Free diving with whales in the wild has been a life-long personal dream. The chance to turn this dream into reality came in January when I met Jeff Pantukhoff at the annual DEMA dive show. A photographer and filmmaker, Jeff is also the founder and president of the Whaleman Foundation. In addition to conducting ongoing research, Whaleman organizes eco-adventure tours that allow humans to interact with whales and dolphins in their natural environment. When Jeff learned of my fascination with marine mammals, he extended an invitation for my husband Paul and me to join Whaleman on an expedition to the Silver Banks to interact with humpback whales. The timing was excellent, as I had recently made the decision to focus less on establishing new free-diving world records and instead use my talents to educate and inspire others to the possibilities the sport offered. Breath-hold diving with one of the earth's mightiest creatures certainly fits this goal. In the weeks leading up to our adventure, my initial excitement was tempered by a growing sense of anxiety. After all, I had never been in open water with anything bigger than a stingray. Would the sheer size of the humpbacks prove terrifying?OCEAN SANCTUARY Our expedition dive boat, Ocean Explorer, departed the north coast of the Dominican Republic in mid-February, traveling north to the Silver Banks. So named for the fortune in Spanish silver that was lost on the shallow reefs of this offshore pinnacle, the Silver Banks is a major breeding ground and nursery for humpbacks. Humbacks follow age-old migration routes, moving north toward the Arctic in summer, then returning to the tropics in winter. From December to April, the cows seek shelter from ocean currents, predators and storms in the calm, shallow waters of the Silver Banks. In these benign waters, they give birth and nurse their newborn calves. The presence of fertile females does not escape the attention of the typically solitary males. They, too, are drawn to the Silver Banks in large numbers where they compete for mates in a variety of ways. Some males sing long, complicated songs in apparent vocal competition. Others engage in hormone-addled physical contests, ramming and raking one another with their massive heads. Mature bulls sometimes adopt a more subtle strategy by becoming an escort for a female and her calf, avoiding or challenging any other males that attempt to swim close to the female. Both males and females may stage spectacular surface displays, slapping their flippers and tails or raising their massive heads high above the water. Adults may also breach, leaping completely out of the water, then falling back in a cascade of foam and spray. Swimming humans stand little chance of keeping up with the boisterous, fast-moving males. Instead, it is the cow-and-calf pairs or small family groups that present the best opportunity for in-water study and interaction. FIRST CONTACT: There I was, perched on the side of an inflatable boat and ready for my first encounter with 40 tons of a vastly superior free diver. I had called on every trick I knew to relax and calm myself, but as I slipped quietly into the water and swam to where we had seen a cow and her calf descend for a resting period, I could feel my heart pounding. The moment the pair came into view, however, all my anxieties evaporated. The only way I can describe the sight - and the many that were to come throughout the week - would be to imagine oneself standing in front of a life-sized picture of humpbacks in a completely silent room.I felt like I had been instantly enveloped by one of Jeff's photographs. There, some 35 feet beneath us, was a massive mother with her two- or three-month-old calf nestled underneath her pectoral fins. Time seemed to stand still, and even now, I can close my eyes and be right back in the moment of my first encounter again. Jeff had advised us to move through the water as silently as possible, making sure our fins didn't break the surface as we approached the whales. Once we found the whales resting below, we were to remain still in the water and stay close together, floating on the surface like jellyfish. In this position, the mother would not likely be concerned or disturbed by our presence and might possibly allow us a longer encounter. Adult humpbacks can rest underwater for up to 20 minutes, surface for a few breaths, then return to their resting state. But calves must surface every three to five minutes, depending on their age, before returning to their mothers. We watched, waited and were rewarded richly as the calf soon returned to the surface, a mere 15-20 feet away. As it circled above its mother, she observed us protectively with one eye before gently rolling over to get a better look with the other. Satisfied that we posed no threat, she continued to rest and was soon joined again by her calf, which had paid us no mind. The calf returned to the surface a few minutes later. This time it took a definite interest in us and with no visible apprehension came to take a closer look. The mother put an immediate damper on the calf's natural curiosity by positioning herself between her offspring and us. She and her charge then disappeared into the blue. I was speechless. I continued to stare into the deep, utterly astounded. There was something about the experience that can't be verbalized ... only felt. INDIVIDUAL ENCOUNTERS: Each subsequent day brought new and unique encounters. Jeff explained that humpbacks are as individual as humans - some social, some shy and some curious. At times, the mothers were very protective of their young while on other occasions - often when in the company of an escort - they seemed to encourage their calves to come very close to us, as if to make a formal introduction. On these occasions, we howled with delight through our snorkels. Pectoral fins passed within inches of our comparatively tiny bodies, and we were close enough to look deep into their eyes. In addition to the misty ''blows'' of the whales as they surfaced to breathe, oftentimes we would see a lone whale slapping its tail fluke or its long white pectoral fin on the water, as if calling other whales. Groups of males would indulge in seeming battles with their tails and pectoral fins. All around us, whales performed gigantic breaches. Whale experts have many theories as to why humbacks breach, but my favorite explanation is ''because they can.'' More than once we came across what seemed to be ''breaching-101 lessons,'' where a mother would breach only to be followed by the adorable efforts of her young. As if desperate to please, the calf would breach and breach until it was visibly tired, barely managing to bring its head out of the water. As if these sights weren't enough, to my absolute astonishment, it seemed that upon diving a few feet below the waves almost anywhere on the Silver Banks, we could hear the ghostly and sonorous melodies of whale-song. Sometimes the sounds of a male ''singer'' filled the water, causing our entire bodies to reverberate. My week on the Silver Banks will long remain as one of the most amazing events of my life.It seems incomprehensible that supposedly civilized nations would seek to hunt and kill these magnificent, endangered creatures. Perhaps if the hunters would join us in the water and listen to the song of the humpback, they would be hunted no more.RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: The Silver Banks is a Marine Mammal Sanctuary managed by the National Parks Directorate of the Dominican Republic. The National Parks Directorate, along with live-aboard dive operators, has established guidelines for interacting with humpbacks to ensure the safety of whales and participants. All participants are briefed on how to approach the whales. Boats must move parallel to the mammals, never head-on, and must maintain a constant speed and direction. A maximum of three boats may watch the same group of whales, encounters are limited to 30 minutes, and boats should not surround the whales. If whales approach within 100 feet of a boat, the engine must remain in neutral. Swims with the whales are allowed only through a ''soft encounter'' technique that allows the whale to approach the swimmer, rather than the reverse. Chasing a whale is prohibited, as is scuba diving. To Contact the Whaleman Foundation: The Whaleman Foundation is a nonprofit oceanic research, education, production and conservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting dolphins, whales and their habitats. The Foundation produces videos and articles on the importance of helping raise awareness of the plight of marine mammals and fostering international cooperation on their protection. To learn more, visit www.whaleman.org or write to The Whaleman Foundation PO Box 1670 Lahaina HI, 96767, phone 808-661-8859.
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