Snorkeling with Humpback Whales

humpback whale calf
Humpback Whale Calf off of the Silver Bank, Atlantic Ocean

My Experience Snorkeling with Humpback Whales off the Silver Bank, Atlantic Ocean

I slid into the Atlantic Ocean off the small boat like a seal sliding off a rock and into the water. I heard my breathing through my snorkel and blinked while focusing on the deep blue beyond.

Suddenly, there they were, a 40 foot (12.2m) long mother humpback whale with her 15 foot (4.6m) long calf circling her. It was an astonishing sight. I have seen humpback whales and their antics above the water off of Hawaii and California, but here was the gentle giant in her own watery environment.

They swam around us and our boat, eyeing us. No doubt they were curious about the ungainly creatures who had literally came out of the blue. The mother and calf swam next to us, under us and so close that I knew with flick of her tail, it could be the end of me.

It was like a dream, one that would be long lost if it weren’t for the pictures my small point and shoot underwater camera took. There were full body shots of the mother and calf, and body parts like flukes or the long pectoral fins filling the entire frame.

The largest animal I had snorkeled with before was the ocean’s largest fish, a whale shark, and it was only as long as the calf! I remember counting the seconds as the whale shark would slowly swim by, head-body-tail, gulping down water through its gills to filter out plankton to eat.

The calf needed to come up for air every few minutes, with mother in tow even though she could average 20 minutes per breath. The calf swam close to its mother the whole time they were with us, a good 30 minutes. They circled our boat many times. Our 25 foot long boat paled in comparison to the mother. Female humpbacks can grow up to 50 feet (15m) long and 35 tons (31.8 tonnes)!

humpback whale pectoral fins
Humpback whale mother’s pectoral fins

Out of the water the pair put on quite a show, tail lobbing (slapping their flukes on the surface of the water), pectoral fin slapping and breaching their whole bodies out of the water!

Intentions are powerful. The previous night while introducing ourselves (our group had all previously snorkeled with wild dolphins in the Bahamas with Wildquest over the years) and why we were there, I shared that I wanted to see a mother and calf pair underwater as well as write a blog post, a children’s book and article. I’m not saying I’m solely responsible for the long and memorable encounter—the humpback whales made that happen—but considering we only got into the water once more during the week (we heard a male humpback singing underwater!), it made this encounter even more special.

Aquatic Adventures specializes in “Passive-in-Water Whale Encounters” or PIWEE (pee-wee) on the Silver Bank Marine Sanctuary, which is halfway between the Dominican Republic (where we flew in to) and the Turks and Caicos islands in the Atlantic Ocean (the Caribbean borders the other sides of the Dominican Republic).

From Aquatic Adventure’s website, “Research indicates that the Silver Bank contains the largest seasonal population humpbacks in the North Atlantic Ocean, if not the world. The sanctuary is only 40 square miles but 5000-7000 humpback whales pass through each winter.”

The Silver Bank is a calving and mating ground for humpback whales. The calves grow quickly on their mother’s milk of 70% fat (whole cow’s milk is only 4% fat in comparison!). They are born 10-15 feet long and 1-2 tons in weight. The mother will not feed again until she reaches somewhere north like Stellwagen Bank off of Massachusetts, USA.

I want to thank everyone on the boat, guests and crew alike, for an amazing experience in and out of the water. For more on snorkeling with humpback whales in the Silver Bank, visit Aquatic Adventure’s website.

Feel free to comment or email with any questions!

Meet Tusk, the Narwhal Whale Accepted by Belugas

narwhal whale
Narwhal gets accepted by beluga pod! By A. Thorburn – http://theprintportfoliogallery.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=61_65, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28634335

Narwhal whales–Unicorns of the Sea

I am Tusk, and I’m a young male narwhal whale. I am unique among all the whales because I have a very long horn. It resembles a unicorn horn. But I’m real narwhal whale, and they’re not!

My tusk!

It’s one really long tooth, up to about half my body lengths—we can grow up to 17 feet long and our tusk can be over 10 feet long! I only have two teeth, but that one tooth is truly magnificent! It is sensitive with nerve endings—up to 10 million of them. I can use it to hit and stun fish, and then eat the fish before they can swim away.

Narwhal whale tusks have many uses, and humans suppose we use them for attracting mates, as a weapon, to open holes in the ice or to sense temperature and pressure. But shh! I’m not one to give away the narwhal whale’s secrets—I’ll let you clever humans figure out what we really use our tusks for!

I loved my life in the icy Arctic waters with my pod of 20 narwhal whales. Life was good as we ate plenty of cod and halibut and I loved seeing all the wildlife around like belugas, walruses and seals.

I’m lost!

But one day I wandered too far away from my pod. So far away they couldn’t hear my sounds, and I could no longer hear theirs. They were a noisy bunch, so I must have wandered very far away.

I did the only thing I knew to do, which was to swim. Crying out now and then, I only got silence back. I swam for months before I came to the St. Lawrence River. I could tell by the salinity difference that I wasn’t at home anymore. Estuaries are less salty than the ocean because of freshwater diluting the saltwater.

I was hungry, lonely, and sad. I missed my pod and my old Arctic home. Little did I know, but around a bend was a whole pod of male beluga whales.

My saviors, the Belugas!

Belugas are strange, as they don’t have tusks and are all white. I’m mottled gray in comparison. Belugas are known as the canaries of the sea because they chatter so much more than narwhals!

It was fortunate we all met, or else I wouldn’t have known where or how to catch food in this new area. I swam with them for a few days, just to see if they would accept me as their own. When they let me hunt with them, I knew I was at least temporarily accepted.

I had to learn their clicks and whistles, as they didn’t understand mine. We’ve gotten to know each other well this past year, and I feel like I’m one of the gang. I think some belugas are even jealous of my tusk!

This is a fictional story based on real-life events as seen in the National Geographic documentary, “Secrets of the Whales” streaming on Disney+

Also see 10 Cool Facts About Narwhal Whales

Facts from:

World Wildlife Fund Unicorn of the Sea—Narwhal Facts

Animal Fact Guide—Narwhals

Wikipedia entry on Narwhals

How Does Whale Poop Fight Climate Change?

blue whale poop, whale poop
Blue whale poop by Ian Wiese

Did you know that whales are climate change fighting machines? If saving them for their majesty and beauty wasn’t enough, whales actually help fight climate change. This is due to whale poop, of all things.

Blue Whale Poop

Take the largest animals to roam the Earth, present day or past, the blue whales. Blue whales reach lengths of 100 feet and 190 tons. When they poop, they release the by-products of the krill they eat.
Essentially whale poop is fertilizer for the plants of the ocean, the phytoplankton. The phytoplankton, wherever the blue whale migrates to, are stimulated to grow. They, like terrestrial plants, use carbon dioxide and sunlight to grow. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The less of it in the air, the better it is for planet Earth and its warming climate.

Phytoplankton thanks

The phytoplankton take sunlight and carbon dioxide and turn it into food and oxygen. Take a breath, and sigh it out. Take another breath and exhale. One of those breaths is thanks to phytoplankton growing in the ocean! Thanks phytoplankton!

Whale migration

Whales are constantly swimming and migrating to new places in search of food. Along the way they poop out nutrients and voila, the phytoplankton begin to grow and nourish the bottom of the food chain there. The phytoplankton grow where they wouldn’t have otherwise without whale poop and the critters in those spots benefit.

Nutrients brought up from depths

Whales also dive in search of food-think of a sperm whale fighting a giant squid for a meal-and bring up nutrients from the ocean depths and deposit them at the surface where phytoplankton live and grow.

Whale falls

Although it’s sad to think about, whales die and sink to the sea floor. One whale body can bring 190,000 tons of carbon (equivalent to the emissions of 80,000 cars in a year) from the surface to the sea floor. This is a part of carbon sequestration, which just means capturing carbon somehow and taking it out of the air. In this case it means taking carbon from the surface (the whale) and depositing it on the sea floor. There many animals benefit from eating and scavenging the whale, and the carbon get deposited and stays there.

Whale poop and Fisheries

Last, but not least, whales and their poop can help enhance fisheries. There will be higher rates of food productivity in places where whales feed and give birth. The whale poop stimulates the phytoplankton at the bottom of the food chain, and fish at the higher levels of the food chain benefit and grow and reproduce.

So while being magnificent in their own right, whales and their poop are climate change fighters!

Did you know sea otters also help fight climate change?

Whale poop and climate change: here’s what you need to know by National Marine Sanctuary Foundation

Blue Whale Caught on Camera Having a Poo

10 Cool Facts about Narwhals

Rare narwhal with two tusks!
Rare narwhal with two tusks!

1. Narwhals are often called the “Unicorns of the Sea” because of their tusk, which is actually a long tooth.

2. Most male narwhals have a tusk, while only some females have one. Some narwhals even have two tusks! Their tusks have over 10 million nerves in them and can be up to 9 feet long.

3. The narwhal’s scientific name Monodon monoceras means “one tooth, one horn.” Males have been seen crossing tusks and it is assumed that they are fighting for females or trying to impress them.

4. The narwhals’ tusks can be used for hunting. They use their tusks to slap and stun fish before eating them. Check out video footage of narwhals hunting with their tusks

5. Narwhals live in pods of 10-100 individuals in the Arctic, but have been seen in pods up to 1000.

6. Narwhals mainly hang out at the surface, but can dive down to 5,000 feet deep (1,524 m)

7. Narwhals feed on fish, shrimp and squid. They are suction feeders that swallow their food whole.

8. Predators include killer whales, polar bears, walruses and native Inuit hunters.

9. Narwhals can grow up to 17 feet long (5.2m) and weigh 4,200 pounds (1,905 kg).

10. Defenders.org says, “Narwhals might be more sensitive to impacts of climate change than the polar bear.” Threats to Narwhals include oil and gas development of the Arctic, climate change, and shipping vessels that cause collisions and noise pollution.

Book Review: Tilikum’s Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell

Tilikum's Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell
Tilikum’s Dream by Tracey Lynn Coryell

Tilikum’s Dream (Eifrig Publishing, 2015) is a rhyming children’s book about Tilikum, a killer whale, who recently died (January 6, 2017) in his concrete pool of 21 years at Sea World. It is written by Tracey Lynn Coryell and illustrated by Shelley Marie Overton. I liked Tilikum’s Dream because it is beautifully illustrated and the sparse rhyming prose lends well to the music recording that can be downloaded. It has a strong anti-captivity message not just for killer whales, but for all marine mammals chained for life in captivity. It has a happy ending, unlike the real Tilikum who died never tasting the ocean from which he was born. The short text lends this book towards young school-age children who probably have visited a zoo or aquarium and can imagine Tilikum’s predicament. Proceeds of this book will benefit Blue Freedom, an international non-profit founded by a teenager concerned with Tilikum’s and captive killer whales’ welfare. They have created a film titled “Voiceless,” which is available free on YouTube.

Background on Tilikum:
Tilikum was taken from the icy waters off of Iceland when he was approximately 2 years old. Ever since then he has been in captivity, first at Sealand of the Pacific in British Columbia, Canada. It was there that he killed his first human with the help of two female killer whales. In 1991 Tilikum was sold to Sea World, where he has been ever since. He killed two more people there, including his trainer, Dawn Brancheau. He then became primarily a sperm donor, his genes in 56% of the killer whales in captivity at Sea World. He was the largest orca in captivity at 22 feet long and 12,500 pounds. May he RIP.

To read Tilikum’s Dream for free (one book a month for free!) click here