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Humpback Whales on the Silver Bank

There are many ways to experience marine life.  As scuba divers we have the unique opportunity to get as close as safely possible to creatures that inhabit a world completely different to what we experience on land. When I was thinking about where to head next, I wanted to find an opportunity to get in the water with whales.  The experience had to be ethical, safe for humans and whales and provide the chance for topside and underwater photography. 

After having travelled with the Aggressor Fleet in Galapagos, I was confident that the trip they offered to the Silver Bank would check all the necessary boxes on my list.  The Turks and Caicos Aggressor is one of three ships permitted access to the Silver Bank during humpback mating and breeding season.

The added bonus for me was the opportunity to travel with the two “Mikes” from Jim Church Underwater Photography. Mike Haber and Mike Mesgleski offer digital photography courses through the Aggressor Fleet. They run classes during the trip to help everyone have the best chance of getting those hard-earned shots. They will also work with you individually to troubleshoot the inevitable surprises that come along with shooting in challenging conditions.  

What’s the Silver Bank?

Created by the Dominican Government in 1986, the Silver and Navidad Bank Sanctuary for Marine Mammals is in the Atlantic Ocean south east of the Territory of Turks and Caicos and north of the Dominican Republic.  The submerged bank covers an area of 1,680 square kilometres (649 square miles) and comes up to a depth of 18 meters (60 feet) in some sections.  Considered part of the Dominican Republic, it was created as a safe area for sea mammals and has long been a breeding and calving area for Humpback whales. 

The north-eastern corner is dotted with coral heads which make it a challenge for marine traffic but provide excellent protection for whales and their calves.  The deeper areas of the sanctuary provide passage for whales migrating to other parts of the Antilles. 

The area is monitored by the Dominican Republic’s Department of Protected Areas and Biodiversity.  Access for whale watching is restricted to those with a permit and only three permits are issued each year.  With a maximum number of visitors per operator and strict controls on the length of each day’s operation, whales are not over exposed to humans and visitors are able to experience the whales without overcrowding. 

The Whales

Humpback whales are part of the family of baleen whales. Baleen refers to the filter feeding system located inside their mouths.  Baleen whales feed by taking in large volumes of water which when forced out, leaves small animals like krill trapped in the baleen.  Baleen is a skin derivative made of keratin similar to human hair and fingernails. 

Humpback whales migrate annually up to 25,000 kilometres (16,000 miles) per year moving from where they feed in polar waters to warmer waters closer to the equator to breed and give birth.  Humpback whales will rely on their fat stores for months once they leave their feeding grounds.  Females will nurse their calves for almost a year. Humpback whales continue to grow until they are 10 years old.  

Prior to the ban on whaling in 1985, Humpback whales were close to extinction. Their numbers have rebounded and are estimated at around 80,000 worldwide. They still remain endangered by human activity primarily through entanglement with fishing gear, collision with ships and noise pollution. 

On the Water

I feel like I have to almost put in a disclaimer here. According to Captain Amanda and the team, we had an exceptional week of encounters. As any photographer will tell you, wild life is exactly that. You never know what you will or won’t find on a given day. We found lots.

The Process: With two inflatable dinghies, our group would head out starting around 8:30 am to start looking for whales. Within an area of roughly 20 square miles finding whales is not a given. When we would find either a mother and calf or resting adults and were given the OK to get in the water you needed to have your underwater camera set up and ready to go.   

If you want to maximize your opportunities for photos, you need to have two cameras with you – one for topside and one for underwater.  The tip sheets that Mike and Mike sent out before the trip really made the difference for me in figuring out how to manage my gear. 

My topside camera (Canon 5D MKIV with 70-200 F/2.8 Zoom) stayed tucked inside a small Pelican case which kept it protected from water and errant feet unless I was shooting.  I used a rain cover which was duct taped to the end of the lens.  We also used towels to lay over the rain covers and lens hoods in between shots.  

When I was setting all this up, it seemed like overkill. I mean how wet was my topside camera going to get? Ha! Never tempt the water and wind gods. I can’t count how many times the lens hood and cover were fully soaked by a wave while trying to catch topside action. It was a great test of the weather sealing of Canon’s red line lenses and am happy to report everything is still working perfectly!

My underwater set up for this trip was my Canon 7D MKII in an Aquatica Digital Housing. I had purchased a 10-22 ultra-wide angle zoom to help capture full body shots. After some disappointing results on day 1, I switched back to my favourite, reliable 17-40 F/4 and things started to look up… Strobes are not permitted in the Silver Bank which a) simplifies setup b) allows for a bit more space in the dinghy when you have 4 or 5 photographers! 

In Water Encounters: Our most frequent encounters were with mothers and calves. Adult humpbacks will surface every 7 – 15 minutes to breathe. Depending on their age, babies need to surface at 3 to 5-minute intervals. A mother will rest below the surface with their baby tucked under their body behind their pectoral fins. If the mother feels the environment is safe, she will stay in position while her baby surfaces to take a breath or two before heading back down to mom.

This breathing cycle provided the majority of our in-water encounters. If we found a mother that was resting and comfortable with our presence, we would slip quietly into the water. Always careful to never hover directly over their backs, we would line up off to the side, in front of the mother’s pectoral fins and wait for the baby to make its way up to the surface.

Most encounters lasted for a few breath cycles before the mother quietly surfaced and either moved on or headed back down after a short swim.

Nothing quite prepares you for the sight of a mother whale raising her little one. Baby humpbacks communicate with their mothers through soft squeaks and grunts. This communication is much quieter than the singing of adults and allows mothers to keep track of their babies.   

A baby humpback may be 3 – 5 meters in length (10 – 16 feet) but it is still a baby. They are curious, playful and do not appear to be afraid of snorkelers. Some would zoom in to see how close they could get and then jump up and show off with a baby breech or pec flap. Like children, they imitate their elders. Their muscles aren’t fully developed and early attempts at breaching or flapping their pecs or tails don’t always work out as planned.

The Valentine

In the northern hemisphere, humpbacks migrate to the warmer waters in Hawaii or the Silver Bank to nurse their babies and to mate. Whether they are breaching, slapping their pectoral or tail fins, or even their heads; males in search of a mate provide lots of action above the water. While there is little scientific research to understand the specific purpose of these behaviours, they are observed during mating season.  

One of the best encounters we experienced was a male and female in a mating ritual known as dancing or a valentine. When they are in this state, they are very tactile and very focused on things close to them. Whales have been known to rub up against boats and can get very close to snorkelers. We were alerted by another boat who had been with this pair of whales for a few hours. With half of their group heading back to the main boat, we were able to join without creating a crowd for the whales. For the next couple of hours, we alternated in and out of the water experiencing something truly incredible.

This pair of whales would dance in between us in the water for 30 – 40 minutes at a time before swimming down for a short break. Then they’d come right back up and start to dance all over again. About half way through I was up to 1,000 pictures. The whales stayed close and just kept moving as a pair and I couldn’t take my eyes (lens!) off them. 

I had no idea how much time I would end up spending in the water with whales on this trip. There is no guarantee what you will see on a given day when you are in the ocean. Although I’ve been a certified diver for some time, I had never had the chance to see whales while diving.

Being able to observe them interact with each other and us was an incredible privilege that I will never forget. To be in the water with something the size of a school bus and watch how much control they had over their body was humbling. While we were careful not to position ourselves intentionally in their way, there were times they came close. While marine life hasn’t evolved by crashing into objects in the ocean, I am still amazed that they absolutely knew exactly how far they were from us.  

An important part of training as a scuba diver is absolute respect for marine life. We go into that environment to observe, enjoy and maybe capture some pictures. What I really appreciated about this experience was the opportunity to see the whales in their environment with the knowledge that protections are in place to prevent human activity from interfering with the whale’s migration cycle. I hope my pictures and story help spread awareness of these amazing creatures. 

Carol Strachan Photography