Snorkels With Whales

After reading the following notes would you sign on for this expedition? “…Turbulent flight filled with lightning flashes outside our plane window the entire ride…luggage misplaced somewhere after relinquishing it to baggage handlers…still reeling like a rocking chair from time spent on the water…nursing many bruises garnered from clambering up the dive ladder on the zodiac in choppy waters.” Rereading my notes from a March snorkeling expedition with humpback whales at the Dominican Republic’s Silver Banks, I paused to ponder why I do these things, paying good money for the experience. Yet, despite the minor inconveniences listed above, the answer to my question is an unequivocal YES! To spend time amongst whales is an unforgettable experience.

Among all whales of the world, humpback whales fascinate me most of all. How this came to be for a landlocked Midwestern Illinois gal is not easily answered. I recall walking with my dad along a quiet stretch of sand in Maui in the U.S. state of Hawaii in the late-1960s long before multi-storied condominiums and sleek hotels lined the shores of Kaanapali Beach, spying humpback whales off the beach. This early experience made a deep impression upon me; I was hooked on cetaceans for life! Something about these magnificent creatures spoke to my soul, germinating the seeds that morphed me into a self-confessed whale geek. Thus it was a dream come true to travel to the waters of the Silver Bank located 90 miles north of the Caribbean island nation of Dominican Republic for the chance of snorkeling amidst ever fascinating humpback whales.

A close encounter of the cetacean kind…

Megaptera novaeangliae, or large winged New Englander, is the Latin name for humpback whales. The large winged moniker is easily explained by the size of humpbacks’ pectoral fins while the New Englander reference is likely due to the once bountiful amount of humpback whales seen by commercial whalers in the northeastern New England waters of the United States. Sporting immense pectoral fins of up to 15’ (4.5 m) in length, humpbacks possess the longest pectoral fins in the cetacean world, comprising 1/3 of the length of an adult humpback whale. Reaching lengths of between 45- (nearly 14m) and 50-feet in length, northern hemisphere humpback whales are one of the largest animals on earth. Aerodynamically sleek, these creatures move through water effortlessly with a grace not achieved by terrestrial animals, making use of their huge pectoral fins to change direction or even feed (but feeding habits are the subject of a future article). Interestingly, scientists have studied the aerodynamics of humpback whales’ pectoral fins, looking into whether the bumps or tubercles along the leading edges of the fins have applications that can be useful to mechanical devices such as helicopters or airplane wings. While the humpback whales’ pectoral tubercles provide amazing underwater maneuverability for the whales, this doesn’t translate into the best of conditions for aerodynamics above the waves.

During the northern hemisphere’s winter season the highest concentration of humpback whales in Silver Bank numbers anywhere from 2000 to 3000 whales, depending upon which count one accesses. Different groups of humpbacks from males to expectant mothers arrive at alternating times during a ten-week period from late January to late March, with varying behaviors exhibited depending upon the time whales are present in the Silver Bank. Navigating the long migratory route from North Atlantic waters of Nova Scotia and Massachusetts as well as from the northern sub-Arctic waters of Greenland and northern Canada, expectant mother humpbacks return to the shallow, warm, predator-free waters of the Silver Bank to bear their young. On average, every two years female humpback whales give birth to calves in the relatively shallow waters of the Silver Bank. Gestation is approximately 11 to 12 months.

Male humpbacks in their prime also swim to these waters in order to compete with other males for the privilege of mating with female humpbacks. Male competition groups provide exhilarating displays of breaching wherein whales propel their entire bodies out of the water with as few as five strong flicks of their tail flukes as well as tail lobs and slaps. Groups consisting of from 2 to 20 immense males chase receptive females while swimming at high speed, slamming their bodies onto each other in attempts to prove to females which one of them is the biggest, ‘baddest’ and most powerful whale with which to mate. I have watched competition groups battle with each other for over an hour or more, the leviathans expending uncountable amounts of energy in their quest to mate with a single female. On more than one occasion, females have slipped away from the otherwise occupied whales while they pulverized each other with body slams and tail throws. Males often bear the scars of these encounters for life, sporting deep gashes from barnacle-encrusted chins or red, raw tubercles on their rostrums bloodied from abrasions received during competitive activity.

Another particularly compelling activity of males during the breeding cycle is singing (at this time it is presumed that only males sing although females are also capable of vocalizing). One is very fortunate indeed to locate a singer in the ocean’s depths. While I have heard the plaintive, haunting sound of humpback whale songs while snorkeling mere feet off beaches in Hawaii, to actually float directly above a singing whale is a far different, unforgettable experience. The far-ranging sound of whales’ songs reverberates throughout one’s chest, jiggling one’s innards like gelatin. Amazingly, each year the same identical song is sung by males in the North Atlantic population of humpback whales, with slight changes being recorded in the entire population year after year. This is also true of other humpback whale groups in the northern and southern Pacific Ocean. While there are many theories at this given point in time it is anyone’s guess as to how whales achieve this feat.

Females, on the other hand, when not engaged in sinuous, graceful courtship ‘Valentines’ with males at Silver Bank are busy with the rearing of their young. Calves are born weighing in at about 2000- to 3000-pounds (907 kg to 1360 kg) while their length hovers in the range of 12- to 14-feet (3.6 m to 4.2m). That’s one heck of a big baby! It is wondrous to see mama humpback whales lifting their recently born, tender calves via their strong pectoral fins to the surface for breaths of air. Fed a rich milk diet consisting of an estimated 35-50% fat, calves gain on average approximately 100 pounds (45kg) per day. Thick milk displaying the consistency of cottage cheese curds is squirted into calves’ mouths, providing nourishment necessary for calves to use during their coming long northbound migration. As one might imagine, this is hard work for mother whales as they do not eat after leaving the nutrient rich cold waters of northern climes. Silver Bank is a veritable underwater desert where there is no food to sustain whales. Thus whales—-both female and male—-that migrate to these warm waters lose anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of their body weight during the four to six months they spend on their round-trip migration from the North Atlantic Ocean to breeding/birthing waters of more temperate seas.

I’ll leave you with wishes that you will read this, see the images of these great whales and embrace some of the magic of their existence in your hearts and souls.


Mother humpback whale and her calf performing an underwater ballet in Silver Bank off the coast of Dominican Republic.

A particularly rambunctious humpback whale calf played with us for several hours, coming closer and closer to his new “playthings.” I’ve rarely felt so clumsy in the water as I was when in the company of this young fellow.

Coming in VERY close for a look at the strange “toys” in his watery world, baby humpback played while his mama slept about 30 feet below her baby, completely relaxed in her watery lair.

Snorkels With Whales

Gina Ruttle  (Whalegeek)

Palos Park, United States

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