“Hope for Humpbacks”: A Collaboration with the Florida Museum of Natural History

In September, 2017, I received a text message from an old friend here in our hometown of Gainesville, alerting me to a story in the local media about a humpback whale skeleton on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History (Florida Museum), the official state museum located at the University of Florida. At the time the skeleton was assembled and ready to be displayed as part of the Florida Museum’s 100th anniversary celebration that was starting near the end of that month. The short article was a fun read

The article related the efforts of Exhibit Fabricator Mike Adams to assemble 259 pieces of a skeleton that had been sitting loose in a big box on the shelf for many years. Adams had never assembled a whale skeleton before and his team of seven spent seven months working on it, including making visits to other museums and talking to scientists to be sure they got it right. There were even an additional five bones missing that had to be 3D printed to fill the gaps. Finally, the completed five hundred pound skeleton went on display.

After Cloe and I read the story Cloe suggested I contact the Florida Museum to introduce myself. Perhaps the Florida Museum would be interested to know that someone who worked intimately with these very whales lived just down the street? I searched Mike Adams’ name online, found his email address at the Museum and sent him a message congratulating him on his project and letting him know that if the Florida Museum wanted some additional material to “flesh out” the skeleton for their visitors I had some content that might be of interest. Mike quickly wrote back that there was interest indeed!

Soon I was at the Florida Museum meeting Mike; Director of Exhibits & Public Programs, Darcie MacMohan; Tina Choe of Exhibits & Outreach; and other members of the Exhibits team. During the meeting I shared my background of growing up in South Florida, my career as a captain of liveaboard dive boats, and with the humpback whales of the Silver Bank. I illustrated this latter part with a selection which I have collected over the years of some of my favorite topside and underwater photos and video, as well as audio tracks of humpback whale song recorded with my hydrophone. It was serendipitous timing as the skeleton was to be moved to a permanent position in April 2018 and they had been commenting on the lack of additional media to support the display. I was happy to help.

Before I left home in January to launch our 2018 Silver Bank season I provided them all my presentation material plus much more and the exhibit team went to work. After a few consultations from the Dominican Republic during my eleven weeks away I returned home just in time to see the fruits of their labor on the day before the official opening. The exhibit is named “Hope for Humpbacks” and here is what they created:


“Hope for Humpbacks” occupies an entire wall opposite the Florida Museum’s research workstations.

The display is an entire wall of a hallway opposite the Florida Museum’s windowed scientific workstations. and features life-sized silhouettes of humpback whales painted on it. To one side is a selection of topside photos of surface behaviors along with an infographic with  information about the status of the humpback whale, the Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic, Conscious Breath Adventures and myself.

In addition to a selection of photos there is an infographic about the seven month project to assemble the skeleton.

To the right side is a selection of underwater images that emphasize the close and endearing bond between mother and calf. All the photos throughout have captions explaining the behaviors of the whales or the nature of the mother/calf relationship.

This silhouette is the same size as “Humphrey”, the actual whale whose skeleton was reassembled for the exhibit.

Because the wall is not quite large enough to encompass an entire adult humpback whale, portions of adults are painted toward each end. In the center is one complete silhouette which matches in size the whale that provided the skeleton, a young 26’ male whale collected in 1990 from the shore at New Smyrna Beach, Florida. After the Florida Museum ran an online contest to name the whale, it is now known as “Humphrey”.

Here, too, is a ceramic sculpture of a humpback whale by artist Ariel Bowman, a graduate of the University of Florida with a Master of Fine Arts, who was also inspired to “flesh-out” Humphrey’s skeleton in a completely different way, creating this lifelike model. 

An infographic about population distribution and migration and an interactive touch table anchor the center of the exhibit.

Central to the exhibit is another educational infographic about humpback whale populations and migration provided by the producers of Macgillivray Freeman’s film Humpback Whales.  Just below that is one of my favorite features, an interactive touch-table with videos and humpback whale songs.

The technology of the “touch-table” has changed over the years!

Back when I was a kid a touch-table at a museum was usually a painted panel with a few buttons and lights: push a button to identify something on the panel with an illuminated light (“Can you find the koala?”), or maybe push a button to hear an animal’s call (“Listen to the roar of a lion!”). The technology sure has changed since then! Now a touch-table is a large touch-screen monitor, this one with three ways to interact by watching short underwater and drone videos, listening to a variety of recordings of whale songs, or watching a short video about how Mike Adam’s team assembled Humphrey. 

Taken together the exhibit as a whole provides an attractive introduction to humpback whales. The name of the exhibit is “Hope for Humpbacks” but as I consulted with the exhibits team I emphasized that while the final exhibit should be encouraging it should not give visitors the false impression that everything is fine for the whales. It is not. While humpback populations are increasing overall, cetaceans, along with all marine species, face an increasing number of large-scale environmental threats that create a very uncertain outlook for the future. “Hope for Humpbacks” touches on those, inspiring and educating at the same time, which is an important goal of Conscious Breath Adventures, too!

Hope for Humpbacks will be on display until the end of the year and I hope that if you have a chance to visit the Florida Museum you will enjoy seeing the exhibit as much as I have enjoyed contributing. And if you do, please let us know! We are just down the street and would be happy to meet you.

Humphrey’s permanent display at the Florida Museum of Natural History

Conscious Breath Adventures’ Cruise Report, Week 10: Mar. 31 – Apr. 7, 2018

Greetings to One and All,

Hello and warm spring greetings from Florida! After a happy return home and a much needed short hiatus, it is my pleasure to welcome you to our tenth and final edition of our Cruise Reports for our 2018 Silver Bank humpback whale season. The whales are heading north to their summer feeding grounds, some have probably already arrived, and we wish them safe travels and a big thank you for spending time with us this year. Thanks to you too, for joining us and reading our updates.


Beautiful weather on the Silver Bank

While one can never predict with complete accuracy the actions of weather and wildlife on any week, month or season, we often do find that the weather can be better during the later weeks of the season. We certainly had our challenges with weather early this year but that good-weather generalization came true this last week, with picture perfect conditions; sunny days, light breezes and calm seas. It made for wonderful holiday weather and was such a treat for everyone.


Mother humpback & her playful calf

Out on the water there were many whales around. Single female humpbacks come to the Silver Bank and the Caribbean to court and mate and once they are pregnant, depart the area soon after: it’s time to get back to the feeding grounds and start eating for two! Their visits can be rather short. But the females who became pregnant last season have traveled to give birth here or somewhere nearby and once their calf is born they like to stick around a couple months or so for the calf to gain size and strength for the long swim to their summer feeding grounds. Their visits can be much longer. The male whales are here for as many opportunities to mate as possible and many will stick around until “closing time” even as the ratio of available females changes. This leads to some of the larger “rowdy” groups we see each year, too. Of course none of these whales have eaten in many weeks or a few months and some leave as needed to get back to feeding.

With this equation in mind it makes sense that during the week we saw many mothers and calves, often accompanied by a male escort. Generally the maternal pairs maintain fairly discreet and wide spacing between each other, keeping mostly to themselves. Most mothers will avoid others and move away when paths cross, as endearing as it sounds baby humpbacks do not get together for “playdates”. But on two occasions we watched two pairs of mothers and calves swimming side by side for more than five minutes at a stretch, which is very uncommon. And on one occasion we were watching three maternal pairs all within one hundred yards of each other for nearly a half hour, more unusual still!


A very energetic breach from a large humpback calf

Many of these whales were active, with big, energetic calves cavorting at the surface with lots of breaching and pec-slapping on display. These “little” ones loved to play and sometimes the adults were happy to join in the action, too. During one memorable display mother, calf and escort were all engaged in a simultaneous communal round of pec-slapping.

Mother and escort slapping their pec fins 


Can I come closer..?

In the water the restless energy sometimes made it challenging to keep up but the intensity of these interactions was amazing. Late in the season the lingering mothers often have bigger, older and bolder calves who are not shy and whom she doesn’t have to worry about as much. We had some interactions where our guests, floating motionless in the water, were approached and circled very closely by not just the calves but the mothers, too. It is an experience that gets the heart racing, for sure! They are huge but so aware of themselves and everything around them in the water. Our season’s closing in-water encounters left us in no doubt of that and of course has us already excited for next year!

Mother, calf and escort


A boat-side interaction

And sometimes the experience that leaves everyone talking the most isn’t in the water at all. All our guests had a wonderful, extended encounter, with a mother, calf and escort who slowly circled the boats repeatedly, the calf sometimes rolling up to bring its eye out of the water to have a better look at us. I wonder if and hope that they will be safely checking out whale watchers up north in a similar fashion later this summer. Click the image or click here to watch a short video of these fun whales. 


Before long the week and our season were coming to an end and we bid a sad farewell to the friendly whales, big sea and green flashes of the Silver Bank, until next January. 

A Green Flash at sunset


M/V Belize Aggressor IV

In closing, I’d like to give special thanks to the Ministry of the Environment & Natural Resources for creating and maintaining the Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic, which under their stewardship is a model of successful and ethical human-cetacean interaction ecotourism. Many thanks and deep respects to the crew of the M/V Belize Aggressor IV for all their hard work and professionalism during the three months they are away from home and family. Hats off to all the staff of the Ocean World Marina and vicinity during our critical hours ashore every weekend. My many heart-felt thanks to Cloe & Lucaya for their support on the home front while I am away. And my biggest thanks go to both the humpback whales of the Silver Bank and the many wonderful guests who travel with us to visit them. Thank you to all who joined us this year! And for you armchair whaleswimmers, I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading these Reports as much as I enjoyed writing them.

We’ll be back next year and hope to introduce more of you to this very special corner of the sea and it’s ocean giants. Please get in touch soon at Info@ConsciousBreathAdventures.com if you would like to join us. I’m home and can chat so give me a call!

Keep in touch and be sure to watch this space for more posts before our 2019 season comes along.

Sincerely,

Capt. Gene Flipse and the entire Conscious Breath Adventures crew: Jeff, Ben & Cloe.

The Conscious Breath Adventures team: Jeff, Ben, Cloe, Lucaya & Gene

Conscious Breath Adventures’ Cruise Report: Week 9, Mar. 24-30, 2018

A happy hello to all of our readers from Puerto Plata on the north coast of the sun-splashed Dominican Republic. Our 2018 Silver Bank humpback whale season is moving ahead and the days are getting longer, minute by minute, a little more every week. Who wouldn’t be happy with a few extra minutes with the whales? Thanks for reading as I tell you about some of the great action from Week 9.

Our friends from March 1 & 21

 

The excitement started from day one with a familiar duo, the same mother and calf from Week 8 that we swam with on Wednesday, and the same two whales featured in the captivating aerial footage from March 1 that I’ve shared with you before. This is a great momma to know and to find again! She has the most at-ease and relaxed disposition of just about any whale we’ve encountered this season, completely content to snooze at or near the surface for hours at a time, moving just a body length or two during each of her breath cycles. Her calf is a big one now, too, and mother is comfortable letting the calf wander farther afield to interact with our swimmers. What more can be said except that spending an afternoon visiting the pair can’t help but fulfill every whale-swimming dream. It is just amazing to think that here we are, seventy miles from land, hanging out with a couple whales just like loafing around with friends inyour living room at home.

The calf with mouth open looks like its having a jolly gig belly laugh


This juvenile liked popping up close to surprise us

 

On another occasion our boat “Fluke” acme across a single young whale wandering the Silver Bank. From time to time we find these juvenile whales, which are not calves any more but are not quite old enough to be fully involved in the courtship and mating game just yet. We think of them as the bored and restless teenagers of the Bank, kicking around singly or in pairs, goofing off and playing around. When we cross paths with these “juvies” they can be very curious and highly interactive with the boats but are usually indifferent or uninterested with swimmers in the water; we rarely try to swim with them.

So it was with this whale which spent well over an hour diving down out of sight just to unexpectedly reappear minutes later, spyhopping just beside the boat as if trying to sneak up on our guests, or swimming directly beside and below, so close one could have reached out and touched it. Sometimes it would fire off some big surface behaviors like a peduncle throw or lobtail, as if to mix things up. Even without getting in the water it makes for a very exciting interaction.

When the whales are this close just leaning over the side with a camera will get the shot


A dorsal (inverted) lobtail

A “peduncle throw”, a.k.a. “tail breach”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Other days offered a wide variety of behaviors including extended displays of pectoral fin slapping, lobtailing, peduncle throws and even the always-popular crowd-pleasing breaches, sometimes just yards from the boats. There were excellent opportunities for photographers, videographers and enthusiastic whale-watchers alike.

A humpback whale performs a “pec-slap”

A “chin breach”

 

 

 

 

 

 


An especially precocious calf

 

Our last day of the week was one of our best, saving some of the best for last. In the morning all of our guests had a few exhilarating passes from one very playful and outgoing calf who would come so close you could count the barnacles growing on its chin. Mom shortly got a little tired of looking after her excitable baby and moved on leaving everyone laughing in their wake.

Later in the day one of our boats located a classic scenario, another mother and calf resting between the shallow coral heads in the reef. Mom was conked out, with a resting breath cycle of over twenty minutes, long for a mother with calf. The calf was happy to play around while she napped, sometimes even circling the swimmers, an action of which most mother humpbacks disapprove. But this mom wasn’t bothered at all, allowing us all to spend the last hours of the day and week cavorting with her calf. What a great way to end a week!

happy whales snoozing in the reef

Conscious Breath Adventures’ Cruise Report, Week 8: Mar. 17-23, 2018

Conscious Breath Adventures' Cruise Report, Mar. 17-23, 2018


Hello from the Dominican Republic and welcome to our Cruise Report for Week 8 of our 2018 Silver Bank humpback whale season. What a great week it was!

There was lots of action and terrific moon and star gazing under clear skies but a few peak experiences were the unforgettable highlights…

A waxing moon over the Silver Bank


This calf shows the distinct markings and wound from a recent entanglement

A Sobering Reminder

Some interactions with the whales can be bittersweet and one such encounter happened on Tuesday afternoon when one of our fellow operators called us on the VHF marine radio about a trio of whales comprised of a mother, a yearling calf and an escort. A mother, calf and escort is a common grouping but the yearling calf was what made it different. Usually mothers and calves part ways a little less than a year after birth but on rare occasions a calf will linger on beyond that time, so here was a calf grown one year, a big “toddler” by now. But what was even more unique is that this calf had extensive scarring and a wound from an obvious entanglement that occurred sometime in the past few months, almost certainly with fishing gear on the mother’s feeding grounds. Entanglement is one of the leading causes of unnatural death in cetaceans, killing some 300,000 every year (learn more here). On this calf the right pectoral fin had a deep cut from a rope at the front of the joint and from there clear rope “burns” radiated up and across the shoulder and back of the calf. While the cut and scars were not pretty to see the calf appeared otherwise healthy overall, heavy and energetic. This calf’s point of greatest danger has passed, the calf is still alive in spite of the entanglement and the wound will heal but it will always carry the scars. With such distinctive markings now we will certainly be looking for it in future seasons.

While the calf appeared healthy, the mother was a different story. When she surfaced to breathe she looked unusually thin, skinny, underweight. Why was that? Was it related to the calf’s condition? Is it possible that the mother nursed her calf longer than usual because of its entanglement? How long was the calf entangled and how did that affect the typical weaning schedule? How did an entangled calf affect the mother’s feeding behaviors? Did she not feed while nurturing an endangered offspring? There is no easy way to answer these questions but the questions made them a very enigmatic pair. It was a sobering reminder of the threat of entanglement that all cetaceans face. Given her condition the mother may still be at risk and hopefully the pair will make a safe return to their summer feeding grounds very soon.

This mother humpback whale appeared underweight, very thin for her size


Spyhopping humpback whale during a “dancing” interaction

Peak of the Week

Fortunately most of our situations here are less dramatic, but are still very exciting. The peak of the week occurred the following day when one of our boats spotted a whale spyhopping nearby and approached for a closer look. What they found was two whales, male and female, who were socializing and courting heavily and which started to interact very closely with the boat. This would soon turn into a pair of “dancers”, which is what it is called when two whales are engaged in this very social behavior, rolling, twisting, sphyopping, blowing bubbles, and even vocalizing with loud chirps and squeaks, all while circling the boat and swimmers very closely for twenty minutes. At one point a third whale joined the scene as a challenger and we all watched from the decks of our two boats as the escort deflected the challenger’s efforts to encroach. Once the interloper departed the pair settled right back into their social interactions and our swimmers spent a total of nearly two exhilarating hours in and out of the water being “mugged” by these two affectionate whales. We only have interactions like this one once, maybe twice a season; we will be talking about this one for years. Once I am back in the office with reliable internet service I will be sharing more photos and video about this day (and others) too.

A pair of dancers at the peak of their performance


A breaching humpback whale calf

A Little Bit or a Lot of Everything

This was one of those weeks where a bit of everything and a lot of some things happened. Not only was there our exceptional encounter with the dancers but we observed lots of surface behaviors including large rowdy groups as well as breaching, pec-slapping, lobtailing and more. One pec-slapping escort in particular caught our attention because it had pec fins that were almost completely black on the top. This is an unusual coloration for members of the North Atlantic population, which tend to have fins that are all or mostly white. We even swam with a singer! Time sure flies when you are having fun!

A pectoral fin with an unusual all-black coloration


A whale-swimming dream come true

Appropriately enough, our next remarkable highlight of the week occurred on hump day, Wednesday, when our boat “Pec” found a mother and calf resting in the reef just moments after getting underway in the morning. But this wasn’t just any mother and calf, this was the same pair that our guests encountered and swam with during another exceptional interaction on March 1, the same pair featured in this delightful drone footage from that same day. This female was also sighted on the Silver Bank in 2010 but her summer feeding grounds remain unknown. It was a real pleasure to see them again!

With calm seas, clear skies and clear water, the morning was a whaleswimming dream come true as the pair logged at the surface, barely moving as they drifted slowly with the tide. Mom was content to float there on the surface while her calf either snuggled with her or wandered over from time to time to frolic with the swimmers nearby. It was one of those classic interactions that makes the Silver Bank such a special place to visit.

Looking for a friend to play with


Join us now or later!

With just a few weeks left it will be hard to top this week but it can happen, one never knows what will transpire on any cruise to the Silver Bank. If you can drop everything for a last-minute adventure, we still have a couple spaces remaining on our March 31-April 7 cruise. Contact us for a special offer to help make this dream come true. If that is a little too soon, it is not too soon to make plans for our 2019 season and we are actively taking bookings now. Take a look at our schedule and get in touch to let us know which week best suits you. We look forward to welcoming you aboard.

Until next week,

Capt Gene Flipse

There battle-scarred back of a rowdy male humpback whale

 

Conscious Breath Adventures’ Cruise Report, Week 7: Mar. 10-16, 2018

Conscious breath Adventures' Cruise Report, Week 7: Mar. 10-16, 2018

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, as seen from an altitude of 750′

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.

Our mothership, the M/V Belize Aggressor IV, on her mooring behind the barrier reef


Two humpbacks resting in the reef

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.


“Rowdies” hard at work

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.

A Rowdy “motorboating”, on right

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.

Some of the action in an extended rowdy group competition


Mingan Island Cetacean Study

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


The wreck of the Polyxeni, circa 2008

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…

The wreck of the Polyxeni, 2018


A big, healthy boy, ready to head north soon

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!

A breaching send off

Whales At Our Mooring

 

Humpback Whales Visit Our Mooring on the Silver Bank

Not all whale experiences on the Silver Bank happen in the water, or even on a boat! I was flying the drone just to get a few shots of the area when this group of four passed by. It is a mother and calf accompanied by an escort and challenger who reveal themselves just after the one minute mark. At the 01:15 mark the escort, strategically positioned between mother and challenger, blows a lovely bubble trail, a threat display meant to intimidate the challenger who would displace him if he could.

 

Conscious Breath Adventures’ Cruise Report, Week 5: Feb. 24 – Mar. 2, 2018

 

Greetings Whaleswimmers!

Thanks for joining us here with our Cruise Report for the fifth week of our 2018 Silver Bank humpback whale season. We had a boatload of guests including many returning friends and even a little bit of family, a special treat when so far from home, as well as a bundle of new visitors, future friends one and all. It was another delightful week out there with whale action in abundance for everyone…

I hope you enjoy this post but don’t forget!: if you want to join us we still have a little space available on our March 31 – April 7 cruise, and a special offer to help! Contact us right away for more information.


Vivid rainbow on the Silver Bank

Vivid rainbow on the Silver Bank

The Bright Side of Gray Weather

The week started out with a bit of weather but nothing too bad; breeze and a few showers but sometimes a bit of weather just adds a layer of richness to the experience. So it was on Monday morning, when rain showers just after sunrise created some of the most vivid rainbows imaginable (above). 


Rain above, whale below

Whales Don’t Mind the Rain

Heading out in our whaleboats after, we crossed paths with a mother, calf and escort just as another heavy shower overcame us. But when the plan is to go swimming, getting a little wet is no problem at all and the whales didn’t mind the rain, staying very close alongside as we drifted (above), just a few feet away, almost close enough to touch, repeatedly circling and passing just below, even as the rain came tumbling down from above (below).

Mother humpback & calf in the rain


Swimming with Mystery

The Mystery Deepens

Later in the day we met and swam with a familiar friend, the mother whale we know as Mystery, and her calf. You probably remember her as the first whale we swam with this season, the whale on my business card, and so much more than that. We have a deepening history with Mystery! This has been three sightings so far this year and she is one of our favorites this season. Our guests had a delightful swim and it was great to see her and her bouyant baby again.


Curious humpback

Sleep Need Not Be Boring

On another day we found a pair of adult whales having a bit of a nap, a great situation for a swim. This laid-back pair was resting on a 15 minute breath cycle which meant four times an hour they would slowly rise to the surface to check us out, sometimes more closely than others. It was an easy afternoon in the Big Pool…


Guests swimming with a logging humpback

An Awesome Family

Even with all this great action the highlight of the week came on our last day when things started well and got even better. The weather was perfect and shortly after starting our morning excursion we found a mother and calf with the mom floating like a log on the surface, just beautiful. All our guests had the chance to swim with the peaceful pair on and off over the course of the entire morning, Mom giving us the chance to slowly swim all the way around for a 360º view. Hats off to our guests who followed the directions from the guide perfectly, a truly soft in-water encounter

A humpback whale calf embraces its mother


Breaching calf, pec-slapping mother

Not Just Underwater

But swimming wasn’t all we saw. During these longer encounters we routinely take periodic breaks to give the whales some privacy and allow our guests a chance to have a snack and warm up in the sun. On one such break momma decided she and her calf wanted some exercise so they launched off on a series of breaches and pec-slaps, one after the other, both at once, every combination imaginable (above). It was a tremendous show and after it was over and the whales settled back down for a nap we joined them again back in the water. It was a fantastic morning but the day wasn’t over yet.


Breaching humpback whale

Action Above

Working through lunch (if you can call this work) one of our boats continued to track mom and calf as they continued the show, breaching more than 20 times all around the boat. On one occasion the mother slowly swam just a few feet below the boat before accelerating with one or two pumps of her tail into a full breach just yards from the boat. Unbelievable!


Lobtailing calf

A Flubbery, Rubbery Calf

Meanwhile our boat found another mother and calf in the reef, mother resting and calf playing at the surface, lobtailing vigorously and rolling and playing in the rafts of Sargasso weed floating on the surface. Once he settled down and our swimmers were in the water this was a boisterous little boy who was very happy to find he had something other than seaweed to play with. He gave us a number of close passes and looked us over closely before mother decided he was misbehaving and moved a short way off.

The playful calf swims close for a better look


A Song for the Road

We went out to join the other boat, still tracking a group of rowdy males giving another great show but when we got there the show had stopped, at least the topside part, because moments later we could hear the distinctive notes of a singing whale coming up through the hull of the boat. We had a singer! And so for the last hour of the last afternoon of Week 5 we swam in the bone shaking song of a male humpback whale, serenading us as the sun settled toward the western horizon… 


Full moon over the Silver Bank

One of Two

And as if all that wasn’t enough, after the sun set at the end of the day, we were treated to one of just two full moons we see every season, a brilliant moon that turned the seas mercury silver… what a day, what a week…

Thanks for reading and remember that if you want to join us at the end of March we still have space and are offering big discounts so get in touch!

See you next week!

Capt. Gene Flipse

On our mooring on the Silver Bank

A Humpback Whale’s Motherly Love: An Aerial Point of View

 

Greetings from the Dominican Republic between weeks 5 & 6 of our 2018 season!

We here are Conscious Breath Adventures are very excited to add a new piece of photo/video equipment to our operation: a new camera drone! While we always enjoy taking and sharing photos and video of the humpback whales, and our guests’ interactions with them, this addition will literally take the experience to a whole new level.

We have been eagerly awaiting the right set of circumstances for a first flight and finally had all the critical elements align perfectly on March 2, 2018, when we spent a few hours in the company of a mother humpback and her calf on a calm, sunny fray close by our mothership. The mother and calf alternated between periods of resting and periods of surface activity. During the resting periods we had excellent in-water encounters (see more here), while the active intervals allowed us to capture some enchanting video from above. 

In this video watch as the mother and calf playfully interact with each other, affectionately jostling each other in a way that is reminiscent of a lioness and her cubs. Seeing them like this, and face-to-face in the water, it is hard to come up with another word that describes the relationship better than love. 

Watch for future aerial footage in the future, hopefully we are just getting warmed up. We can’t wait to share even more.

Until then, enjoy!

Conscious Breath Adventures’ Cruise Report, 2018 Week 1: Jan. 27-Feb. 2

2018 Week 1 Cruise Report

Greetings!

Hello and welcome to the first Cruise Report of our 2018 humpback whale season, Conscious Breath Adventures’ tenth, and my sixteenth, on the Silver Bank! We’ll be sharing highlights and photos from each week we spend with the whales this spring, and hope you can share in our appreciation for these majestic animals. 

As our guests came aboard on our first Saturday afternoon of the 2018 season we were excited to welcome them and keen to get going but the weather had other plans. An especially powerful weather system was impacting the area and forecasts called for two days with winds gusting over 30 knots and seas of up to fifteen feet! Conditions like that are nothing to play around with and the Comandante of the Port took the very unusual step of actually closing the port, refusing to grant the required dispatches to any vessel, including the Silver Bank operators, until conditions improved. Without official permission we could not leave even if we wanted to; given the conditions, we did not want to.

We filled the downtime with presentations, discussions and good food and the fleet was finally granted permission to depart so by Tuesday morning we were safely moored on the Silver Bank. Trying to make up a little lost time, guests and crew rallied and we headed out in our whale boats as quickly as possible.

Mystery Whale:

Each of our custom whale boats, Pec & Fluke, quickly sighted numerous whales and Fluke, started tracking a mother and calf with her escort male. At one point early on in the track the mother lifted her tail fluke high giving a very good look at the unique markings on the underside that are useful for identification (above). I recognized this whale immediately! She has been featured in several previous Cruise Reports but is a bit of a mystery because, prior to sharing my photos, she had never been photographed and was not in any of the identification catalogs for the North Atlantic whales (she is now). She is not a ‘known’ whale like many in the catalogs and we still don’t know where she spends her summers feeding. But she is so photogenic that I’d used her image on my business card (below).

Mystery Whale on my business card from 2009

Mystery Whale on my business card from 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So here was this whale, from my card, unknown to the various catalogs, which only I’d somehow managed to photograph over the years, and she ends up being the first whale we swam with for the 2018 season! We had a great swim with the trio and I will be looking for her the rest of the season, too. With this serendipitous first encounter and a few other good swims, too, our first afternoon was a very happy reward for the earlier weather bomb.

Mystery Whale and her calf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Blue Blood Moon:

A little later in the week we were treated to a treat of a celestial nature when we had a brilliant view of a Super Blue Blood Moon. It is identified as “super” because the moon was at perigee, the closet point to Earth in its orbit, making it appear bigger and brighter; “blue” because it was the second full moon in the month (as in “once in a blue moon”); and “blood” because it was also eclipsed by the Earth’s shadow as it transited, giving it a reddish color as the shadow passed. In our hemisphere we did not get to see the blood because that was occurring in the South Pacific Ocean areas but it was a very silvery night on the Silver Bank nonetheless.

Rainbow on the Silver Bank

Rainbow on the Silver Bank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On other days we had some spotty weather but wonderful rainbows (above) and thrilling views of all sorts of topside action, too. We witnessed at close distances lobtailing, pec slapping, breaches and double breaches, sometimes only yards away from the boat. In some photos you can see the anemones on the barnacles on the chin of the whale.

Making up for the time we lost due to weather at the beginning, we modified our itinerary to get out on the water earlier in the morning and stay out later in the afternoon, maximizing every minute of daylight. The biggest payoff came on Friday, when we stayed on location for an extra half day beyond our regularly scheduled sunrise departure. Knowing we had to leave the Silver Bank after lunch, with the clock ticking, our boat Pec located a mother, calf and escort resting in clear protected waters up in the reef. For the last two hours of the cruise all our guests were treated to a curious calf, a very restful mother, and a diligent escort who circled about before settling in for a good nap, too. As time finally ran out we left them as we found them, snoozing peacefully in the reef where we will be looking for them again next week. We hope you’ll join us then and, one day, maybe even here in the waters of the Silver Bank!

 

 

Bahamas Dolphins Cruise Report: Week 3, July 13-20, 2013

Our third and final week in the Bahamas started on the rainy but warm afternoon of July 13th with guests boarding the M/V Carib Dancer in West End, Grand Bahama Island before cruising north along the western edge of the Little Bahama Bank toward the White Sand Ridge. We were joined by a full boat of repeat guests hailing from the UK, Belgium, California, Maryland and Connecticut as well as our youngest dolphin swimmer of the season at age 6!

Sugar Wreck

Pillar coral on the Sugar Wreck

Sunday, July 14:

On Sunday the 14th, our first full day on the water, we visited the Sugar Wreck, the one hundred year old remnants of a molasses barge that is a magnet for all sorts of marine life, large and small. Resting on the bottom in just 18′ of water, everyone enjoyed snorkeling or diving on this protected haven and we spent time with a favorite marine reptile, a resident sea turtle. Unfortunately, though, in a full afternoon of searching we did not find any dolphins…

Stingray on Sugar Wreck

Stingray being photographed on the Sugar Wreck

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Bottlenose Dolphin on the White Sand Ridge

Bottlenose Dolphin on the White Sand Ridge

Monday, July 15:

Today commenced with another beautiful dive and snorkel session on Hogfish Reef. Everyone, even our youngest snorkeler, enjoyed the sharks that frequent this reef.

After lunch and a short cruise north, the Bank gave us what we were looking for when we located a pod of over a dozen bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) actively crater feeding in calm, clear water. The pod was content to let our swimmers watch as they used their highly refined echolocation to hunt for razorfish (Xyrichtys novacula) buried in the sand, and they checked us out closely when they surfaced for air. It was a fantastic extended interaction with a wonderful group of wild dolphins engaging in their natural behavior.

Although it did not happen on this day, is not unusual to see spotted and bottlenose dolphin intermixing and sometimes engaging in sexual behaviors. The possibility of hybrid offspring has been conjectured and we had a bit of compelling visual evidence to support the theory as one of the large female dolphin in the pod had the form of a bottlenose and some of the markings of a spotted dolphin along her flank (below). She certainly looked like she could be such a hybrid!

As much as we love the bottlenose dolphins, our focus of these Bahamas cruises are the spotted dolphins. As we were now at the end of two full days on the water without sighting even one spotted dolphin, the decision was made to relocate overnight to Bimini, more than 80 nautical miles to the south, another area where spotted dolphins reside and where we had successful interactions the week before.

Possible spotted dolphin/bottlenose dolphin hybrid?

Possible spotted dolphin/bottlenose dolphin hybrid?

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Storm clouds over Bimini

Storm clouds over Bimini

Tuesday, July 16:

Unfortunately, unseasonably bad weather made for a bumpy crossing, one slightly green child, and  in-water time limited to snorkeling and diving the reefs found along the western lee shore of the island. However, our patience would ultimately pay off and our efforts were rewarded over the last two days of the week…

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Spotted dolphins approach the bow

Spotted dolphins approach the bow

Wednesday, July 17:

The day broke with lingering clouds and scattered showers, but conditions were fine to start the daily adventure with a snorkel and dive on the famous, mysterious Bimini Road, also known as the Road to Atlantis. This ancient underwater geometric rock formation has been the center of controversy, research and new-age philosophies over the years but we just know that it is a shallow reef with profuse marine life and it is always a fun place to get wet.

In the afternoon we got what we were looking for when we located a large pod of spotted dolphins and for more than an hour had an exciting and energetic interaction with dolphins young and old. Several swirling groups of 4-8 dolphin swan into, through and all around our swimmers, sometimes amassing into larger pods of nearly two dozen dolphins that left everyone exhausted, winded and grinning ear to ear before the sun slipped down toward the horizon.

Spotted dolphins near Bimini

Spotted dolphins near Bimini

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Spotted dolphins near Bimini

Spotted dolphins near Bimini

Thursday, July 18:

Our last dolphin day began with calm seas and a pleasant ride out to the wreck of the Hesperus, a small tugboat that sank in less than 20’ of water to the northeast of Bimini. This wreck is a magnet for teeming schools of grunts, barracuda, crawling conch and southern stingray, earning it the nickname of Stingray Wreck.

The Hesperus is conveniently located on the edge of the Bimini dolphin grounds so after finishing our dives there it was and slow and easy cruise over lunch in search of the dolphins one last time. Happily, our luck held true and we relocated many of the same pod of spotted dolphins from yesterday afternoon, with similar happy results. In spite of the the challenges from earlier in the week, everyone loves a strong finish and the happy memories from another successful adventure.

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