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Getting an up-close view of humpback whales at Dominican Republic's Silver Bank

Pam LeBlanc
The sun sets at the Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic. [Contributed by Pam LeBlanc]

I’m hovering in the ocean, bobbing gently, staring down at a humpback whale the length of a school bus and her sedan-size baby.

The 45-foot adult, with pectoral fins like surfboards and eyes as big as softballs, hangs quietly about 50 feet below us and seems almost grateful that our small cadre of observers is keeping an eye on her calf so she can relax a moment.

We’ve come to the Silver Bank, about 90 miles north of Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, to see these amazing creatures. Between 5,000 and 7,000 humpbacks make the trip from the North Atlantic to the Caribbean each winter to mate or calve in protected, shallow waters, and this is their largest gathering place.

We float and watch and, after a few minutes, the baby swims from beneath its mama’s protective fin and rises to the surface for a gulp of air, gazing at us on its way. It makes a few energetic circles to get a better look, then dives back down to nestle beneath mom’s snout.

Science proves that whales are intelligent, and out here it becomes obvious that they’re curious and playful, too. And something about staring a wild one in the eye feels incredibly personal, like the underwater giant has seen into your soul.

But we’re outsiders in the whales’ world, and strict guidelines surround any interaction with humans. Three companies have permits to bring passengers to the 26-square-mile Silver Bank to get an up-close look at the mammals. Our group is allowed to approach only when the whales are relaxed and calm; it’s against regulation to chase one down.

“It’s whale watching 101, and it takes patience,” says marine biologist Gill Morin, part of the crew on this trip with Aquatic Adventures. “This is not Sea World; the show does not start at 11.”

From the mainland of the Dominican Republic, it’s a 10-hour, sometimes rough transit to reach the Silver Bank. Once here, the boat moors to a line for the week. Two tenders, each carrying 10 passengers and three crew members, head out each morning and afternoon, looking for cooperative whales.

When someone sees a “blow,” a spray of water from an exhaling whale, the tender makes its way toward the spot, using a stopwatch to take note of the time. Adult whales can go 20 or more minutes without a breath, but the calves come up every three to five minutes.

Today, we see whale spouts in nearly every direction. Sometimes an “escort,” a flirty male whale, accompanies the mother and calf. Other times we find groups of rowdy males romping alone, leaping in and out of the ocean. We give them wide berth.

When we do get in, we slide off the boat belly-first like seals, making as little noise as we can, for what tour organizers describe as a passive, in-water whale encounter — basically floating motionless near the animals without swimming after them.

“We are in their environment, and we’re just there. No touching. These whales can get nervous and a little skittish. We know those boundaries,” Morin says. “But if we’re careful and quiet and respect them, they’ll start relaxing and we can relax a little bit, too.”

A guide keeps everyone lined up and out of harm’s way and ensures that nobody harasses or bothers the animals. The whales dictate the encounter — if they show signs that the humans bother them, we all back off.

“What we’re trying to do is gain the confidence of Mom. We’re looking for signs to make sure she’s comfortable and approach her slowly,” Morin says. “We don’t have to get close to them. They come to us.”

Before the week has wrapped, we’ve seen dozens of whales, some breaching, or leaping out of the water, just 100 feet from the boat.

Some smack the water’s surface with their pectoral fins; others slap their tails repeatedly into the water with resounding crashes.

“The connection that they make with you, especially when they look at you, is incredible,” says Christine Olson, a 62-year-old elementary school teacher from Pebble Beach, Calif., who is enjoying her fourth whale trip. “The way such a large animal can be so graceful in the water and how they care about each other is amazing.”

I learn a lot about humpbacks as the days tick off through educational sessions that Morin leads nightly.

Adult humpbacks weigh about 40 tons; babies weigh 1 or 2 tons and measure between 12 and 15 feet at birth. The calves mature quickly, adding up to 100 pounds and an inch of body length a day. Nobody knows for sure, but scientists estimate they live up to 60 years.

Researchers identify whales by their flukes, or tails. The scalloped edges and markings of each whale’s fluke are unique, like a fingerprint. Their eyes bulge out from their bodies, so they have 360-degree vision.

Humpbacks have the longest known migration of any mammal on earth; researchers tagged a whale at the Silver Bank that swam 3,000 miles to Norway.

The males, primarily, sing too, repeating the same 25-minute, three-part song for roughly a year before dropping the first section and adding a new ending. Populations in different regions sing unique songs.

“They’re super cool. They’re gentle, they’re majestic,” Morin says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s beautiful, but there’s something about clear water, beautiful corals and humpback whales that really tugs at your heartstrings.”

Tom Conlin, founder of Aquatic Adventures, hopes passengers leave the Silver Bank with an appreciation for whales and their oceanic habitat and a desire to protect them. He’s a member of the advisory board of the Center for Coastal Studies and Sea Legacy and helped set regulations for how humans can interact with whales here.

“When you come out here and you’re 80 miles offshore and wake up in the morning and go out on decks and you’re watching whales blow all around you, there’s no place like it,” Conlin says. “To me, it’s one of this hemisphere’s last oceanic frontiers.”

The whales face threats from global warming, plastic pollution, chemical and noise pollution, ship strikes, entanglement and overfishing. A worldwide humpback population that once stood at more than 125,000 has dropped to between 16,000 and 18,000.

“Why is it important that we protect anything on this planet?” Conlin says. “There’s a reason everything is here. There’s nothing the whale has that we need to kill for.”

The last day of my whale watching adventure goes as if according to a prewritten script. In the last session of the week, a whale suddenly spy hops within 10 or so feet of the tender I’m in, rising slowly out of the ocean like a prehistoric creature, then sinking back down.

It’s checking us out.

Thirty minutes later, we drop into the water to observe a mother-calf pair. After we’ve hung at the surface quietly for 15 or so minutes, we watch as the calf comes out from beneath its mother’s fin, positions its body vertically in the water, then suddenly shoots toward the surface with a single powerful flip of its tail.

The breach serves as a grand finale to an amazing week at the Silver Bank.

“This is the type of experience people will never forget, and people who come out here are more apt to support conservation,” Conlin says. “You look a whale in the eye and you know there’s intelligence there.”

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Five things you can do to help protect oceans

• Eat only sustainable seafood.

• Look for environmentally safe products.

• Avoid cosmetics, soaps, cleansers or exfoliating products containing synthetic microbeads. The beads can work their way into the water stream and clog the gills of marine creatures.

• Avoid single-use plastics.

• Participate in beach or community cleanups.