While visitors to the Silver Bank are thrilled by the sheer number of humpback whales and the variety of surface behaviors on display, what brings most guests to our trip is the opportunity to enter the whales’ ocean environment 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, one of very 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 also apply to the activity of swimming with the whales. These regulations serve several purposes. First and foremost they protect the whales from harassment but they also happen to provide the best chance of a lasting and meaningful encounter for our guests.
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 whales and allow the natural curiosity of the whales to draw them closer.
Participants in a Soft-In-Water encounter may use mask, snorkel and fins; but no SCUBA equipment of any type is allowed. In a Soft-In-Water encounter there is no aggressive swimming or freediving, participants float quietly at the surface as a group. Because it is snorkeling-only, the experience of swimming with the humpback whales is open to participants of all skill levels, although being comfortable in the water and having basic snorkeling skills are helpful. 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, we minimize any disturbance to the whales and allow the whale to choose to approach or not. It is an encounter in their environment, on their terms.
People often ask: “how close do we get to the whales?" which is the wrong question. The correct question is: “how close do the whales get to us?" It is impossible for a swimmer to get close to a whale that does not want to be approached, but a curious whale can approach swimmers closely. During all in-water interactions the whales choose to approach or not and are in control of the distance, duration, and tempo of any encounter.
Because humpback whales are wild animals there is no way to predict the outcome of every opportunity, but using this non-aggressive technique has resulted in whale encounters that have lasted anywhere from minutes to hours.
Vital to the success of any in-water encounter is the initial selection of and approach to an appropriate whale. There are a wide range of behaviors exhibited by the humpback whales on the Silver Bank and while they are excellent for watching, many are not conducive to in-water encounters. A great deal of time is spent by the guides to find whales that are most likely to welcome interaction. Through years of experience observing and interpreting humpback whale behavior, your guides have developed the skills needed to help place you where you need to be for greatest success.
For example, whales that are cruising or involved in rowdy behavior or surface social behavior are not candidates for an in-water encounter, but resting, singing, or courting whales are. Experienced guides will not only explain observed behaviors but will also prevent participants from wasting time by trying to impose themselves on uninterested whales, which is best for both the participants and the whales.
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 true wilderness area and full of surprises. Always keep an open eye to the ocean, you never know what you will see.