I’ve spent a lot of time on the water if countless canoe trips with wild and wooly teenagers, kayaking on Georgian Bay, in the Arctic, and the Antarctic all count. And then there was a year following my husband’s retirement when we were live-a-boards on the Haida, a 33 foot, Georgian steel-hulled house cruiser. That year we headed south from Rice Lake via the Trent Canal, Lake Ontario, the Rideau System, Ottawa River and eventually into the St Lawrence River. All in good time we hooked up with the Chambly Canal at Sorel Quebec and headed south. The Intercoastal waterway that stretches just inside the eastern seaboard of the United States took us slowly all the way to Daytona Beach, Florida where we overwintered. Now it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that such a journey means a lot of water has gone under the proverbial bridge. That would be the bridge my life stands on.
After all this water experience, it was a shock, even to me, that I would come to look at water differently. My experience in the Dominican Republic in 2010, presented an opportunity for the development of a new understanding. I was on a dive boat off the north coast in an area referred to as the Silver Bank. This is what happened.
It’s a relatively short jaunt from Lester B. Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Canada to the airport in the Dominican Republic town of Puerto Plata. The DR is situated on Hispaniola Island in the Caribbean Sea. The eastern side of the island is the DR while the more westerly is Haiti.
The Dominican Republic is not a rich country by any means but somehow the government has made enough money off tourism and exports to send some along to a ministry that looks after the Silver Bank, a protected sanctuary for sea mammals where Humpback Whales winter, breed and calf. This patch of ocean, which according to Wikipedia covers 1680 km2 , is shallow and very treacherous to large ships. At low tide the coral reefs at the north edge are sometimes visible as waves from the Atlantic crash down.
Only three boats are licensed to take people to the Silver Bank. At ten paying customers per boat over a six-week season, this is an experience that few get to have. I traveled with Canadian Mike Beddell, (www.mikebeddellphoto.com) an internationally known photographer and adventurer who made the arrangements for our group with Conscious Breath Adventures. (www. consciousbreathadventures.com)
The trip to the bank was an overnight journey out of Puerto Plata. After a great supper aboard and a wait while the remainder of our supplies were stowed, the MV Sundancer II, slipped out of the harbour and onto the high seas.
My friend LeeAnn and I had the rear cabin on the starboard side, about as close to the engine as one could get. I’m a pretty good foul weather sailor so the rough water was within a tolerable range. The engine noise however ensured that my head became the filling for a sandwich as I tried to drown out the incessant pounding by tightly holding a pillow to each ear.
There were ten travellers in our group. Breakfast and an initial orientation readied us for our first dip. We were in the water by mid morning to make sure that our gear worked and that we knew how to work with it. I found my new fins pushed a lot more water than I was used to but did it more readily. My new mask didn’t leak. I looked charming in my new wet suit. Need I say more.
The group was divided in two. Our group was lead by Captain Gene Flipse and Mike. We piled into the Trini. The rest were with Jeff Pantukhott (www.whaleman.org), in Bago. These tenders were our transportation and our life rafts while on the Bank.
Our first live lessons with humpback whales found us watching for them to surface to breathe and then to dive and log a short distance beneath the surface of the water. Logging is whale for just hanging out, suspended in mid ocean. Moms stay down about twenty minutes while babies surface more frequently. After watching the surface for these signs of a whale presence, Gene dove in to determine both their location and direction of travel before waving us in.
As the morning progressed there were four of five times when we slide in one after the other, as quietly as possible. Then in my case, it was time to swim like hell, to catch up with the rest of the group. We floated and followed along in a line, as if attached to one another as the leviathans moved below us. It was mesmerizing.
The water was murky due to the rough seas and the shallow water. This only added to the mystery of this whole underwater world that was so unfamiliar to me. As the 30 ft mothers and 15 ft calves glided by we tried to give them a wide berth but the currents and waves moved us in towards the creatures as if by magnetic attraction.
Those of us with underwater cameras tried to capture the moment but really being in the moment was the thing. As my body moved forward despite my best efforts, I say the enormous tail of the mother just below me. “Back peddle harder my mind said or you will be airborne when the mother decides to dive.” It was a real possibility!
We were clearly in their country. We were the visitors and the interlopers but not unlike the welcome I received in the Khutzmateen Valley in British Columbia while getting to know grizzly bears, there beasts who have fifteen ton babies, were trusting and gently glided by us. They were fine with our presence and trusted us near their young.
While I struggled to keep my mask clear, my camera more or less level, I tried to drink only small amounts of the ocean and not get too far behind the main party. The whales moved with grace through the water, redirecting as necessary with their great flukes and powerful tails. Baby did the same. Mom watched and waited but seemed welcoming.
Now there are lots of facts about whales. Like they winter in the warm water and summer in the arctic. It struck me that it was possible that I might have seen this exact whale from the deck of a ship while plying the North West passage. I didn’t recognize her. I wonder if she recognized me. I wondered if it works that way at all.
I learned a lot about these gentle giants during my time on the Bank. Their size, migrations patterns, bubble net feeding, logging behaviour, their distinct fluke markings that act like finger prints and the fact that their fluke structure is studied for aeronautical design purposes. And then there are all those nobby protuberances on their heads that make the babies, in particular, look like “pickle heads”. These remain a bit of a mystery but are believed to be vestigial hair follicles that may have something to do with feeding.
The known and the unknown. This journey to the Silver Bank, woke up my head once more about the complexity of the universe and reminded me how one sided I am in my interpretation of it. Most of the time, I see it from my side…the one with air! The whales see it from their side and are as comfortable in their skin and their environment as I am in mine. But what if I could live in their world. What difference would it make. As I jumped into the ocean and felt the water close in over my head, I knew something that I had not known before. It was more than facts, and more than new insights about my lack of physical fitness. I had received through this physical experience a new connection to the complexity of my universe. It was gift given by a creature that might have been two hundred years old. It had no price tag but it was priceless.