Spring break may be in April this year in The Dominican Republic, but spring flings have been happening here for awhile. Every January-March humpback whales go rogue—migrating to Samana from Greenland and Iceland over 3000 miles away. Dr. Ken De Pree, author of Whales of Samana, likens their mating behavior in Dominican waters of Samana Bay, Silver and Navidad Banks to humans cruising singles bars. To attract the ladies, males croon tunes, form bromances to size up the competition, then brawl-it- out with up to nineteen rivals for the most fertile female. Breaching, tail slashing, body slamming each other– sometimes even drawing blood–there’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on. Pregnant moms then carry calves for eleven-twelve months, give birth, and nurse another eleven months until their babies are strong enough to make the journey back to the North Atlantic.
Whale watching ranked top of my DR Bucket List since moving here in 2016. Thanks to my friend, Sana, who booked Kim Beddall, an English- speaking Marine Mammal Specialist with Whale Samana, and her husband, Steve, who booked a car to get us there, we set sail last Sunday on Pura Mia, a 55- foot custom whale watching vessel. We loved returning to beautiful Samana Bay.
Since humpbacks are the most active species of whales anytime, knowing our boat would be a bit bigger than creatures that average 40-50 feet and weigh 30-40 tons (the record is 59 feet and 60 tons) was reassuring. Even so, the traffic of an estimated 1500 whales—400 that congregate at one time in rough waters in Samana Bay– made for some rocking and rolling on the waves. The tour company offers Dramamine, but most, like me, who had never been seasick didn’t take it. A rookie mistake. Thankfully pressure point bracelets, Sprite, and crackers helped as an hour in many of us were turning green.
The company offers the next trip free should no whales be spotted, but we, thankfully, hit the motherlode—a 45- foot mom and her 15-foot baby girl that rolled and flailed right beside our boat. Mama Crochet, a regular to these parts named for her lace-like markings, shared her offspring (below) with us up close and personal for much longer than is usual.
Humpbacks are in the family of great whales and are named and catalogued by the unique patterns on their tails, or “flukes,” which power them through the water. These tail markings, like human fingerprints, are one-of-a-kind.
Their heads resemble those of alligators, making them seem prehistoric (the DR was scouted by Spielberg for Jurassic Park after all) as they peer at strangers with their eyes just above the water.
They have grapefruit-sized bumps, two blowholes, and an accordian-like gullet, chest, and stomach. Though they can stay underwater forty minutes, they never fully sleep, but take turns resting each side of the brain to avoid drowning. They have a dorsal fin as keel and body heat regulator. Their flippers are approximately one-third of their body length and their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae means “big wing from New England,” the place where they were first academically described, though there are drawings of them on caves in the DR by aboriginal inhabitants predating Columbus.
Mothers of newborn whales don’t stop moving but tow their calves in their slipstream because babies do not have enough fat or blubber to float and could sink and drown. Also, until they are ready to swim well, they could be attacked. When strong enough to travel north, the mom has to fight off Orcas. Collisions with cruise ships are sadly too common and should mom die in the first year of a calf’s life, baby will die too because it is still nursing, consuming fifty gallons of milk per day. Adult whales do not eat while in the Caribbean but live off their fat until they migrate home. Their daily diet–1.5 tons of fish and shrimp-like crustaceans during feeding season—is the equivalent of 12,000 MacDonald hamburgers. It takes energy to carry 1,000 pounds of barnacles—enough to fill a pickup truck—on their bodies.
I highly recommend Whale Samana. They observe safety regulations and $3 of the fee ($59 adults/$30 children under 12) goes to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary.
We spied two adult males and tried to catch up with them, but they stubbornly dove deep and reappeared ten-twenty minutes later in different directions farther away.
We were serenaded by a male’s song by way of a recording played on the ship. Only males sing and can hear each other twenty miles away. Jacques Costeau called them the “Carusos of the Deep.” Prior to 1952 when the first scientist captured their song on tape, sailors and whalers were spooked by haunting sounds from beneath their ships. Though that mystery was solved, there are still many unknowns about humpbacks and what lies beneath.
Sources: Whales of Samana by author Ken De Pree, PhD, who has studied humpbacks near Samana since 1987, and contributors Osvaldo Vasquez, a leader among Dominican scientists in the study of humpbacks and Kim Beddell, founder of whale watching in Samana Bay in 1984-85. Also special thanks to Kim Beddell for amazing information given at sea.