On a breezy, hazy Sunday in mid-April 2015, I, along with my companions Jenny and Jeremiah stepped from the wharf at Dominica’s Anchorage Hotel, Whale Watch and Dive Center onto the ‘Passion’ catamaran for a memorable whale watch excursion. I was particularly delighted to be going offshore that day to search for gentle giants in the sea. Only a few days earlier, I had attended an enthusiastic presentation about the ongoing Dominica Sperm Whale Project from its head research scientist, Dr. Shane Gero . It had been my good fortune to interview this whale biologist (cetologist) for a piece about Sperm Whales and this initiative in 2011. That particular article is located on the avirtualdominica.com website and you can read it by clicking here. I also enjoyed a similar outing with the Anchorage’s knowledgeable captain and crew in August 2013. You can see it here.
In 2015, the project had reached its 10 year mark, and after thousands of hours of observing the whales, a great deal more is now understood about these reclusive creatures who spend most of their time underwater. I was intrigued by the phenomenal information that Dr. Gero disclosed about these large mammals. However, it is what he suggested in terms of their familial relationships and “complex social structure” that impressed me the most! You can find out more about his team’s research and findings in the links noted in the first paragraph.
In addition, he reminded the group about global concerns such as climate change, pollution,
man-made ocean noise and overfishing. Dr. Gero concluded his fascinating presentation by stressing the dire need for collaborative conservation programs for marine life and an increased awareness of the importance of healthy oceans.
Before we actually stepped aboard the ‘Passion’, Captain Philbert reinforced many of the points raised by Dr. Gero in the mini-lecture he provided about Sperm Whales in the Anchorage Hotel’s Whale Research Centre. Then we set off in the catamaran and proceeded in a northerly direction up the coast from Roseau. My friends and I admired the magnificent topography of
the Nature Island as we motored along. It is impossible, I think, to ever get tired of looking at those prominent verdant massifs that form the backbone of this beautiful country. I’ve written this before and I’ll write it again: When the Kalinago people sailed from South America through the Caribbean islands over a thousand years ago, they accurately ‘nailed’ Dominica’s description with this indigenous name: Waitukubuli. It means “tall is her body!”
While Jenny scouted for whales, Jeremiah and I studied a map to ensure that we could correctly identify each peak! Every half hour or so, Captain Philbert and a crew member would lower the hydrophone into the water to listen for the loud ‘clicks’ (the sound the Sperm Whales make for
echo-location). It was quiet for a while, but then I believe the crew got a message from another whale watching boat, their business neighbour Dive Dominica , who announced that whales had been sighted off of the coast of Salisbury! We were almost there when we responded to an enthusiastic shout from an excited crew member: “Whales at 12 o’clock!” There were only nine of us on the boat, apart from the crew, and we all carefully moved to the bow for best viewing. Jenny and Jeremiah sat down on the net. I was not so inclined and stayed a little further behind on the port side. Later on, I ventured onto the firm passageway between the two front nets with assistance from a helpful crew member. Then I held on to ropes on each side of me, as there was a bit of a roll. I had also been looking at a chart with a variety of tails that have been identified over the years (they all have their differences, in terms of markings) and the young man graciously offered to take it off my hands. Good thing, or it might have blown away once I became distracted by the next whale sighting!
We oohed and aahed when we came upon two adult female whales and a calf on the surface of the sea. I had already learned from Dr. Gero that whale families do take care of each other, and all the females, who stay together for life, are involved in nurturing the youngsters. What was curious during this viewing, however, is that one of the whales was bringing her tail down hard from a horizontal position, smacking the surface of the water. She repeated this several times. When I asked the crew about this behavior, the exact reason was of course, unknown, but there were suggestions that it could have been a warning as two boats were near them (a perceived threat?), or it could have been that the baby was being ‘troublesome’ (playful) and this was a way to express annoyance, perhaps. (I think I will ask Dr. Gero his opinion, even though he wasn’t there). And ‘big up’ to Captain Philbert and crew for providing passengers with a ‘heads-up’ for photos when the whales were set to dive and display their tales!
After several minutes, even the calf submerged with his family(these animals are below the surface about 80 % of their lives for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. Sperm whales can dive as deep as 2 kilometers!).
As the boat motored along in a southerly direction, I gasped as I looked off of the bow and saw the gorgeous tail of another whale as it dove into the deep. I did not have camera up, and it seemed as if only a few people, Jenny included, observed that marvelous sight. Then a few minutes later, two whale spouts were seen just ahead of the catamaran, with a third even farther out to sea. They would have likely been related to the first three we observed nearby. As we gazed in silent wonder upon these magnificent creatures, we could hear the closest two breathe through their blow holes. We were immediately caught up in a mood of reverie as we took in this very fine aspect of marine life.
After 20 minutes or so, the whales disappeared from view so we headed south in search of dolphins. While we did not spot any that afternoon, I was not disappointed as I had seen ‘super-pods’ of these playful mammals a few years earlier. You can read about that adventure here. Of course, we all felt blessed to have seen some Sperm Whales that afternoon, because there are never any guarantees as to where they might be in the Eastern Caribbean on any particular day.
On the return journey, we all ‘caught the breeze’ and became better acquainted with each other, as we excitedly recounted our whale tales (tails) on that
amazing excursion. As the sun sunk slowly in the west, we felt fatigued but extremely elated with our chance meetings of those gentle giants who live primarily below the surface of the sea!
*Special thanks to Jenny Spencer, who generously offered her fabulous photos for inclusion in this post. XO