Entering the Humpback Whale Sanctuary

By Gail Condrick

Published in Natural Awakenings, January 2011 and the International Dolphin Watch (IDW) The Magazine for Whale and Dolphin Lovers Publication, February/March 2011

In March 1987 Captain Tom Conlin sailed through Silver Bank Marine Sanctuary headed to St. Maarten to meet his next dive boat charter. He navigated by the color of the sea and instinct, maneuvering through the dangers that have sunk many ships. From the bow, he watched an ocean full of movement and heard the tell tale “PUH!” of humpback whales surfacing to breathe. He was in the middle of the densest concentration of humpback whales in the North Atlantic, a 200 mile area off the coast of the Dominican Republic where 3000 humpbacks migrate to give birth and mate.

“We were very lucky,” he remembers. “Coral heads don’t show up on navigational charts and there are a lot of boats sunk there. Whales were everywhere, mothers and calves, male escorts fighting for their places next to a female. So we followed them around for awhile and we watched them and they watched us. They were curious about us too, so, I had this idea, what would it be like to bring people to meet whales, up close, eye to eye, right in the water?”

It was a trip and a concept that changed his life and the lives of many others.

Today Conlin, a photographer, educator, and honorary naturalist, estimates 50,000 people have shared his vision of meeting whales worldwide. His company, Aquatic Adventures, is one of three permitted to enter the Sanctuary during the 12-week birthing and mating season. At first there was concern from environmentalists that human interaction would disturb the endangered humpbacks. Negotiations from all sides created strict rules of operation, limiting access and creating guidelines for engagement with whales that came largely from Conlin’s experience.

“Some environmentalists did not like this idea, and there was pressure from groups who now look at us as a model,” he states. “Many areas allow scientific research in marine sanctuaries but this is the only area in the world, other than Tonga, where people who are not scientists can experience whales right in the water.”

Meeting the Humpback Whales

Many people find both adventure and a spiritual aspect to encounters with humpback whales. The owners of Wildquest, Amlas and Atmo Kubesa, an eco-travel company specializing in human and wild dolphin interactions in the Bahamas, team with Conlin for an annual one-week whale encounter each season. The twenty spots are quickly filled by people from all over the world.

Anchored at the Silver Bank, we see humpbacks breeching on the horizon and swimming close to the boat. In a daily educational briefing we learn about whales and that we are guests in this underwater world. We are not pursuing whales, we are there to experience a “soft in-water encounter,” a phrase that will become a metaphor for the week. When we find a whale who is curious or tolerant or both, we will slip into the ocean making as little noise as possible, forming a human chain parallel to the whales.

We motor out in tenders twice a day searching for the water plume of breath used to locate the whales. Sometimes the mother, who can stay submerged for 20 minutes, settles on the bottom and allows us to be close to her calf. A baby, the size of a mini-van at birth, surfaces every five minutes to breathe. Viewing him underwater, we see a twisting turning dance that is all fin and rolling play as he learns to control his body. He rises 30 feet to the surface for air and then dives down to rest under the chin of his mother.

For Matt McCord of Venice, Florida, the first sight of the baby whale was surprisingly sudden. “I was amazed at the immediacy of the calf coming up to see us,” he says, “I was in the water five to ten seconds when he came over. Both mother and calf swam close to me and I will always remember that moment.”

“Can you imagine offering your precious baby to be viewed and interact with another mammal not of your species? For me it is unthinkable," says Andrea Oeschey, a German mother of two. "What kind of power, trust, faith, and connection would that moment require?"

An in-water encounter is exhilarating and exciting. The heart pounds, the mind cannot believe the size of the whales. It is like watching a movie in slow motion, and only the sound of my rapid breathing assures me this is real. As the mother begins to surface and slowly glides by our group, each person is certain she has looked only at them.

“I looked into the eye of a humpback whale and she looked at me and I felt such love and acceptance,” reminisces Kate Cain-Bell of Pennsylvania.

Viewing the whales is not always a slow and tender interaction. Females are here to give birth; males are looking for mates. Fighting over a female can turn a calm ocean into a rolling racetrack battlefield.

The female whale, larger and faster than the males, is in the lead protected by her escort and pursued by challengers. We are traveling parallel to the whales at top speed as Conlin calls out locations. “Escort is moving up to 5 o’clock, diving down, now look, Challenger is gaining at 3 o’clock, submerging. Where are they? They are all down and diving, this could get bloody. I’ve seen dorsal fins torn half off in these battles. Look! There they are, going west, fast!” he says as we break off and watch the chase from a distance.

New Sanctuary Relationships

Humpback whales begin migrating north in April with satellite tracking charts revealing some head to Europe, but most travel 1500 miles to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Massachusetts. Here they feed, grow, and prepare for the next year of migration, providing a profitable whale watching business, a dramatic shift for an area historically supported by whale hunts. It has even led to a unique Sister Sanctuary program between the United States and the Dominican Republic to protect humpbacks on both ends of the route.

Protecting whales makes humanitarian, scientific and economic sense as whale watching becomes a big business. Greenpeace claims that 87 countries generate one billion dollars each year from whale watching. The Dominican Republic receives an estimated $5.2 million a year from eco-tourism with the Silver Bank Sanctuary key to success.

But the impact on meeting whales eye to eye transcends money.

“I am going to be more proactive in the preservation of our swimming cousins,” says Canadian Mark Daniel after his Wildquest trip. “I want to be someone making a difference in protecting whales.”

Action may be needed. Humpback whales are currently protected by the International Whaling Commission as an endangered species, but as the numbers increase several countries, most notably Japan and Iceland, want to resume whaling.

Over 20 years ago Tom Conlin took a turn that became a calling.

“I am meant to introduce people to whales; people who have this experience will do more for whales and step forward to protect them. This started as my love for whales, and now I am working with film makers, scientists, organizations and individuals who want this same experience.”

It is said that looking into the eye of a whale is like looking into the eye of God. The magic is what happens to you when God looks back.

Gail Condrick has taken four trips to the Silver Bank and now leads classes and retreats in personal transformation. Contact Gail for more information.

To learn more about eco-travel adventures with whales and dolphins, contact www.aquaticadventures.com or www.wildquest.com.

Silver Bank whale photos courtesy of Atmo Kubesa, Wildquest. Family photo from Tom Conlin.

Copyright © Gail Condrick, 2011

Gail Condrick is a writer and lover of all things earth and ocean living in Sarasota, Florida. Write to Gail