watch him surface and to be near him.
Sometimes he rises straight up from beneath the protective canopy of his 18-metre-long mother. But sometimes he also plays with us and bolts around, once just missing us with his pectoral fin. At one-third of their body length, an adult humpback’s “pecs” are five metres long — the longest among cetaceans and the longest appendages of any living animal. Calves have to master manoeuvring their long pecs, much as human babies gain control over their arms.
With a 900-kilogram birth weight and measuring an average of three to four and a half metres long, a calf can create some wonderful excitement for the swimmers, whirling around them at great speeds. Most of the time, this calf spends only a few minutes at the surface, then slowly descends, sometimes to nurse. Sometimes he settles right across Canopy’s massive head or lies under one of her pecs, which she opens to draw him in beneath her.

The mother-calf relationship is fascinating to watch, with many displays of affection and even playfulness typical of land mammals, and varying with the distinctive personalities of the individual whales. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

The mother-calf relationship is fascinating to watch, with many displays of affection and even playfulness typical of land mammals, and varying with the distinctive personalities of the individual whales. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

I am at some distance from the other swimmers when Canopy rises unexpectedly to the surface right next to me. We swam, eye to eye, with the greatest sense of peace imaginable.
This is what we all came for — and were privileged to experience. Privileged, also, because, in order to prevent excessive human contact with the whales, a permit system for vessels effectively allows only about 500 guests to visit the Silver Bank Sanctuary each year, including this expedition with the Florida-based Conscious Breath Adventures.

Waiting for whales and weather
The expedition’s mother ship is the beautifully appointed 42-metre Belize Aggressor IV, the largest vessel to gain permission to travel to Silver Bank. Days begin waking up in a stateroom dominated by a huge picture window just above the water surface. Seeing dawn from the top deck of a total of four, coffee in hand, with two fellow early risers, is a fine entry into the day. A big hot and cold breakfast buffet, featuring eggs made-to-order, follows. And then the wait…
Our captain, Gene Flipse of Conscious Breath Adventures, has led these expeditions for years and is expert in humpback behaviour and the ecology of the ocean. He and his crew are on constant lookout for whales we can find and swim with on a calm day. So are we.

Members of the group photograph the male calf as his calm mother, named Canopy by whale researchers, surfaces for a breath. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

Members of the group photograph the male calf as his calm mother, named Canopy by whale researchers, surfaces for a breath. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

In a big ocean, we are scanning the waves for a humpback whale blow — the telltale vapour from its two blow holes that appears as a tall plume of rising mist.
Sometimes the wind is too high for us to go out on one of the two tenders — the 7.6-metre fibreglass boats that ferry us to a whale blow, or on a hunt for whales.
Flipse has specially fitted his two identical boats with comfortable benches, a place to stash gear (snorkel, mask, fins, towel, jacket) and high visibility from 360 degrees. These tenders are humourously named Pec and Fluke (fluke for the signature and often-photographed beautiful tail of the humpback during a graceful dive).
The mother ship once carried the lyrical Sundancer II name, but has been acquired by the Aggressor Fleet and now, the Belize-based ship goes by Belize Aggressor IV (incongruous, considering its mission is to conserve whales by introducing people to them in their water habitat.)
The weather this time of year — March — can be unseasonably windy, the ocean choppy. Around 8:30 a.m., if the winds are not too high, we will have 15 minutes to struggle into our wetsuits, pull together all our gear and line up to board a tender.
One of the tender captains takes us to the whale plume. As we approach, Flipse or Ben V. (our crew go by first names) dives in to precisely locate the whale. If the whale doesn’t swim away, he points vigorously down as a signal for us to put on our masks, snorkels and flippers and line up to drop over the side into the water with as little splash as possible.

Writer Donna Jacobs photographs a whale surfacing for a breath. These are the most-prized times for the snorkellers —  a chance to be very close to the whales who sometimes sociably approach. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

Writer Donna Jacobs photographs a whale surfacing for a breath. These are the most-prized times for the snorkellers — a chance to be very close to the whales who sometimes sociably approach. (Photo: Mike Beedell)

Calm snorkeling in flat water has little in common with the unusually incessant wind-driven 1.5-metre waves we are mostly swimming in. As a swell raises us up, we sometimes catch a glimpse of another swimmer or two from atop our watery hill. But then we drop down and are visually quite alone at the bottom of the trough of pitching water.
It is a wonderful ride on this undulating roller coaster, though it is very reassuring to see the other swimmers, just in case we have drifted away from the group. Of course, we’re under the watchful eyes of the tender captain. It doesn’t happen to any of us, but underscores why we are told to stay together, yet try to arrange ourselves in a line so as not to disturb the whales with a bunched presence.
We stay with the whales either until they leave, or we trade off spots with our sister tender if that group has still not encountered whales.
If you’re wet, it is easy to get cold in the fast-moving tenders. Wetsuits, operating on the principle that body temperature will warm the small layer of water between our skin and the suit, work fine in the water. Coats, sweaters and towels come in handy to stay warm on the tender. So does a hot shower, available in each stateroom.
To prepare for this experience, we are advised to practise with a snorkel, mask and fins. Gatineau-based photographer Mike Beedell has spent hours with my ship roommate and me in a local pool. In the pool, Beedell turns taskmaster, making us dive, deliberately having us fill our snorkels with water and teaching us how to clear them. What could be more attention-getting than his warning that a snorkel can easily “turn into a straw”?
Others on the trip are already wonderfully proficient and carry huge cameras. We are warned not to be so busy capturing images that we miss the experience. In fact, for the first time since I’ve known Beedell (having been on three other water-based expeditions with him,) one day he swims with us, but leaves his camera behind. The author and wildlife photographer’s photos have appeared in National Geographic, Canadian Geographic, Time, and Macleans among other publications. His arresting full-page wildlife photos appear in Photo Finish, the final page of each issue of this magazine.

Catapulting humpies
This sanctuary is a truly rare place on Earth for “humpies.” They are an absolute favourite among whale watchers for their exuberant behaviours, friendly curiosity and even playfulness towards humans.
We see them breach — they catapult their enormous bulk straight up, almost to their tail and crash down on their side. In pec or tail slapping, they lie on their sides and repeatedly slap their pectoral fins or tails loudly. When spy-hopping, they standing straight up with their heads out of the water to look around.
And, of course, they produce a fascinating range of sounds, which we hear through a hydrophone dropped into the water. We aren’t lucky enough to pick up a “singer,” always a male, whose precise song can last for 20 minutes and carry a full 30 kilometres. Those near it can feel it in the long bones of their legs and arms, their chest and abdomen as the water content of a human responds by carrying the sound waves as the ocean does.
Flipse has recorded several humpback whale songs on his website, which some people include as an extraordinary part of their computer’s play list.
From January through April, the largest gathering in the world of North Atlantic humpback whales appears in the Dominican Republic’s 775-square-kilometre Silver Bank. There, as many as 5,000 North Atlantic humpback whales gather to give birth to, or to court and mate. It is a scant 60 nautical miles north of Puerto Plata, on the country’s north coast.
In his introductory evening audiovisual presentation, Flipse, exaggerating the plentitude of humpback sightings, laughs and tells us: “If your eyes are closed up on deck, you’re going to see humpback whales.” And, to late-risers: “If you’re not on deck at sunrise, look out the window from bed and do some whale watching.”
In 1986, long before most countries were thinking of protecting the whales who visited their waters, the Dominican Republic set aside the Silver Bank Whale Sanctuary and 10 years later, greatly increased its size. It is now part of its huge Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals. While the world’s first sanctuary was created in the Indian Ocean to manage southern whale populations, the Dominican Republic sanctuary was the first devoted solely to conservation. It’s also a place to spot beaked whales, sperm whales and dolphins.
For thousands of humpbacks, it is their first and only stop, while others choose breeding grounds in nearby Caribbean locations. All are on their way south in the winter from northern locations — Iceland, Greenland, Canada’s East Coast and Gulf of St. Lawrence and New England.
In their northern homes, an adult can eat 1,360 kilograms daily of tiny krill and other crustaceans, along with herring, capelin, salmon, mackerel, haddock and pollock. Humpbacks are baleen whales who strain their food through long thin plates that culminate in a long brush-like fringe that hangs down from their upper jaw. With their now-enormous supply of blubber, they start an extraordinary migration — at thousands of kilometres, one of the longest in the animal world — to reach the warm waters.
According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), humpbacks have the longest migration of any mammal — the record being an 18,840-kilometre trip from American Samoa in the South Pacific Ocean to the Antarctic Peninsula. The much-studied route between Alaska and Hawaii clocked humpbacks travelling the 4,830-kilometre trip in just 36 days — averaging 135 kilometres per day.
Once they arrive at their southern destinations in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean to mate, give birth and nurse, they do not eat.
Males, too, have journeyed to these tropical blue waters in a hormonal frenzy to win a female. These “rowdies” will compete with each other, racing along almost in synchrony, pushing and crashing into each other. A female can sometimes be spotted on the sidelines watching this, often with an escort who may be a relative or a contender himself.
Sometimes in their exhaustingly forceful competition of push and shove, as the males compete for the right to mate with her — she will choose but one, if any — the apparently annoyed female will breach, launching herself half-straight out of the water and splash down with an enormous wave and water displacement that shows her displeasure.
Humpbacks, with their lifespan of about 50 years, have given scientists time to photograph and identify thousands of them by the distinct patterns of their flukes and tail. This species is found in every ocean and a recent revision of their status acknowledges a rebound in their numbers. It limits endangered populations to four locations: Cape Verde Islands/northwest Africa, western North Pacific, Central America and the Arabian Sea, with one threatened species listing in Mexico. The chief causes of humpback whale deaths or low birth rates are entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, harassment by whale watchers and harvesting.
Once the pups are large, gaining weight at a fantastic rate, and ready for the long migration to the food-rich waters of the North Atlantic, the mother humpback travels with a year-old calf able to feed itself.

Our “home” boat
A word about the many hours aboard this beautifully equipped and well-staffed floating home. Besides having every convenience, from air conditioning to a huge plasma screen, it also has the capacity to desalinate 13,200 litres of water daily, making it drinkable for seafarers. The food Chef Jerry C. produces for every dietary preference is superb, ending each day with an elegant four-course, sit-down dinner.
At eight crew per maximum 18 visitors, the staff to guest ratio is high and produces an atmosphere of friendliness, genuine warmth and helpfulness from every crew member. The ship’s first captain, Eddie A., who operates the vessel, gives a tour of the engine room and its desalination equipment, and also connects ship-to-shore phone calls. We wonder how everyone could be so engaging, and find it in themselves to begin so wholeheartedly with a whole new group the following week.
A land component provides the trip’s terra firma balance. The first two days are “landed” ones, just east of Puerto Plata, in the tourist town of Cabarete. The first night’s stay is at the charming Secret Garden resort, run by a couple whose breakfasts include homegrown fruits and vegetables. The other is at the Natura Cabana, a large resort and spa with a first-class restaurant. They are either on or a block from the wild, but swimmable, ocean along which we later took a peaceful trail ride on horseback.
And before our final night aboard the ship, Beedell took us on a photo expedition. It began with a cable-car ride to Puerto Plata’s Mount Isabel de Torres with its botanical gardens, whose beautiful statue of Christ resembles the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.
Besides stunning views of Puerto Plata and its coast, we could look north to the Atlantic Ocean, which we briefly shared with humpback whales.

Donna Jacobs is Diplomat’s publisher. The tour company’s website is consciousbreathadventures.com and you can find Flipse’s whale song recordings at consciousbreathadventures.com/singing/

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Donna Jacobs is Diplomat's publisher

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