While visitors to the Silver Bank are often surprised by the sheer number of humpback whales and are thrilled by the variety of surface behavior on display, what draws most people is the opportunity to enter the whale’s watery world to encounter them on a more personal level when they swim with humpback whales.
The Silver Bank is part of the much larger Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic. This Sanctuary is one of the few places on Earth where swimming with humpback whales is officially sanctioned, permitted and regulated. As a sanctuary, all activities within its bounds are subject to very specific regulations that apply to the activity of swimming with the whales as well. These regulations serve several purposes. First, they protect the whales from harassment, but they also happen to provide the best possible chance of a lasting and meaningful encounter.
Swim With Humpback Whales During a Soft-In-Water Encounter: The foundation for a meaningful encounter
The technique outlined by the regulations is referred to as a Soft-In-Water encounter, the only type of in-water interaction permitted in the Sanctuary. The basis of a Soft-In-Water encounter is a passive, non-aggressive activity wherein the participants float quietly on the surface of the ocean in the vicinity of a tolerant and cooperative whale or whales and allow the natural curiosity of the whale to draw it closer.
Participants in a Soft-In-Water encounter may use mask, snorkel and fins; but no SCUBA or rebreather equipment of any type is allowed. In a Soft-In-Water encounter there is no aggressive swimming or freediving. Participants are also required to stay together as a group. Because it is snorkeling-only, the experience of swimming with the humpback whales is open to participants of all skill levels. While it is commonly referred to as “swimming with whales,” when all goes well there is little swimming involved! By entering the water quietly and floating peacefully as a group, the participants minimize any disturbance to the whales and then allow the whale to choose to approach or not. It is an encounter in their environment, on their terms.
You Don’t Approach the Whale; The Whale Approaches You
To better explain it, consider that you cannot get close to a whale, a whale has to want to get close to you! Granted, with our technology, we do have the ability to zoom up in a boat and jump on a whale’s head. That kind of behavior is obviously harassment, a total violation of Sanctuary regulations, and a violation of the spirit of the Sanctuary itself. But relevant to this discussion is the end result: a very unhappy whale that will bolt for the horizon, leaving you swirling in its wake as you stare into empty water.
Aggressive swimming has the same effect as zooming up in a boat: the sudden end of an encounter. A Soft-In-Water encounter is a passive approach that puts the participants in proximity of an appropriate whale and allows the whale to set the distance, mood, tempo, and duration of the encounter. The whales are not threatened by the approach, and therefore are much more comfortable in choosing to interact more closely. By staying together as a group, participants make it easier for the whale to keep track of their location, which helps the whale remain calm and accepting. Since humpback whales are wild animals, there is no way to accurately predict the outcome of every opportunity, but using this non-aggressive technique in the past has resulted in whale encounters that have lasted anywhere from minutes to hours.
Successful Humpback Encounters
Vital to the success of any in-water encounter is the initial selection and approach of an appropriate whale. There are a wide range of behaviors exhibited by the humpback whales on the Silver Bank, and many are not conducive to in-water encounters. A great deal of time is spent by the guides to find whales that are likely to welcome interaction. Through years of experience observing and interpreting humpback whale behavior, your guides have developed the skills needed to successfully place you where you need to be for the greatest chance of success.
For example, whales that are cruising or involved in rowdy behavior or surface social behavior are not candidates for an in-water encounter, while resting, singing or courting whales are. Experienced guides will not only explain and educate about the behaviors seen, but will also prevent participants from wasting time by trying to impose themselves on uninterested whales, which is better for both the participants and the whales. Sometimes guests may learn that the best way to successfully encounter a whale is to not get in the water at all!
Understanding the Humpback Whale and Its Environment
With that in mind, it is important to understand that the humpback whales of the Silver Bank are wild animals in their natural environment, and are therefore impossible to predict with total accuracy. A journey to the Silver Bank is filled with opportunity, but as with any other wildlife activity, there may be times of greater or lesser activity, and not every excursion in the tenders will result in an in-water encounter. During the slower moments it helps to remember that this is a wilderness area, and full of surprises. Spend this time learning from your shipmates or sharing with them, or simply lost in thought, but always keep a curious eye open to the ocean.