Snorkel with humpback whales in the Caribbean

Scuba Travel's ambassador Tomas Jansson recently went out with a bunch of others Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic, one of only three places in the world where you can snorkel with humpback whales. Our own Erika was also there, and she has put together a travelogue about snorkeling with humpback whales in the Caribbean. 

Arrival

When myself and about half the group land in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic and head to the resort where we will spend the night, we are all tired but happy to be there. Once there, we check in, take a quick detour to one of the buffet restaurants before we all go to bed early, excited with anticipation for tomorrow. It later turns out that this going to bed early will be consistent for the coming week. We are going to snorkel with humpback whales here in the Caribbean and early mornings are the order of the day.

On board the boat

At four o'clock, when it's time to get on the boat, there is a downpour, but luckily this is the only rain we will get during the week on the boat. The next time it rains is on the trip back to the port in Puerto Plata. So we are really lucky with the weather. The windbreakers we all brought with us will never be used. We are told that the gang that was out the week before us had a very windy week. So now we understand why we were recommended to bring them.

Instead of bad weather, it will be the sun that we have to watch out for. Although everyone is careful to lubricate themselves, we see red hands and necks here and there. I myself burn the top of my hands and have to borrow a pair of gloves from one of the travelers to wear in the water. Thank you, Susanne!

First whales

Once on the boat, Turks & Caicos Aggressor II, we are shown to our cabins, and then given a safety briefing by the captain. We have dinner and get to enjoy the chef's fantastic food for the first time. When we have all gone to bed in the cabins, the captain of the boat begins the approx. 10-hour journey over to Silver Banks. We arrive at Silver Banks on Sunday morning, and then it takes about an hour and a half to arrive at the Polyxeni wreck and our anchorage.

For those of us who are up early get to see our first whales up from the sun deck. We're starting to understand how many whales there actually are out here at this time of year. We see whales blowing out (the heart-shaped blowout that is the signature of humpback whales) all around us, and we see jumping whales every now and then. The tingling in the stomach gets a little stronger.

The whales are here! Something you didn't really dare to believe in until now. The boat we are on is one of very few boats that have permission to go here, and Silver Banks here in the Caribbean is one of only 3 places in the world where you can snorkel with humpback whales. The permit is valid for 10 weeks, so not many people per year get the opportunity to experience the whales in this way on board a live board.

First trip out with the whales

After lunch on Sunday, it's time to jump in the two rib boats to look for whales for the first time. The group splits up. Each group gets a guide and a captain from the six-strong crew (actually five women and one man). We have already understood that the staff on the boat is very knowledgeable. When we sit in the rib boats and hear the captain and guide talk about their jobs, and see them "in action", it really sinks in how much they can do. How passionate and professional they really are. They are almost uncannily good at finding the whales.

The staff show great tact when they choose which whales we get to swim with and tell us how close we can get. The times we get really, really close are when the whales swim up to us. We are many whale and animal lovers on the boat, and we are impressed that the staff first and foremost cares about the whales, and secondly that the guests should have a good experience, and not the other way around.

First contact

Our group quite quickly catches sight of a female whale with a calf, which has a so-called escort (a male who farts for the female). After a little while, our captain thinks the whales are calm and relaxed enough for us to try sending our guide out into the water. How the whales react to the guide becomes a measure of whether the rest of the group can swim out to them.

If they stay and completely ignore the fact that a small person is coming to visit, it is a green light for the rest of the group to quietly slip into the water. If they swim away, they obviously don't want company, and we have to keep looking.

This particular time it seems promising, but all of a sudden the three whales swim away at quite a high speed. We soon discover that a fourth whale has joined them. Our captain tells us that it is most likely another male that has come to challenge the male that is already keeping the female and the calf company. She also says that on such occasions it often gets a bit "rowdy" in English. By that she means that the whales like to jump and/or hit the water with their fins.

The whales seem to take the captain at his word, because almost immediately we start to see both tail fins and long white pectoral fins above the surface. We follow the whales for a while, before our captain decides it's time to say goodbye to these whales. Better to look for others who might let us swim with them. However, we do not find any more whales on this first day, but we return to the boat satisfied and happy and with an insight into how close the whales sometimes let us get.

Tough but exciting days

We are all tired after our first day in the rib boat and go to bed early, excited for tomorrow. During the week, we are out in the rib boats from 08:30 to about 12:00, then back again after lunch between 14:00 and 17:30. It's hot and muggy and not always very comfortable, but our encounters with the humpback whales make up for it. The long days in the sun mean two things: that we get very hungry, and that we fall asleep like children in the evenings.

On board the boat there are movies and books to borrow, but most of us don't use them at all. However, we all take care to eat when we can. The talented chef cooks fantastic food, and every day we get a cold breakfast at 06:30, and most days hot breakfast to order. Lunch is always a buffet, and then we have a three-course dinner. She also makes sure that every day she sends us a fruit box and energy bars to have as a snack on the rib boats if we get hungry.

Lectures on board

For two evenings, the captain gives us a lecture after dinner. She tells us about the anatomy of whales one evening, and their different behaviors the next. We learn that the humpback whales that during these months make their way to the Silver Banks come from the North Atlantic. They don't come for the food; there is nothing here for them to eat. Instead, the researchers believe they come to give birth and raise the calves, court each other and mate. The travelers who make it here have the opportunity to experience a variety of whale behaviors.

Our group is so lucky that we manage to check most things: jumping whales, sleeping whales, dancing whales, singing whales and curious calves with sleeping mothers. We get fantastic encounters up close in the water, we swim with whales every day except the first. The encounters become more and more intense, and the whales come closer and closer. No wonder that on some occasions I see tears of happiness in some of the travelers.

Last day on board

On our last day we swim with a sleeping mother and her little calf who is not the least bit tired. She would rather play with and spy on those funny snorkels up at the surface. Every time her mother releases her to the surface to breathe, she takes the opportunity to swim over to us and watch. She spins around and is as delightfully curious and disobedient as only children can be. Of all the whales we meet during the week, she, our last "little" whale, is my absolute favorite.

When we untie the moorings the next morning and begin our journey back to Puerto Plata, she is the one I think of most. I sincerely hope she makes the long journey with her mother back to the North Atlantic. One of my fellow travelers tells me she almost wants to cry. It feels as if we are leaving our friends. Like me, she hopes to be able to go back here to Silver Banks in the future. To once again share this magical experience with loved ones.

Things to consider for the packing list

If you want to go to Silver Banks yourself, here is a small list of what might be good to bring with you:

  • SUNSCREEN (take in the small boats, apply, apply, apply)
  • Sunbonnet
  • Buff / Bandana – (good to have when lying in the water to protect the neck and head)
  • Soft gloves with cut-off fingers (protects hands in the water, but still allows easy access to camera buttons)
  • Rashguard (nice to be able to take off the upper part of the wetsuit if you get hot in the boat and not have to worry about getting burned on the upper body)
  • That windbreaker we didn't need just this time
     
Camera space on board

On the boat there is a camera table where you can prepare your camera for the rib boat trips, and a "video lab" where you charge your camera batteries. In addition to the camera and charger, make sure to bring:

  • 2 pin adapter 
  • If you have several batteries to be charged at the same time, bring a power strip (small extension cord with several outlets)
  • Laptop or external hard drive, alternatively extra memory card (you film/take more pictures than you might think)

Erika and part of the group spent the last day in Puerto Plata going to Damajaqua Cascades, 27 Waterfalls. Watch the video here. A really fun experience in beautiful surroundings!

Are you dying to go to the Silver Banks and snorkel with humpback whales in the Caribbean? Contact us at Scuba Travel then we will help you with your trip. Keep in mind that the season is short and places are limited, so be there in time.

Text by: Erika Broberg

Photo by: Scuba Travel Ambassador Tomas Jansson

Video and photos with © approval from Scuba Travel ambassador Tomas Jansson. Text by Erika Broberg