By Chris Welsh
Sir Richard Branson and I made an expedition to the Silver Banks coral reef region off the Dominican Republic to finish our Poseidon rebreather training and had the rare treat to observe and swim with Humpback Whales. The Humpbacks come through the area for several months in the winter to calve and mate before returning to their summer feeding areas in the North Atlantic. Why they come to the Silver Banks exactly is not known; part of it seems to be spring cleaning as the whales arrive with parasites that grow naturally during the year. The warmer water kills some of the parasites and a variety of cleaner fish dart in to nip off the layer of skin the whales slough off.
The Humpbacks are highly aerial and active; I saw two whales completely clear the water during breaches, and the splashes of pectoral fins, tails, and breaches are visible all around. We saw one whale breach at least twelve times in succession. Is this mating behavior, fun, slapping away parasites, or all three?
The whales come by in twos, threes, and more. A female and calf pair is common, sometimes with a male escort. A single female will be accompanied and will attract other males at the same time, leading to “dancer” spins and fin slaps that are presumably mating behavior. The easiest whales to swim with are a mother and calf; the mother will rest on the bottom in 15 meters of water for twenty minutes while the calf surfaces every three minutes to breathe. Approached slowly, they can be observed at very close quarters for a half hour or more.
Dancers and pairs on the move are tougher to stay with. The attached video is three clips taken over 600 meters of swimming with the pair at a faster clip than it looks like. The whales have clear curiosity; at two points, one of the whales was clearly slowing down to “eye” me, and another whale came over and “spyhopped” (when a whale performs a controlled, slow movement rising their head out of the water and holding position, similar to treading water for a person) to inspect our boat. This has to be a strange perspective from a whale’s point of view.
We were swimming with snorkels and Poseidon rebreathers. Given more time, the rebreathers would be magic with the whales for the freedom to explore with them at depth,15 meters down. The rebreathers create no bubbles, so they create a unique ability to be close and not disturb the whales. Conversely, a simple snorkel is quick into the water and fast swimming, but with the limitation of staying at or close to the surface.
Each interaction was different, and a steep learning curve. The fin and tail slaps put veils of bubbles into the water; more than once I swam through the bubbles and was shocked to find myself several feet from a whale! Despite their size, their colors camouflage them pretty well, except for the bright white pectoral fins. From a evolutionary perspective, who knows why the fin has evolved this way, and as long as it is, one third of the animal’s overall length. Notably, these whales had white upper surfaces; pictures of Humpbacks from other areas had significantly different areas of white and dark on the pectorals.
The fin also is leading to animal mimicry inspired improvements for helicopter blades; this technology would be expected to spread to propellers, turbine blades, and wings, over time. More info on that at this article: http://digitaljournal.com/article/318932.
The other interesting part was the whales comfort level with confined spaces. The Silver Banks reefs extend a great distance and break the surface all around. For the whales, it is like maneuvering large trucks through a wide spaced suburban neighborhood. One of my closest approaches was when two whales and I were swimming in an area that turned out to be a box canyon – at the end, they turned towards me to make their U-turn.
It is a rare treat to swim with whales, and I’ll do it again if I get the chance. I am sure everyone else on the trip would say the same. Few experiences leave one feeling so much like a lucky guest.