The first time someone talked to me about swimming with whales I envisioned a small paper craft cartoon scene with tiny swimmers with big fins and happy figure eight shaped whales spouting fountains of water next to them. It was a scene out of a children’s book, full of smiles and sentences that rhymed. Because whales in person, right up there in your face, are nothing like the whales in children’s books. They’re bigger and longer, with a subtle eel-like grace. And they’re wild animals. Saying, “I’m going out to swim with whales today” sounded suspiciously like “I’m going to go play in traffic with sentient school buses that don’t necessarily want to play with me”.
But there’s a place in the Caribbean where it’s heavily regulated and licensed and you go out in a live-aboard dive boat for a week and swim with humpbacks. The company I’ve gone with twice now is Conscious Breath out of Florida. The whales are there to give birth and breed for the next season. So, most of the whales you will have encounters with are the mother and calf combination, where the mother is resting lower in the water column coming up every 20 minutes or so to breath, but the young calf has to come up every 5 minutes or so. (You’re in about 80-100 feet of water over a limestone reef 75 miles offshore.) If everything gets timed correctly and the mother whale is amenable, you float in the water in a group of 8 or so and the calf will come check you out. They’re a week or so old at that point, so think 1 to 2 ton puppy. This is all done in open water, so if the mother is not comfortable with this, she just flicks her tail and her and the calf are gone.
I won’t break this trip down into days because the days are remarkably similar. You get up at 7:30, eat breakfast, into the smaller tenders / whale chasers by 8 am, out on the water, in the water, you’ll spend 5 minutes to an hour with an particular whale, in for lunch around noon, out again at 1 until 6pm or so, back for a shower and a beer with the sundown, dinner, a presentation, and bed. The dive boat holds 16 or so people, the tenders that go out are 8 people each.
You fly in and out of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. We stayed the first couple nights on land to get over the jet lag and do a preliminary snorkeling trip to make sure all the camera equipment and the snorkeling gear was working. A little horseback riding on the beach.
After much deliberation, I went with the Nikon AW1 underwater camera. It’s a mirrorless, 14 MP camera that comes with 2 available lens. The advantage being that you don’t need a housing, it’s sealed, so that it’s a lot less awkward than a DSLR in a housing. A DSLR is going to a foot or more in diameter, weigh 15-20 pounds (though it will be neutrally buoyant underwater, it still has momentum and drag against the water). And you can quickly and easily change the settings where a DSLR you set it up, make all decisions before you get in the boat, because it’s locked and loaded for the most part. And I have never taken one of these trips without someone’s housing flooding and the DSLR inside going to Valhalla.
In fact, my hesitation about the Nikon AW1 was that this was the camera I took to the South Pacific in 2014 and it got water inside and was ruined halfway through the trip. Do you give a camera model that has failed you another chance? I decided yes, though I took a Go Pro with me so that I would have a backup underwater camera. Fortunately, I did not need it.
But once out there on the Silver Banks, you get in the water with the whales and time just stops.
The mothers are producing milk for the calves, but the calf doesn’t attach to a nipple. The mother pumps out her very thick, fatty, clumps of milk and the calf immediately slurps them into its baleen. Sometimes you’ll see the milk floating in the water near the mother.
You don’t touch the calf. You hang in the water and wait to see if the calf approaches you.
(Photo by Griet Laval Van Malden)
And if you’re lucky, you’ll have your underwater camera still in your hand when the whale decides to breech. That’s our dive boat in the background for scale.
When you’re not in the water with the whales, you’re in the tender watching the breeding behavior — tail slapping, spy hopping, breeching, pec slapping. And a group of males all fighting each other for dominance, called a rowdy bunch, where they are just whacking on each other, slamming each other with their jaws. They’re bloody and puffing like steam engines. (You do not get in the water with a rowdy group.)
And then you get back in the water with the mother and calf and are privileged to watch how affectionate they are with each other. It is sad to know that maybe 50 percent of calves don’t make it. It’s a long way back to their feeding grounds in the Arctic and some of them will not survive that long a journey.
It’s a luxury to have a block of time to focus on just one thing — the humpback whales. To have a moment where you are fully present and it’s just you and these truly enormous animals who tolerant you with benign grace. You end up comparing your feeble attempts to penetrate the surface of the water and swim in their world with their breeching behavior where they crack the surface of the sea. There are places where the sea seems bottomless, the sky seems endless, and yet you meet somewhere in the middle.