I was diving out of Providenciales on West Caicos when I encountered my first humpbacks. We were en route to a dive site when the captain noticed a shadow under the boat. Hey, everyone! he shouted. There's whale under the boat! Anyone want to swim with it? Before he finished his sentence - and to the surprise of everyone aboard - I had thrown on my snorkeling gear and hopped over the side. My eyes met a female and calf swimming ever so gently, yet at a speed I could never hope to match. They passed me and kept going. Needless to say, I didn't have a camera setup with the proper lens, so I missed the opportunity to photograph them. I kicked myself for weeks. That's how I first found out about the humpbacks in the Turks and Caicos. As a result of that first encounter, I flew to Middle Caicos with two friends last winter on a highly speculative attempt to photograph humpback whales on their migration route. Humpbacks leave the cool waters of New England and Eastern Canada in the fall and swim down to the Silver Banks off the Dominican Republic to mate and calve. These whales often travel through the Turks and Caicos Islands on their way, but most people who photograph humpbacks in the Caribbean do it at the Silver Banks. We wanted to try something new, and we also felt that we might be able to get better photographs in the clear water for which the Turks and Caicos are famous. After much research, we decided to do our work from the island of Middle Caicos. Sometimes called Grand Caicos, this island, while the largest in the Turks and Caicos, boasts a population of only 1,000 and just recently acquired telephone service. Flying over in a chartered (and severely overstuffed) aircraft, we could see only undeveloped land all around, the way the Caribbean used to be. That evening, we met our guide, a native fisherman named John Forbes. The dive industry has not yet conquered Middle Caicos, and the closest anyone will find to a dive boat there is a native fishing boat. We told John that we wanted to dive with whales and asked him if he knew where to find them. Ya wont ta dive wid da giant feesh? Ya crazy, mon! His mouth dropped open and his eyes grew wide. Then he laughed, obviously convinced we were kidding. We assured him we were serious, and, after considerable contemplation, he assured us that if the seas were calm, we could find whales.Giant Feesh and Devilfish The following morning we loaded the boat and started toward the cut in the fringing reef. After less than 20 minutes looking for whales, John yelled out in his Caribbean accent, Dare! Whale right up ahead! To be honest, now I thought he was kidding. We certainly couldn't have been looking long enough to have found a whale already. Then I saw the hump of the humpback myself, an arched back indicative of a whale diving. (Humpbacks get their name from their diving posture, not because of any hump on their bodies.) We followed along slowly until we figured out which way it was going, and when we thought we knew, we raced around in front of the whale, keeping 200 to 300 yards between us so we wouldn't spook it. Finally, when it surfaced and we felt comfortable that the whale was heading our way, we donned our wetsuits and hit the water, cameras in hand. I swam in the general direction of the whale, and kept my eyes wide. Through the crystal-clear water, I could see the bottom 100 feet below. Then, I saw the whale's white pectoral fin standing out vividly in the blue water. The whale wasn't heading toward me, but rather past me on my right. As it hugged the bottom, there was little chance that I would get down to him from my position with only a mask, fins and snorkel. I dove and kicked as hard as I could in his direction, making considerable progress, but not getting nearly close enough. I shot to the surface, my lungs screaming for air. The whale ignored us and kept right on going, much too fast to catch, and we watched as it faded into the blue. When it was gone, we climbed aboard the boat and tried to find it a second time, but it gave us the slip, obviously lying low long enough to get out of visual range before surfacing again. This is one problem with whales. If they want to cooperate, things can go very well, but cooperative whales are few and far between. Whales have their own agendas, of which we aren't part. The chances of finding a curious whale that isn't afraid of people - and that happens to be bored enough to stay with you - are not very good. As we searched for another whale, John's keen eyesight caught a glimpse of something in the water a few hundred yards away. I couldn't see a thing, but he turned the boat and headed over. Much to our amazement, John had found us a manta ray. We all splashed into the water to see what would happen. Like other mantas seen all over the world, this one had two remoras on it, one on each side, right above and behind each cephalic lobe. The remoras, like a pair of motorcycle handlebars, were a tempting place to grab on for a free ride, but I suppressed the urge. The ray, whose wingspan stretched about 8 feet, placed it firmly in the category of small, because fully grown adults measure more than 20 feet across. Yet, it did not seem at all threatened by us, and continued to swim around and around us, even easing up near the surface where we could photograph it better without our scuba gear. Although I didn't want to frighten it away, I finally felt confident enough to touch it. I swam down and huddled up very close to the dorsal surface of the animal, settling into the slipstream around its body. Riding effortlessly in the vortex of water created by the manta's movement, I felt as if I were being carried on a magic carpet ride over the bottom. I stroked the skin of the giant ray gently with my free hand. It slowed and relaxed with my touch. Obviously, this animal liked to be rubbed, so I moved my hand around a little and gave it a back massage. The skin was rough like sandpaper, yet soft ... very strange. When I stopped and headed for the surface for a breath of air, the manta did a barrel roll, flipping over and exposing its white belly to the surface. I took this as a hint and swam back down to rub its tummy. Five enormous pairs of gill slits pulsated as it forced water through them. It's really hard to believe that people once thought this animal was extremely dangerous. For two hours we played with the manta, each taking turns swimming, photographing and rubbing it. None of us rode it, for fear our fun would end. We came to photograph whales, yet we found it difficult to tear ourselves away from this friendly and exciting encounter. The experience finally ended when we left to resume our search.The Search Pays Off And search we did. For the next three days we endured windy, rough weather and the relentless baking sun without seeing a single whale. By the fifth day, I looked like a tomato. Even sunscreen and a hat hadn't saved my northern, white winter complexion from the intense sun. My butt hurt from being pounded by the waves, and I was so sick of that little boat I was ready to pack it up and head home. But the fifth day started out a little calmer than the previous three had, and we found a whale almost as soon as we passed through the cut. The whale took one look at us and put it in high gear, diving out of sight and not returning. A few minutes later we happened across three Minke whales moving along at a swift pace. We managed to get in front of them and jumped into the water. The small whales passed below us perhaps 100 feet down, and we could easily see them, but there was no way we could get pictures. That was our last experience with whales for the day. The sixth day, we spent 14 hours looking for whales, but couldn't sight a single one. My spirits hit rock-bottom and I wondered how I could've gotten into such a fiasco. Although the whales seem to stick to the northern side of the island, we found interesting diving on the reefs and shot up some film and just relaxed. One of the highlights was the large number of nurse sharks that acted as if they had never seen divers before, completely ignoring us unless we touched them. The coral was healthy and the water was as clear as it gets. But still no whales. When we got up on the seventh day and looked at the ocean, it was the calmest we'd seen all week; the surface looked like a mirror. We set out and cruised a couple hours before finally spotting a whale. Approaching cautiously, we were careful to remain at least 100 yards away. The whale kept diving, remaining submerged for perhaps 10 to 15 minutes at a time and finally surfacing fairly close to where he dived. We watched this behavior for quite a while and decided to try to swim up as the whale appeared to rest between dives. Once in the water it was hard to locate where the whale was. Looking back and forth between the last location of the whale and the boat, I watched John as he pointed from his higher vantage point to where I should swim. I looked back at the boat again and John was practically doing cartwheels, pointing and shouting. Putting my face back in the water, I actually could see the whale underwater, and as I swam ever so slowly toward it, the whale noticed me and started to turn. I anticipated the turn and started swimming in that direction. He kept the heading, while I picked up the pace. Now the humpback and I were swimming parallel to each other, and I closed the gap between us to less than 20 feet. I fired shot after shot, keeping an eye on the sun, the aperture, the shutter speed and the focus. I tried making some moaning whale sounds, and the whale definitely heard me because it seemed to eye me more closely when I did it. But when I tried to swim closer, it moved away, keeping a constant buffer between us. This was clearly not a playful, curious whale, but at least it wasn't afraid. It took every ounce of my energy just to keep up, but finally the pace became too much, and the whale continued into the blue with graceful strokes of its enormous tail. Three for One No sooner had I returned to the boat than we saw another whale, heading straight for us. All three of us hopped into the water and waited. Then I heard it - that sound I will always recognize: a dolphin squeak. The whale came into view with a common dolphin swimming at hyper-speed, turning circles around the whale. It surfed in the humpback's bow wave, then turned and swam under his tail, finally up under his pectoral fin, and back up to his nose. What was going on here? As I struggled to focus, compose and shoot, I noticed a nurse shark swimming down on the bottom. A whale, a dolphin and a shark at the same time! Well, as it turned out, I was much too far away for a decent shot with my 18-mm lens, but what an experience! Was the dolphin just having some fun with the whale? Were they hanging out together to kill time? Did the dolphin annoy the whale? I guess I'll never know, but the sight made all the trouble worth the price of admission. While I couldn't get any decent images, I have memories of an experience few people will ever have. I took a chance on a different kind of diving adventure and saw something incredible. It was a long trip, but in the end, the amazing things I saw will linger in my memory for the rest of my life.
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