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February 18, 2014

There is no other way to describe our day, but spectacular! I think it only took 30 minutes to latch on to a male a few hundred yards south of the boat. We spotted him while he was tail slapping and by the time we reached him in the choppy seas, he put on a show. I don’t know if it was for us or to attract other whales as they aren’t sure why they do that, but we were entertained. The only disappointment was the auto focus on my camera got knocked to manual focus while it was in my dry box, and while I knew something wasn’t right, I was shooting on a setting I wasn’t that familiar with and wasn’t sure what was wrong…not to mention our whale was so active there wasn’t time to be messing with my camera, only time to hold down the shutter!

He went from tail slapping (moving his tail up and down while smacking the water), to tail lobbing where he would twist, and slap, and splash. He was like a kid playing in the pool, as he even tail slapped while he was upside down. Then he moved on to pec slapping, where he swung his fin back and forth pounding the water. His white pec eventually turned to a pinkish hue as he flailed away. He took us out toward a delapidated fishing boat (one of the only other boats on the water). Dominicans have the natural born right to fish, thus no permit is required. They came to the Silver Bank to spearfish. Amanda says there aren’t any fish out here except an occasional parrotfish, so their pickings were few and far between. At the current moment, however, the eight men on board were not fishing! They were cheering on the whale, as his antics were spectacular! All I could think of when looking at that boat, was where do they all sleep? And I couldn’t help but laugh when Amanda mistakenly answered a radio call saying, “She was headed toward the wreck instead of the fishing boat!” She also remarked, “Always travel by this boat upwind.”

So, one of the reasons the Silver Bank is a safe birthing place for the whales is because there are no fish and therefore there are no predators! The whales do not feed here either. They only feed on krill in the cold water for 120 days during the year. They sustain themselves and the calf for the other eight months of the year from only these three months eating. The moms can lose up to 50 pounds while traveling, birthing, and feeding there calves by shooting a cottage cheese like substance out of her tail while swimming. Imagine traveling thousands of miles not eating for eight months!

It seemed after two hours, our whale slowed down a bit. I don’t blame him…I was exhausted watching him. He dove beneath the surface and stayed there for a few minutes, so we thought the show might be over when he suddenly breached! It was crazy…he breached at least three times. Then whales were showing up everywhere…coming toward him, but not too close. Two were breaching just 100 yards away as he settled down. We were finicky as we thought about turning toward one of the others nearby! While we were idling, one that we were spying breached at full speed toward our guy. Breaching awes everybody. We never got tired of it and cheers of excitement filtered from the boat…ooh…awe…wow…OMG! The humpbacks always breach into the wind, so at least we knew which direction to point the camera…then it was just the matter of capturing the photo when they launched through the ocean’s surface. As soon as the male attracted its playmate, however, it became far less interested in us. The activity slowed just for a minute when three more whales joined in and we got a “rowdy”.

Rowdies are a group of whales that travel really fast. We briefly followed them, but they were traveling into the current and the wind, which made it hard for us to keep up without getting soaked by the three foot swells. After the rowdies, we found two sleeper adults which means they rest in the depths for a period of time. They seemed settled enough for us to join them, so we slid in as quietly as possible, which doesn’t sound very quiet. We could hardly see them while they were resting…only an outline and the white pectoral fins were visible in the murky water. But as they came to the surface to breathe we got a good look, but boy do they swim fast!! I felt like I was going to drown as we chased them. The good swimmers with free diving fins (Julie, Dustin, Drew and our whale spotter AZ) kept up pretty well, but snorkelers like me (and only me) were caught in between the tender and the whales with waves crashing into my head once in a while. The other half of the group swam back to the boat. Bobbing like a cork, I contemplated my options…return to the boat or join my fellow snorkelers who have hand signaled that the whales haves topped beneath them. Located equidistant, I kicked and splashed my way to the whales. Once again, they surfaced, and this time I did a better job keeping up, though still lagged behind. I’ve never claimed to be a strong swimmer and felt a little better when Amanda stated she once owned the type of fins I was wearing and hated them, but my goodness, Julie should join the Olympic swimming team. She moved as fast and as gracefully as the whales! She claims it was the fins…I don’t think so!!

After that encounter, it was lunchtime, so we started heading in to the boat for pork carnitas tacos and hot soup, but we got a call from our other tender, named Predator (we were on the Conquerer today as we alternate daily), who were working a cow, calf, and escort that were settled enough to join, so we detoured to them. Taking turns, passengers from Predator swam with the threesome, then we did. Our first two encounters frightened the mom. I’m not sure if it was us or other whales coming through that breached nearby, but the mother slip streamed with the baby which means the baby rested on her back as she swam away. Slip streaming helps them move faster if she feels in danger, which was cool to see, but bad for hanging out with them in the water. The did eventually settle down, and we were able to enjoy several minutes with all three of them. Both the mom and the baby bubbled. The baby came vertically to the surface with its mouth open, swam a semi circle around its mom on the surface while breathing, and then it swam beneath her as they swam away. Some of the folks wanted to go in for lunch while others didn’t, so we went in, leaving Predator out there, and we invited the competitors over to share the whale. The idea being that they would share the whale until we came back, but our hour lunch must have been too long, as they lost them…bummer!

So after lunch we went out for a few more hours. This time Rob, the ship’s engineer and Amanda’s husband, took over the tender driving while AZ remained our spotter. We tracked another feisty guy that was tail slapping and tail lobbing and breaching for us for 30 minutes or so before he stopped. Then we followed a mom, calf, and escort that wouldn’t settle down until the light got low, so we had to head back to the boat as the coral heads are hard to see. Right by our boat, we found another mom, baby, and escort. They were slightly more settled, so we jumped in for a quick swim before ending the day.

Cocktail hour included BLT sandwiches with avocado ailoli and dinner included a Cesar salad, cornflake encrusted fish with sweet potatoes, green beans, and a spicy mango sauce…delicious. And we topped off all this food with chocolate cake. I may gain weight on this trip I’m eating so much. Dave, a substitute chef on the boat for two weeks, grew up in the Turks and Caicos, and is currently a private chef there. He will cook for anyone that wants to hire him, whether it be one meal or a whole week! Looking forward to another amazing day tomorrow…ETB

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