An annual humpback migration sets the stage for memorable whale encounters
If the eyes are windows to the soul, what might I discover by staring into the eye of a creature the size of a city bus?
I pondered this question while floating in blue tropical water, watching a 45-foot humpback whale and her calf approach me for a closer look. The massive cow seemed serene and unafraid, while her car-sized calf appeared playful as she slapped her 6-foot long pectoral fins on the surface.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, and the reason I had traveled to the remote reef system known as the Silver Bank. This 20-square-mile bastion of coral heads is a nightmare to navigation, and in fact earned its name when, in 1641, the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Concepcion fell victim to the reefs while carrying an estimated 40 million dollars in silver.
Today, live-aboard dive vessels make annual pilgrimages to the Silver Bank in search of an entirely different type of treasure. Each January, North Atlantic humpback whales return to the shallow, sheltered waters of the banks, which provide ideal breeding grounds. Following their arrival, the ocean boils with whale songs, thunderous breaches and lobbing tails as hundreds of bulls seek their chance to mate. With only three months to secure a position with a willing female, competition between bulls goes beyond simple rivalry, transforming these normally gentle giants into combative titans.
Yet despite their substantial size, humpback whales are relatively shy, even timid when it comes to confrontations with man. Getting close to these giants requires a non-threatening approach known as a ''soft-in-water encounter,'' a technique perfected by the limited number of operators who are permitted to bring guests in contact with these whales.
Whale interaction requires patience, timing and luck. Participants don snorkel gear and are instructed not to splash or swim directly at the animals, as they will see this as an act of aggression. Instead, swimmers are expected to float quietly and allow the whales the opportunity to initiate the encounter on their terms. These interspecies encounters, which are as much ''human watching'' events as whale watching, may be over in seconds, but have been known to last for an hour or more.
My encounter lasted about 15 minutes, during which time the mother allowed her curious calf to move in for a closer look, but always maintained a protective flanking position. Then it was over, as mom's 40-ton body intervened and left no room for argument.
As she swept past, I inhaled and dropped 20 feet below the surface to get one last photo. A slight turn of her head brought that massive eye within an arm's reach. Time seemed to stand still, and I was overwhelmed by a sense of calm benevolence. What a soul there must be inside a whale.
From mid-January to the end of March, several live-aboards provide opportunities to snorkel with the humpbacks on the Dominican Republic's famed Silver Bank.
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