Greetings and welcome to this edition of our Cruise Reports, this for the week of March 10-16, 2018. Our guests included whaleswimmers from Scotland, Germany, Switzerland and even the US, with a number back for their second or fourth visits from England and Canada, too. Welcome to one and all!
As I’ve written before, no two weeks are ever the same and that is a big part of what keeps guests coming back. Swimming with whales can be highly addictive and we are happy to fulfill that need in others (and ourselves).
(Photos: Ben Vieyra, aerial photos Gene Flipse)
The Reef on the Silver Bank
Geographically, the Silver Bank is a dramatic seascape, with depths of an average of 60’ – 90’, a large plateau rising sharply from the much deeper surrounding waters that exceed 12,000 feet deep. Along the northeastern edge of the Bank is a coral reef comprised of countless coral heads that rise to the surface of the ocean, limited only by the height of low tide in the area. Our mooring is behind the reef where we are sheltered from the prevailing easterly seas. These shallower, protected waters are what draw the humpbacks to the area, too.
Whale Swimming, Shallow & Deep
Our first interaction this week was with a pair of adult humpback whales resting in the reef in the deeper waters between coral heads. The duo spent considerable time comfortably snoozing between the rocks, which gave us an ideal situation for an early swim. One big benefit of swimming in the reef is the water is shallower affording a better view than whales that are settled farther below in deeper waters.
By comparison, one of our last interactions of the week went the other direction, toward the drop off, as we tracked a mother, calf and escort as they moved into the deeper water outside the reef to the north. Winds were calm, affording us a rare opportunity, but with a large rolling swell that was reminiscent of big moving hills of water. Out here, in waters that were close to one thousand feet deep, just before the abyssal depths that surround, we had an exciting swim, all the more so because of the unusual location. And in addition to the whales, a pair of 3’ long silky sharks who curiously circled at the surface greeted our swimmers, too. This was a rare treat as sharks are rarely seen in the area due to long-term heavy pressure from local commercial fishing interests.
For all the whales here playing the mating game, this seemed to be the week of the rowdies. As the season moves ahead the competition between the males can get quite intense and the mood seemed hot this week. On several occasions we were able to track and watch groups of as many as 8 male humpbacks as they fought for the coveted position of escort at the female’s side. It is a classic test of fitness where the female sets the pace and sometimes adds energy to the competition by engaging in provocative surface behaviors to spur the males on. On the other side the males, and especially the escort fighting to maintain his position, will engage in a variety of threat display behaviors such as blowing bubble trails; vocalizing with trumpeting, growls and more; and “motorboating”, which is swimming with an exaggerated head-up, back-arched position intended to intimidate challengers.
The fun thing about tracking rowdies is that while some behaviors, as spectacular as they are, are over in a few moments, a fully engaged group of rowdies can be active for an hour or more. Sometimes we have seen large groups charging around in the distance all day, their blows puffing on the horizon like a steam train. There is really nothing that can match the extended displays of hundreds of thousands of pounds of fired up male humpback whales for sheer high-energy excitement.
We often have guests who are returning to the Silver Bank for a repeat visit but this week one guest was making a return of a different sort. Richard Sears first visited the Silver Bank in the 1980s as part of a group of up and coming whale researchers first studying the amazing breeding aggregation on the Silver Bank, coming here before the area was even declared a sanctuary by the Dominican authorities. Richard made numerous expeditions during those years and has also traveled with Conscious Breath Adventures on three other occasions, too. All of us were keen to hear his stories and the evening presentation he offered about his current work with blue, finback and humpback whales at his research station in Mingan Island, Quebec, Canada. We visited his station a few years back and if you are ever looking for an adventure with blues and finbacks, make the trek yourself! Learn more at www.Rorqual.com
Richard was bemused by another current aspect of the Silver Bank: the demise of the wreck of the Polyxeni. The 240’ freighter Polyxeni grounded on the reef in the 1970s and when Richard and company were here in the ‘80’s it was still an essentially intact ship. But the years have not been kind and after 2017’s hurricanes Irma and Maria, which crossed directly through the area, virtually nothing remains visible above the waterline except at low tide. It was remarkable to think that he was now swimming over what he used to stand on…
Everyone loves an exciting finish and in that spirit our best interaction of the week occurred on the last afternoon, when our boat Fluke found a mother and calf resting in the reef. The calf is a big healthy boy, estimated at somewhere over two months in age based on his size and behavior. Generally a mother with a younger calf tends to keep it very close by but as they get older and stronger mothers are often more confident and comfortable and don’t mind if the calf wanders a bit further away. In this case that meant repeatedly swimming over to be with us closely in the water while mom slept below. Sometimes during surface breaks it meant performing a series of sky high breaches, sometimes coming 100% out of the water, fluke and all, which is unusually athletic. From all indications this big guy will be ready for his trip north very soon. And after a couple hours and as the day and week wound down mom finally decided to join the show and she fired off just as we were finishing our last swim of the week. What a great send off for another unique week.
See you next week!