Because of my recent August birthday, I decided to take a little break from writing and partake of some Nature Island activities that had eluded me for some time. What was especially fitting for my self-imposed week of celebration was a gift that I had received in June as part of my Hike Fest surprise prize package. It was a complimentary pass for a whale watch excursion from the Anchorage Hotel, Whale Watch and Dive Centre, which I had held on to for a fine day. It would expire by month’s end, so when the sun shone strongly on the morning of Wednesday August 28th, I called the hotel around midday and reserved my space on the boat for the outing that afternoon!
When I arrived at the hotel, I was amazed to see about 20 enthusiastic people of all ages waiting for this special trip. While I noted that there were a few tourists, I observed that some resident Dominicans had made a party out of the event, while there were others who appeared to be visiting members of the diaspora.
Just before 2 p.m., Boat Captain Philbert Daisy called us together in front of the on-site Research Centre that houses a beached Sperm Whale skeleton. There, he welcomed us and gave us a few instructions. “You may not see any whales,” he cautioned us right from the start, “this is not Marine Land. These are creatures in the wild and we never know where they will be.”
Of course, we collectively remained hopeful that there would be a sighting, as there seems to be a pod of Sperm Whales that are resident in the area year-round. But I appreciated why he mentioned that important point right away to avoid disappointment or misunderstanding. My experiences in recent years were exactly that: no whales were seen, but I did enjoy the sighting of and being surrounded by a ‘super-pod’ of dolphins in July 2012, which you can read about here.
Captain Philbert then pointed to the female Sperm Whale’s skeleton and explained some significant points about its anatomy. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that this species has some flexible ribs, which collapse as this animal dives very deep (up to 1,000 metres) for its main food source, the deep-sea squid. He also told us about the whale’s large ‘nose’ and the oil inside it called spermaceti, which is used for buoyancy and echo-location, as whales cannot see in the dark depths of the ocean! I was familiar with some of what he said, as I had written a piece about the Dominica Sperm Whale Project and a Canadian whale biologist named Shane Gero who has spent thousands of hours in Dominica researching these underwater mammals. You can read more about Sperm Whales and current research about them here.
Then we boarded the boat, Miser’s Dream, and after the mandatory safety instructions, Captain Philbert explained that we would travel a few miles out to sea and then he and the crew would use a hydrophone to listen for whale ‘clicks’ , which is a sound that these mammals make in the depths to echo-locate their food (squid). They use other clicks, called codas to communicate with each other. You can read further about this amazing characteristic in the web site of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.
I chose to stay in the rear of the cruiser so that I could take pictures of Dominica as we headed due west. Most people went to the top deck so that they could be on stand-by for any sightings. As a veteran whale-watcher, I knew that the crew would be checking the hydrophone from my location, and I wanted to be able to listen in for those elusive ‘clicks’.
The first time they checked, we were a fair distance out from Pointe Michel, a village south of Roseau, the capital. Captain Philbert and Crew Member Martin listened hard for the whale sounds (with me in the background). No luck, but what they did note was that they
could hear the engine of a ship which was anchored near a quarry close to Pointe Michel. Interestingly, the crew told me that they had in fact seen whales in this area a few days earlier, but they had definitely moved off. I was intrigued by this situation, because in one of my previous conversations with Canadian whale biologist Shane Gero, he mentioned to me that whales were easily stressed by noise pollution, ship engines being one of the sources. As sound from their clicks is vital for their communication and food location, I wondered to myself if these creatures had gone somewhere quiet. Gero did tell me that there is so much noise in the ocean in general, that for whales these days, “it is like living in a rock concert.”
The Captain decided that we should try our luck further up the coast (north), so off we went. While the day had been clear,
mid-afternoon moisture-laden clouds shrouded the mountains.
By the time we approached the lee of mighty Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak, we were about nine miles out to sea, off of the village of Colihaut. The crew was going to try for the third time to find whales by hydrophone, when all of a sudden Martin gave a shout: ” Whales at 9 o’clock!” We all turned to look in a westerly direction (further out to sea), and sure enough, spray from a whale’s blow-hole could be clearly seen. Captain Philbert steered the boat slowly and carefully in that direction, but he didn’t have to go far – a few whales were coming towards us!
We quietly cheered with glee. I was still at the back of the boat, but not for long. Crew Mate Jefferson immediately offered to help me to skirt the narrow starboard side of the boat so that I could see the magnificent animals ‘up close and personal’ from the bow. I was the first one on the front of the lower deck. A few other younger people joined me momentarily. I guess they felt that if a lady of a certain age (50+ club) could make her way to a more open area on the boat, so could they! I was only a little worried when one of the girls – a Canadian, in fact, mentioned that she couldn’t swim. Mentally, I took quick note of the nearby life-preserver and that fact that Crew Mate Jefferson was right beside us. She was so excited about seeing the whales, that I think she temporarily forgot about her fear (but I kept one eye on her as she was seated right beside me)!
It would be fair to say that these gentle giants are very curious and are familiar with boat loads of human beings coming by to say “hello” and/or to study them. It seemed even more evident to me when Jefferson tapped on the side of the boat, and a couple of the whales came very near, as would a domestic dog or cat. I think everyone on the boat immediately fell in love with them – especially the calf, who was perhaps learning about this type of event in his/her young life while his mother stayed close-by. One man was so excited that he scrambled from one deck to the other to film the lovely creatures and tripped over some ropes. He almost fell on the deck. Thankfully, a number of us caught him, but it is a reminder that safety is always the first priority.
We had plenty of time to observe this pod – referred to as “the group of seven,” which is the average size of a whale family – notably all females, with perhaps the exception of the calves. The mature males roam far and only return during mating season. More information about the whale families seen off of Dominica can be found in this section of the Dominica Sperm Whale Project.
A crew member identified one of the whales by the name of ‘Can-opener’. When I asked him how he knew it by that name, he explained that there was an indent in its fluke that resembled that utensil! (All of the resident whales have been named by identifiable marks on their bodies, especially the flukes, which are usually noted when the whale is about to make a deep dive and the ‘tail’ appears above the surface of the water). Refer to the Dominica Sperm Whale Project for more information.
It’s been a long time since I experienced such collective gratitude and appreciation for wildlife as I did on The Anchorage Hotel’s whale watch boat that day. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed watching these magnificent creatures, as they breached, dove, swam on the surface, interacted with each other and openly approached us with little fear. I tried to get a few photos, but without a sophisticated camera or video device, I did content myself with mostly just looking at the whales.
After a considerable length of time, the majority of the whales had made deep dives and would be in the depths for an hour or so before resurfacing for air. Others simply swam further out to sea. The captain and crew had happily given us extra time for this wonderful commune with nature. As the boat headed back to home base just before sunset, I thought hard about this extraordinary experience and how it further enhanced my appreciation. love and respect for all creatures with whom we share this planet. Perhaps we aren’t so different, after all!
If you are bound for Dominica, you would terribly remiss if you did not partake of a whale watch adventure on the Nature Island. I hope you will spot some as I did that day. And if not, you’ll just have to come back again!
*Special thanks to the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association’s Hike Fest Committee and The Anchorage Hotel, Whale Watch and Dive Centre for presenting me with this wonderful opportunity to experience an aspect of nature at its finest.