Humpback Whales are migratory animals. They spend their spring, summer, and fall months feeding in colder waters and during their breeding and calving season, they’ll migrate to warmer waters. Unfortunately for the whales, the warmer waters are not productive enough to be able to provide them with a stable food source of any kind so during these winter months they actually fast and rely on their fat reserves to survive. In the process, they obviously lose a lot of weight before the cycle repeats and they migrate back to the feeding grounds where they’ll once again bulk up and put on as much weight as possible to survive the migration south again. This all sounds so crazy doesn’t it? Why would they choose to leave an area where they have food available to go an area with no food that forces them to fast for months at a time? The answer is pretty simple. They do it for species survival. The water on the feeding grounds is far too cold for calves to be born in. If they were born there, they would not survive. So, while it is incredibly taxing on their bodies, they do need that warmer water in order to ensure that their young will survive.
The Gulf of Maine population has several feeding grounds to choose from, but my own experiences have been limited to Jeffrey’s Ledge and Stellwagen Bank. They’ll typically start arriving here sometime in March and will start leaving here in November. These whales migrate south to the warm waters of the Caribbean to an area known as Silver Bank. Silver Bank is located about 70 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic. In 1986, the Dominican Republic realized how crucial Silver Bank was for these then endangered whales and they established the Silver Bank Sanctuary. Ten years later, this sanctuary was added to the much larger Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic Sanctuary.
The Dominican Republic does a really great job with restricting access to both the whales and the Silver Bank area during the whale season. Of course, being located 70 miles offshore doesn’t exactly make Silver Bank easily accessible for the average boater, but there are still strict guidelines in place. One of which being that any vessel entering the waters of Silver Bank must have a permit to do so. Included in these permitted boats are three different guides that are allowed to bring a small number of guests out to be able to watch the whales and even snorkel with them. Conscious Breath Adventures I the guide that I’ve been out with in 2014, 2017, and 2018.
I have to say that I’ve always felt that Silver Bank is pure magic. I’ll never forget arriving at the anchorage on that very first morning. We were treated to one of the most incredible sunrises that I’d ever seen. Humpback Whales could be seen breaching, flipper slapping, and even just spouting in every direction! Rowdy groups could be seen charging through an area as they fought for breeding rights. For a “whale head” like me it was pure heaven! Being 70 miles offshore there are no phones, no tvs, no computers, nothing… just you (and the other guests of course) and nature. There’s also no light pollution that far offshore so the stargazing is absolutely breathtaking. As someone who doesn’t travel a lot or go to remote places like this, I was literally blown away when I got my first look at the night sky. The stars looked close enough to touch and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see shooting stars throughout the night. Silver Bank is not only a sanctuary for the whales, it’s become a sanctuary for me as well. I just wish I had the means to spend more time out there. If I could, I most certainly would!
MY EXPERIENCES ON SILVER BANK
The odds of seeing one of “my” whales out on Silver Bank is slim to none. It’s not that the whales aren’t there, it’s more that we cover a very small area of the Bank. It’s literally like finding a needle in a haystack, yet somehow I was lucky enough to see several of my whales while there.
2014 (3/1 – 3/8)
During my trip in 2014, I was fortunate enough to see two whales that I knew and as crazy as it is, these whales actually found me rather than me finding them. Just an example of some of that Silver Bank magic.
It happened on our last day at the anchorage. It was Friday morning and the crew was busy getting the SunDancer ready to leave the anchorage to head back to the marina. All of us guests were busy enjoying our breakfast and our last few minutes of whale watching from the mother ship on Silver Bank. That’s when we noticed that there were two whales rolling around behind us. Needless to say, breakfast got cold as we all watched on in awe. As we watched them, the whales just kept getting closer and closer until they were within feet of the boat. They were clearly engaged in socialization behavior as we’d seen earlier in the week. This behavior is referred to as “dancing” and it’s believed to be the final stages of courtship behavior.
As we watched, one of them rolled over and raised her flukes up out of the water. I immediately recognized the fluke pattern and knew how special this sighting truly was! This was a whale known as Sanchal and she just so happens to be the 2008 calf of our most famous whale named Salt! Just a few minutes later the other whale raised his flukes and revealed his identity. He too is the calf of a very popular whale in our population, a whale named Nile. Can you believe that? Two of “my” whales came to me on my last morning on the Bank and not only that, they are the calves of two of our most popular whales themselves! What an epic calf that would’ve been, the grandcalf of Salt and Nile!
2017 (2/18 – 2/25)
My trip in 2017 brought more familiarity to me. It was Monday afternoon and we had just left the mother ship to go find some whales when we spotted two whales being very active at the surface. We headed over to check them out and as one of the whales began lob-tailing I knew who it was instantly. It was Putter! This whale has a bit of a reputation for being active and on this afternoon he certainly lived up to that. He treated us to a lot of lob-tailing and breaching. It was one of the most spectacular displays I’d ever seen!
After we watched Putter and his unidentified companion for a while we moved on to find yet another pair of surface active whales. Again, I recognized one of them right away. It was a whale named Daffodil. The really awesome thing about Daffodil is that I’ve known her since her calf year so it was extra special for me to see her on the breeding grounds. Much like Putter, Daffodil was doing a lot of lob-tailing and tail breaching. It was another spectacular display.
Although I was already over the moon about seeing Putter and Daffodil, it got even better for me later on in the week. It was Wednesday when we finally found a mother and calf to snorkel with. I have to admit I was losing hope of being able to swim with a mom and calf pair. The pairs we’d seen up until this point were elusive and on the move. None of them really wanted to settle so this new opportunity to swim with this mom and calf pair was very exciting.
This mother was very chill and had a very predictable behavioral pattern. She would rest motionless near the seafloor just drifting along where the current took her. After about 20 minutes, she would slowly and effortlessly drift up towards the surface for a few breaths of air before arching her back and heading down to rest again. This pattern repeated continuously while we watched. While she would stay below for 20 minutes at a time, her calf couldn’t hold his breath for quite that long so he’d come up every 4-5 minutes for air.
On one particular surfacing from the mom we ended up kind of behind her as she arched her back and dove. We were positioned just right to see her fluke pattern and when I saw it I literally felt like my heart was about to burst. I KNEW her! She was one MY whales! This was Canopy! Being under the water I couldn’t tell our guide right away who it was, but I know I blurted it out pretty quickly once we got back on the tender! This was an extra special experience for me. Not only finally finding a mom and calf pair to swim with, but to also realize that I knew who she was. I still think about this experience a lot.
We swam with Canopy quite a bit on that day and that’s who we ended our week in the water with the following day as well. The interesting thing is that the first day that we swam with them the calf seemed to be curious, but also shy. For the most part he stayed safely tucked under Canopy as he watched what we were doing. The next day he was feeling a lot braver and made a couple of closer approaches to check us out. You could see some playfulness and maybe even a little bit of mischief as he rolled around and made his close approaches. He was a fun one to snorkel with for sure.
As for Canopy, I can’t say enough good things about her. She was such a relaxed mom and was totally comfortable in our presence. She herself even became very curious about us at one point. She was swimming along down the line of us snorkelers and she rolled on her side so her belly was facing us. It’s believed that when they do this it’s so they can see us with both of their eyes. So there we were. A line of snorkelers just floating side by side with this 50’ whale swimming so close she could reach out and touch us with her giant pectoral flipper if she wanted to. It was literally like looking at a wall of whale. If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, I can’t say that anything would! It was exhilarating to say the least.
2018 (3/31 – 4/7)
Unfortunately, I didn’t see anyone that I recognized in my 2018 visit, but it was a special week in its own right. The weather was absolutely perfect. All season long the weather had been an issue for whale swimmers, but on this week we were treated to lake like conditions from day one. The whales were pretty unsettled for whatever reason so our chances to get in the water were few, but we did manage to get one really incredible look at a mom, calf, and escort trio. On the topside, we also had some really incredible surface activity.
"We owe it to our children to be better stewards of the environment. The alternative? - a world without whales. It's too terrible to imagine." ~ Pierce Brosnan