I admit the trip was booked hastily. I was stuck in bed and dreadfully ill mid-December and decided to work on booking my annual spring excursion. Typically I leave for 4-5 days and during the spring season I have visited Monterey, Hawaii, and Baja. Unfortunately my window for Baja had closed and I had failed to reserve a spot in time. Fortunately I knew that there were limited spots open for trips to the Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic. I had heard much about these trips but knew relatively little other than the fact these trips allowed you unrivaled underwater experiences with Humpback Whales that aren’t possible in the United States.
After a brief search showed me that most tours were completely booked solid I contacted my friend Ted Cheeseman, who runs Cheeseman’s Eco Safaris (who is also creator of the website www.Happywhale.com). Ted informed me that he had just one spot open and was about to put out inquiries in an attempt to fill the remaining spot. I wasted little time securing the funding and going through the booking process.
Flying into the Dominican Republic from New York was a much shorter flight than I anticipated, possibly due to the fact that the flight to New York from Los Angeles was close to six hours. I landed amidst beautiful weather, a beautiful green forest, and some incredibly nice locals. The brief stay before heading to the Marina was worth it as I got to experience local food and a bit of bird watching that revealed some species found only on the island of Hispaniola (the island that includes the Dominican Republic and Haiti).
From the marina west of Puerto Plata it was an 80 mile ride from port to the moorings where we would stay for the week. The Silver Bank is the site of a whale sanctuary established by the government of the Dominican Republic to protect the Humpbacks that visit during the wintertime to breed and calve. The reef where we moored is an integral part of this sanctuary, for these shallow reefs (sometimes less than 10 foot underwater even with no land in sight) provide a haven from strong ocean currents for the whales that want to rest, especially the calves.
The government of the Dominican Republic has gone to great lengths not only to preserve the waters within he sanctuary, but to research and gain knowledge about the whales that flock to it. The pride that they are taking in their work and the quick positive impact they have had on Humpbacks is to be commended. Other nations with seasonal whales could learn much from what the Dominican people have accomplished.
Only three tour companies have the proper permits to run the special trips that occur here, and even they are under strict guidelines to ensure safety for humans and whales alike. The operators use their larger vessels as a mothership with a pair of smaller boats (a.k.a tenders) used for the actual snorkeling trips. These tenders are towed the entire way into the sanctuary from port. The mothership would stay on the mooring during our entire time at the reef while the tenders would take 10 passengers plus crew each day for morning and afternoon snorkel trips.
The snorkel trips were incredible experiences like few others in the world but required plenty of time to ensure the experience. The first tender would leave at 8:30am and stay out for 4-5 hours before returning for a two hour lunch, followed by 3 more hours of snorkeling before the sun began to set. Time was needed because although each boat could be surrounded by whales at any given moment it takes considerable effort to locate whales suitable for snorkeling experiences.
To start with, the tender operators will not chase whales actively traveling as there would be no chance for a human swimmer to keep up with them. Whales outside the safety of the reef were out of consideration so passengers would stay protected from ocean currents while snorkeling. Whales demonstrating active or aggressive behavior could be observed from the boat only, behaviors such as breaching, tail throwing, and overprotectiveness pose a threat to swimmers in the water. Competition pods, referred to locally as “rowdy groups”, would only be observed from the safety of the boat as well.
Once a suitable whale was located a guide disembarks first to scout for the whale’s location underwater and determine if the whale is going to be amiable to having swimmers nearby. Swimmers then enter the water as quietly as possible, too much noise will have a negative impact on the whale’s behavior. Additionally, human swimmers are not allowed to touch the whales or swim closer to them than the guide permits, this keeps humans at a safe distance. The guide communicates with hand signals throughout the encounter to the captain of the tender. Humans are brought out of the water if the whales move on, or begin behaviors which make swimming unsafe. Extra caution is taken with mother and calf pairs for the safety of the baby and because the mothers will act if they feel the calf is threatened. The tenders communicate via radio with the other tender from their own company to help each other out and it is considered a breach of etiquette to follow along with a whale already being observed by another company.
As I write this, I note to myself how this may create the perception that the encounters are very difficult to come across. The truth is that some days are better than others but all of these guidelines ensure that these experiences are conducted safely. The company I was with has never had an injury to any of their passengers from swimming with the whales. We had more than our share of incredible experiences and each day was some of the most fantastic Humpback Whale watching I have ever been part of. The level of activity from the whales contributed to this, but also the intimacy of being on a small boat with a small number of people.
An important reason why this type of trip is viable is the small number of operators and passengers allowed to operate in the sanctuary. In the United States we would undoubtedly overwhelm whales with large number of boats without extreme regulation and supervision attempting these tours. I have been told that Humpback swimming tours in the South Pacific run into this issue. In the Silver Bank, there are no more than six tenders with ten people apiece in the midst of hundreds of whales. With the numbers greatly favoring the whales, it is clear to see what makes this trip more sustainable than others like it.
Being in the water with these leviathans is one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had in my life and no two encounters were the same. We witnessed a variety of behaviors with different individual whales on every snorkel. The whales knew of our presence and with the help of our guides we did not interfere with otherwise natural behavior. We witnessed resting whales that could satay submerged for 30 minutes at a time, females with male escorts comfortable that we were not a threat to the object of their affections, mothers with calves still in the light gray hue of the newborn, and even some curious whales that showed interest in the unusual creatures (us) so long as they kept their distance!
Arguably the most memorable encounter of the trip did not occur with us in the water. Our company’s tender was “mugged” by a pair of whales that spy hopped right next to the boat and circled us at close proximity for the better part of an hour. We could reach our heads and cameras into the water but because the male of this pair would intermittently throw its peduncle it was not safe to snorkel. Still, the level of intellect on display as the two whales examined us was staggering and it served as a stark reminder that these were self aware and sentient creatures possessing a wonder about the world as we humans do.
I admit to being spoiled with comfort on this excursion, and I would highly recommend the tour I took based on the amenities alone even if the whale watching wasn’t some of the most spectacular I have ever seen. We had the best food every night with the best hospitality, the quarters were comfortable and the boat well maintained. My only complaint was that I was so well taken care of that it was hard to readjust back to normal life.
I learned a lot about the Humpback Whales during my stay. I learned more about the Humpbacks of the North Atlantic than anything else but there were some unique lessons on the small but significant levels of interchange between stocks of Humpback Whales. That small handful of Humpbacks around the world each year who dare to venture outside of their population’s preferred route are responsible for cultural interchange that can be important to socialization for the species around the world. I also learned of the Caribbean’s incredible importance not only to North American Humpbacks, but to Humpbacks as far flung as Scandinavia also. I gained a greater appreciation for how long these animals could dive as I watched them rest. They have been recorded submerged for over half an hour in the Silver Bank, which is something we would almost never witness in California as the whales are too active here to rest for that long.
By now if you are reading this it is clear that I really enjoyed this trip and rate it as one of the best whale watching experiences available in the world. But who would I specifically recommend this tour to? I would only dissuade you if you were prone to severe motion sickness, can’t spend much time in the sun, or lack the physical ability to snorkel. This trip requires a level of physical stamina in order to take advantage of what is offered. Additionally, it is not a trip where I would take children not old enough to handle long excursions at sea.
One of the biggest strengths of this trip though is that it appeals to photographers of all levels, animal lovers of all levels, and anyone who is capable of basic swimming. There is no need to be dive certified or to be a professional photographer with thousands of dollars of equipment to get the full enjoyment. For that reason I strongly recommend a trip to the Silver Bank Whale Sanctuary. This is definitely a “bucket list” trip that for many will be once in a lifetime, but I can see myself returning there one day before long. With any luck that will be sooner rather than later.