Trip Report: Silver Bank Humpback Whale Expedition 2018

On February 3rd, 2018 we set off on a special expedition to the Silver Bank Humpback Whale Sanctuary. Here is Jay’s trip report from an amazing week of being in the water with these majestic giants. 

We’re back from our first expedition to the Silver Bank Whale Sanctuary in beautiful Dominican Republic! To start, let me first say that I’m lucky enough to see humpback whales here in Cabo San Lucas every winter so I went into this trip with a bit of a high bar set for how amazing it could truly be. And boy, was I surprised! Even with high winds and a bit of bad weather throughout the week I was still in awe. Even though I wasn’t able to get the amazing shots I had envisioned due to the bad weather­ I still came back smiling ear to ear from having the experience of a lifetime.

What is the Silver Bank?

Silver Bank lies about 80 miles northeast of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic in the Atlantic Ocean. It is a submerged bank and coral reef that covers approximately 649 square miles (1680 square kilometers). In certain areas it is as shallow as 60 feet (18m) with some coral heads breaking the ocean surface at low tide.  In 1996 it was declared a ‘Sanctuary for Marine Mammals’ by Dominican presidential decree. It is a unique place that creates a naturally protected area for the Northern Atlantic humpback whales that migrate here every winter to give birth and find new mates.

Humpback whale breaching in Silver BankHumpback whale snorkeling in Silver Bank Dominican Republic
Ocotpus at Pelican Rock Los Cabos Scuba divingOcotpus at Pelican Rock Los Cabos Scuba diving

The Expedition Begins…

My trip started off a couple days early in Santo Domingo, the oldest, continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas. It was founded by the younger brother of Christopher Colombus, Bartholomew Colombus, in 1496. The colonial zone of this city is rich with history and has many structures still standing intact that were built over a few hundred years ago. Being a bit of a nerd, it was quite amazing to walk around the city and tour the structures. On my second day I met up with one of our ninja guests that I’ve been on a few trips with, Sze Wei. We went for a little adventure around the area to check out some of the awesome museums & ruins. Sze Wei, being the awesome ninja that she is, also let me drag her to score some delicious snacks at the museum of chocolate. But my favorite part was the 4D Cinema that had an immersive experience which took you into the early history of Santo Domingo and it’s run in with the infamous privateer and explorer, Sir Francis Drake.

The next day we hopped a bus across the country to meet the rest of the group at the ship in Puerto Plata. The crew of the Turks & Caicos Aggressor was there to greet us and offer some welcome snacks and drinks while we all got settled and acquainted with the rest of the group. After a delicious dinner and a bit of chatting we set sail for Silver Bank in the evening. The crossing was a bit bumpy due to some winds kicking up but nothing comparable to what I’ve seen on some of our long crossings in the Pacific out to Socorro and Guadalupe.

Arriving at Silver Bank

We were a bit delayed overnight due to the winds picking up and the ship having to slow down. But in a way this worked out in our favor. Upon waking I went up on the sun deck to check out the sea and boom! Whales breaching off the port side of the ship. Then someone yells out that they are tail slapping off the starboard bow. Then off the stern, more whales spouting behind us. They were everywhere you looked. We have a lot of whales in Cabo, but I have never seen such a concentration of them in a small area like this before! In under 5 minutes I had counted over 10 different whales around the ship. And better yet, we weren’t even deep into the Silver Bank yet.

Once we arrived and moored the ship the crew got to work getting the chase boats in the water and ready to go. I thought we might miss a couple hours in the water due to the crossing delay, but the crew worked hard and we were on schedule to go out after lunch! So a massive thank you goes out to them! Our first trip out included a baby humpback rolling around on his mother’s nose as well as some nice breaches and pec slapping. But all the whales were too active to get in the water with. It was like a whale fiesta was going on.

Silver Bank Humpback whale breaching
Swimming with humpback whales in Silver Bank

A Romantic Whale Valentine

The next 4 days would spent out on the chase boats in 3-4 hour clips looking for curious whales that we could get in the water with. The surface action was phenomenal. Whales breaching constantly, pec slapping, tail lobbing, and tail slapping every session. We even got to witness a young calf trying his hand at breaching for the first time and failing miserably. Then his mother’s massive escort launched from the water next to the calf to show him how it was done.  The young calf then continued trying over and over until he finally got it. Such an amazing experience to see these majestic creatures teaching their young.

One of my favorite in water experiences of the week was swimming with 2 whales that were having a ‘valentine’ as the crew affectionately called it. This is when a male and female dance with each other in the water. Spiraling around each other, touching fins, and rubbing against each other. The two became very curious of our boat began swimming under and around it almost as if they were asking us to join them in the water. Once we slipped in the water, they seemed as curious of us as we were of them. They came cruising around us. Then spinning around each other before taking a break to circle to around us again. After a few passes around us they made their way off for some privacy and began to dance together again. It was magical. Seeing their eyes look back at us as they slowly coasted by us underwater.

Songs of the Sea

Living in Cabo, I’ve heard whales singing while diving many times before, but this next experience would blow me away. We found what we thought was a sleeping whale and watched his breathing cycle to time getting in the water, so he wouldn’t be surprised by us. We slowly entered the water as he slowly descended after a few breathes. But as soon as I got in I could feel my body almost vibrating and hear him singing from above the water. I put my face in the water and about 10 meters (33 feet) below us there he was. This giant male belting out a hauntingly beautiful song. The deep bass of it could be felt vibrating straight through my body. It was unreal. But now I really can see why their songs can be heard from hundreds of miles away. Even more amazing is that these crooners can sing for 24 hours taking only short stops to breath. Each local humpback whale population all sings the same song. For example, all the whales that come to Cabo from Alaska sing one song, and all the humpbacks that come to Silver Bank from the North Atlantic sing a different song. Each year a small part of the song is changed. Some say that they are singing the story of the universe, updating the story every year and passing it down from generation to generation.