Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Singers- our last day of whale encounters

We were determined to see, swim with and photograph Humpbacks today, after spending four and half days at Silver Bank but only entering the water on two of them.The tenders had to venture into much deeper and further areas outside the reef to look for animals, and the swells grew to four or five feet. Our little tender bobbed and listed, taking on water. We dropped the hyrdophone as nothing was visible on the surface, and immediately heard an animated whale song that was nearby and growing in volume. Two whales could be seen as we followed the sounds, and appeared to be promising. Dropping as carefully as possible into the water we floated above a sleeping/resting "singer", a male vocalizing with unique and curious sounds. His tones reverberated around us and he continued to sigh, chirp and drone.I am sure he saw us and wondered who or what the funny flippered creatures were hovering on the surface overhead.Little did he know how utterly thrilled the first time whale watchers were, spell bound and mesmerized by the elegant giant below them.
A lone Humpback male will sing a chirping haunting song that can be heard for hundreds of males around him. The sound capacity and band width for broadcast and hearing is much wider than that of humans. The whale drifted upwards after 15 minutes or so , and I got a few images . Rather than return to the tender, I sped off swimming with the guide and one other guest on a wild chase through the waves, out in the open North Atlantic, rising up over big swells and flying across the coral reef heads. Snorkeling out there with my camera in tow was daunting at first, but I got great exercise that was welcome after sitting on the tender. The whale finally chose a place to rest for another breath cycle and we floated above him, joined by the rest of our group.Getting back in the tender was very tricky in rough water and I stubbed my toe badly on the steering console as the boat lurched. Thankfully , no broken bones!
The final afternoon we spent cruising the shallow "reef nursery". It appeared overall there were few animals to be seen this year as compared to other seasons.It was windy and at times rough, with spray that made shooting from the tender tricky for the land cameras. The other tender group was lucky to get into the water every day. The Atlanitc Humpbacks and their beautiful white pectorals were worth the effort to observe, but I wish I could stay in their domain for a longer time on my own boat!
Yes that is me , swimming with the Humpbacks. Image courtesy of Captain Gene Flipse on Sun Dancer II

Silver Bank continued

As the sun set on our third day at the sanctuary, the wind died down and the sea was calm. We are all hoping now that the last two days will bring better conditions and more whale encounters. Regrettably, although the sea was flat and visibility improved, there
are few whales around and they are only on the distant horizon. There are no animals on the inner reef, and two squalls soaked the tender as we disembarked after a disappointing morning.
The afternoon was not much better for in water swimming encounters. We did follow a very playful calf who amused itself by swimming on its back, rolling around, splashing and peck slapping with its mother. She carried the calf on her head and at her side with the escort who flanked them. Suddenly a large aggressive challenger swam up and proceeded in hot pursuit for quite some time.He showed a lot of interest to our little boat as well , gliding just beneath the surface below our hull and weaving back and forth.He surfaced alongside us and blew with an angry trumpeting sound.Try as he might, he could not get the mother to leave her escort and they sped off into the deep blue together. When we reached 5 miles out from Sun Dancer we turned back in. The whales never stopped to rest. Sadly, another day with no swimming and no photos.
The marine sanctuary area is visually stunning, from the Sun Dancer or the tenders it appears that we are floating on a spacious and luminous sliver blue disk, with only the horizon as far as the eye can see from our mooring.The inner reef is dotted with turquoise swathes of coral rheads. Some of the rocks breaking the surface give the illusion of whales logging or surfacing to blow and breathe. Cruising on the tenders feels like floating across a perfect richly enameled glass plate. The sky forms an azure hemispheric canopy dome overhead, and I now know how early mariners and explorers felt they would sail to the edge and "fall off" in to a void beyond the ocean. The full sun shines down on the glittering water, huge billowy white clouds tower and decorate the sky, then pass over the sun and the ocean become dull and flat. As the sun reappears it looks like a brilliant light switches on, and the sanctuary becomes a glowing metallic mirror once again.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Silver Bank Dominican Republic 2012- Atlantic Humpback Whale Safari

Silver Bank is a 10 by 20 mile limestone plateau 70 miles north of the coast of the Dominican Republic. It is surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean waters which are thousands of feet deep, and rises to 60 to 100 feet or shallower, providing a calving and breeding area, and natural playground/habitat for the beautiful North Atlantic Humpback whale.The Dominican Republic named the area to be a Sanctuary for Marine Mammals by decree in July 1996.
We are here to snorkel and frolic in awe of these elegant cetaceans from surface tenders in small groups, to capture images and marvel at their animated interaction , breeding and calving, and singing their haunting whale songs.Our guides note that only the males are singers, and no one has ever seen a humpback mother giving birth.
I return to travel on Sun Dancer II , the live aboard I first dived on in Palau in 2001.We set out at 11Pm across the deep blue to arrive at the Sanctuary by dawn.Rough weather was predicted but I found the passage to be fairly calm with no unpleasant bouncing about in our cabin. This is my first snorkeling trip with my housed D90 camera, cumbersome in the water but able to capture what I hope to be great images for my collection.
Our first day was not promising. We geared up and did a test snorkel around 1:30PM, after a lunch of Chef Jerry's wonderful spaghetti bolognaise. A brisk wind picked up and we bobbed around in our small crowded tender, watching for signs of whales in the immediate vicinity. We did spot a few trails of spray, and saw white flukes and pectoral fins flapping in the distance.
A mother with calf and escort passed near us. The whales submerged to rest, and we slipped into the water to observe them from the surface. The visibility was poor and a large cloud passed to block the sun, but as it passed I took a couple of images of the mother as she rolled on her side exposing her white belly and pectoral.After 3 more long hours in the tender of wind, spray and swells, a squall blew in and forced us back to the Sun Dancer. We all hope the next day brings better conditions, sunshine and more whales.
Unfortunately the next day Monday was a complete BUST.There were no whales to swim with. Another squall brewed on the horizon , waterspouts weaving on the ocean swells and crossing in the clouds. A beautiful rainbow arced across the steely backdrop of the storm. After our return to the boat whales surfaced and converged around us, cavorting and fin slapping to taunt us.
Tuesday Feb 28 dawned and we had whales at last!!! Again the day broke with ominous skies, dark clouds carried a storm over the choppy water . The tenders bounced up and down along side Sun dancerII, like horses champing at the bit to run free after whales in the surrounding shallow area. Our first encounter was out in the swells with two adults. The male and female went through four breath cycles of sounding and then submerging to rest about 25 feet down. We were able to have an hour and half long swim.The whales floated asleep near the reef bottom, smaller fishes preening and cleaning them along their flanks and around their faces. As they rose slowly and took off I was finally able to get some shots. The camera was very unwieldy in the rough water and it was a challenge to swim in the crowded group.
We saw a pair of dancers glide animately back and forth under the boat. That afternoon another adult pair approached us. They were in shallower water but visibility remained poor, as it was throughout the trip. I waited to shoot as the whales pirouetted gracefully to the surface.