Swimming with Humpbacks – a very humbling experience

I’m sitting on a liveaboard in the middle of the blue and I can’t see land. In an hour or less I’m hoping I’ll be in the water with a 30 tonne mammal. Ever since I witnessed these beautiful creatures from the boat in South Africa on the Sardine Run, I’ve wanted to experience them, get close to them, and share their water. That’s why I’m here. Almost two days in transit, to get to the Caribbean (I mean, I could have gone to Tonga FFS). But I’m here now. I’m a bit jet-lagged but I’m itching to get in the water. I’m going to see swim with Humpbacks. I arrived yesterday, via Newark. I feel I’ve been travelling for ages, but on the boat everything chills and takes a step back. Not sure if its the heat, or the water, or both. But city stresses get left behind. It could also be that I’m on a boat with 17 people I don’t know, and will probably never see again after this week, so there are no expectations, or roles to fill. It’s refreshing, I don’t have to worry about what people think. I’d like to take that attitude into my work life, if I could (note to self – try harder!)

Cocktails on board

The people on the boat are a somewhat less mixed group than I’m used to on a liveaboard. I’m the youngest, at 37, for a start (or so I’m guessing). 40 (at least) is the next oldest, going up to who knows. Pretty much everyone here is middle-aged, middle class white, mainly Americans, some other Brits and a Dutch lady, Jacky. I suppose that shows something that I’d not thought of, at least consciously – this trip isn’t a cheapy in the Red Sea. It’s proper bucket list trip, for people who can afford it. I feel very privileged. The boat – The Turks & Caicos Aggressor II – is different from liveaboards I’ve been on before. The cabin I’m in is much smaller and I’m sharing a shower and toilet. But the booze is free. Meh, I can take that, especially as I’m not diving this week. The crew are nice – again, different from an Egyptian crew and boat, but just as eager to please and make sure you have a great time. Get tips for photography – how to photograph the whales. Let’s hope those tips pay off in half an hour! I’m sharing a cabin with Peggy, the 60 year old who looks 40, who’s adores water, but her husband doesn’t. Not letting it stop her, this is her treat for her 60h birthday. She’s fascinating. Born in Michigan, lives in Texas. We have a conversation on the second night about life and politics and she surprises me. I really hope I have her lust for life and courage in 23 years time. There are also a lot of other single travelling ladies – not un-spoken for, just ladies who are doing this despite their husband’s lack of interest/desire – all of whom have wanted to do this for some time, like me. Again I feel very privileged and empowered to be amongst such great determined females. Peggy told me she’ll probably cry when she sees a humpback. I’m afraid I might too.

Sunday – getting wet.

Our first trip out on the dinghy, and we see lots of top side action. A baby slapping his tail on the surface while mum pops her head up occasionally. A group of “rowdies” – males who are looking for females to mate with, and consequently are quite aggressive in the water, so we can’t get in – but we admire them from the surface.

The first hump!

 

Monday – getting in!

After a really lovely sunrise, right over the nearby wreck of a Greek drug running ship (!) we spent most of the morning following a mother and her calf. It’s slow work, actually, and reminds me of the Sardine run - looking for action, and lots of waiting. Apparently the behaviour we’re looking for is a calf coming up every few minutes to breathe, and doing semi circles on the surface. That means the mother is below him – she should come up around every third breath or so. Once they settle into that routine, we can get in, and hope that mum is happy for us to play with baby. And this couple seem to be doing that….only just as we think they’ve settled, junior decides to breach – and right beside us! Every time.

Baby breaching

 

It’s stunning and he’s learned his technique well, and it’s all he can do to enjoy his fun and enthusiasm for jumping. But it means we can’t get in – we don’t want to risk him landing on us. Mum joins in with some glorious tail slaps too, and they’re a joy to watch. We call him Jumper, and leave him and mum to it

Mum and baby have fun

We get a call from our sister boat to come and share their whale…. but just as we head over, the escort they’re with breaches perfectly beside them – he’s a full adult male. No surprises that we won’t be getting in with him either!

After lunch, we start badly when we spot a breath breaking the surface, and follow it into the coral heads, only to find we can’t get the boat out easily. But we soon found another mum and calf, showing the right behaviours. While we wait for them to settle, a few times another group of whales get too close to our pair (just showing how full of whales the seas are here!) and they stop settling and move elsewhere….we track them again each time until we’re ready to go in. Eventually, they seem to settle. Cole, our guide gets in the water and after making sure the whales are showing the right behaviour, she calls us in. Slowly, we all slide in as quietly as we can from the boat and swim over to her, link arms so we all look like one mass to the whale, and get closer.

And then there she is. With her calf. Baby is hanging around her carefully, like a toddler clinging to his mother’s legs with uncertainly. And they are huge. I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for their size, and not just that, their gracefulness. How can such an enormous mass of muscle and flesh be so calm and peaceful and gentle in the water? They hardly move, but they manage to propel themselves with no effort. Baby decides to push for the surface, quite close to us and he looks birdlike as he heads up, his pecs look like wings of a swallow. He takes a breath and dives back down again, swimming round mum for reassurance.

Someone points down, and I realise there is another whale below us – an escort. He’s below mum, just sitting patiently. Eventually he’ll want to mate with her, but for now he’s happy just to guard her, and hang around for a bit Neither him, nor mum, not baby seem threatened or even bothered by our presence. We simply sit in the water next to these huge beasts and admire their presence. Baby takes a few more breaths and swims around, while mum takes a look up at us.

Once you spot the eye looking at you, it does almost stop you in your tracks. It’s a connection like nothing else. A 30 tonne mammal looking right at you with mammal eyes, while her baby swims next to her. She seems to know you’re not a threat, and something more, seems to sense that you’re here to see her, and simply lets you. It’s a very profound feeling to have her look at you and accept you. I’m speechless. As is Peggy. It’s a life ambition that I’ve just achieved and I have no words to describe the emotion. Peggy and I look at each other, and she’d those tears we talked about. I am humbled.

Tuesday – in again.

The following day we spend the morning following a mum and calf who just won’t settle for us, before eventually finding one that will. It’s a slow business and you have to have patience. Nature doesn’t work like a water park (thankfully). When we get in the water we realise she’s taking up a very strange position – she’s hanging vertical in the water with her tail towards th surface and her head right down.

Baby is swimming around her just as usual, but when he does take his last breath and dive down to join mum, he joins her in a vertical position, as if he’s learning it from her – it’s so cute to watch him do it. Every few minutes he’ll come out from next to her, swim under her pecs and come to the surface, swim in a semi-circle taking a few breaths, and checking us as as he does, then he’ll dive back again to stand on his head next to mum.

One point when he comes up he checks us all out really closely, his big eye having a good long look at each of us as he skims past us to the surface. When his eye catches me, and looks right at me, it’s hard not to wonder what he’s thinking when he sees me; in a line with others.

Mum takes a look on the way up, her eye is huge, and you wonder what on earth she thinks of us. She obvious isn’t threatened by us. She’s happy for us to watch her calf – he comes in between us and her and she’s fine with that. It’s really quite humbling to watch her being comfortable with us, and the trust she puts in us, as her calf comes up to us and eyes us up and down. To think of how human kind has misplaced that trust, makes me feel very sad. Guilty.

We swim with her for a few breath cycles; she’s happy for us to be there and we’re not in a rush to be anywhere else. eventually she decides it’s time to move on. She comes up for a breath, with baby, then the two simply effortlessly disappear. We can’t keep up. It’ s not worth trying.

Wednesday morning

Filled with such a sense of wonderment, we start Wednesday following a mum and baby for a while, but they wouldn’t settle. Aftera while, we eventually came across a mum, baby and her escort (a male whle who has won a content to spend time with the mum, in an effort to mate with her) who seemed to be just hanging around. As we got closer, we realised baby was having some fun, just jumping about in the water, tail slapping. We hung around and he and mum gave us a show for an hour. He came right up the the boat, and popped his head out to look at us with his huge eye. He rolled around on his back, a bit like a cat asking for its belly to be rubbed.

He lay there and slapped his tail playfully. Rolling over, he also enjoyed flicking his tail at us, covering us (and the cameras) in water. He would breach, righ text to the boat, while mum lay next to him and slapped her pec (which was probably as long as he was).

A fantastic hour spent, feeling very proud to have been able to spend junior’s playtime with him. He had no fear of us, mum was happy to watch him, and she sat under the boat occasionally coming up for breaths. And the escort very patiently hung around while junior played with us. These creatures are so patient and calm, from baby up to the 30 tonne males.

Thursday

We wake up and the weather is foul. It’s throwing it down, and the winds are up. if it wasn’t still warm I’d think I was back in the UK already. We expected the storm this evening, so it’s a bit of a surprise; it’s early. The Captain tells us that the rules prohibit getting in the boats in ends over 25mph…it’s currently 22…. After a few close calls, and one short trip out in the boat, getting very wet without actually getting in the water, we are called back, and the captain, after speaking to the over captains over the radio, decides to call it off. And that’s a rather unfitting end to an amazing week. While I’d have loved to have got beck in to the water for one last time, I can’t forget that I’ve had some amazing encounters, both in and above the water. Watching a baby play with us, seeing a mother cradle her calf underneath her, it’s been fantastic. And I can’t complain. Even as we head back to Puerto Plato and the swells get higher (and my nausea threatens to make an appearance) we crack open the wine, to celebrate, with all the other fantastic ladies, all the amazing encounters we’ve had this week, and how humbling it all was. Humble is a common theme amongst us all. We all feel amazingly privileged to have shared the water with some truly amazing creatures this week. And having achieved a bucket list item this week, I’d like to think I can learn something from humpbacks. Calm but powerful. Happy to share their lives with others for nothing in return. Trusting, but always in control. And when I’m back at work and getting stressed about something insignificant, I hope I can remember the sense of calm I felt in the water with mum and baby.

 

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