Swimming With Humpback Whales

“The principal gift whales offer humanity is that they are the only animals that can impress us enough to persuade us to change our minds about the importance of the wild world.” – Roger Payne, Among Whales


jpeg head shotWhen I saw a flash of white on my left, my heart jumped into overdrive. I was on a collision course with a humpback whale – 40 feet long and 80,000 pounds of muscled mammal. I had read that humpbacks are among the gentlest creatures in the sea, but did this oceanic behemoth know I was in her path? An unintentional bump by her barnacle-encrusted fluke could rip flesh and break bones.

I swerved and rolled onto my side so I could safely watch her glide by. But instead of passing me the whale slowed and rolled onto her side until her large right eye was at my eye level, less than five feet away.

We swam that way, eyes locked, for a brief, ethereal moment–a moment that left me stunned. Call me crazy, but in the whale’s eye I saw calm dignity, curiosity and ageless wisdom. Her kind–warm-blooded, air-breathing sea mammals–are believed to have evolved from land creatures 40 million years before man. After centuries of studying humpbacks, there are still many unanswered questions about them.

The great whale blinked and rolled slowly onto her back, exposing her massive white belly to the water’s surface. As her 15-foot white pectoral fins waved in the air, I noticed a ragged section missing from one appendage, probably a shark bite inflicted when she was young. The other flipper was marred by a round hole, possibly an old harpoon mark.

jpeg mother & calfAll whales carry scars from encounters with reefs, sharks and the sharp-edged inventions of man, but by these distinctive markings I knew that I had just met Valentine, a North Atlantic humpback whale who   winters every year in the Silver Banks, a 75-square-mile whale sanctuary 90 miles north of the Dominican Republic.

From January through March, the shallow, reef-studded Silver Banks (named for the Spanish silver lost in shipwrecks here) provide a safe area for humpbacks to give birth and breed before migrating to summer feeding grounds in the northern Atlantic. It is the largest humpback “nursery” in the world, with 3,000 to 5,000 whales passing through each year. It’s also one of only two places in the world (Tonga in the South Pacific being the other) where the water is clear, calm and warm enough to swim comfortably with whales and their young.

Whales have one calf every two to three years, giving birth after an 11-month gestation and then nursing the calf another five months. Valentine was unaccompanied by a calf, but two male escorts were shadowing her, vying for her attention, so it was obviously her season to party.

jpeg single whaleAs seven of us swimmers bobbed on the surface with our facemasks in the water, the massive whale rolled, dived, and popped her huge head above water like a playful pup. Her escorts finally gave up and departed, and after two hours in the water with her we weakly crawled aboard our zodiac and returned to our mother ship.

Our Valentine encounter came on our last day aboard the 120-foot yacht, the Turks & Caicos Aggressor II, and we talked about whales well into the night, watching from the upper deck as the moon cast a shimmering path across the sea.

Five days earlier, along with 12 other guests, my photographer and I had boarded the Aggressor for the 10-hour overnight voyage to the Silver Banks, where our captain moored near the artfully rusting hulk of the Polyxeni, a Greek freighter lying aground on a shallow reef. Only a handful of boats are licensed by the Dominican Republic to moor in the sanctuary for whale interaction, including the Aggressor.

jpeg aggressorThe Polyxeni was a constant reminder of the coral heads rising to just below the surface, waiting to tear the bottom out of inflatable zodiacs. Every morning and afternoon we had trolled the area in two such fragile craft, looking for whales. Boisterous males sometimes breached and crashed around us, their “mating dance” designed to impress females. We steered clear of them, but when we saw telltale flashes of white pectoral fins lying quietly below the surface, we slipped into the water for a closer look.

That’s how I happened to have a magical moment–when a whale named Valentine came to play.

About Dale Leatherman

In the course of her life she has exercised racehorses at New York’s Belmont Park, showed jumping horses on the A Circuit, driven a race car with the late Paul Newman and played the world’s most famous golf courses.