Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Whales of Silver Bank

I had planned to show off all my great Mavericks images, that I hoped to shoot during the competition this month, but nature decided Mavericks competition this year!
The irony is that the window closes this Saturday and the wave forecast predicts huge waves for Sunday...ONE day too late...arrrg.

So, instead I will share another March adventure with you, not from this year, but nevertheless an unforgettable experience:

Snorkeling with Humpback Whales 

I read about this trip with Cheesemans' Ecological Safaris in a photographers magazine and was immediately hooked, I had to do that. Luckily there were still places available and a bit later I was on my way to the Dominican Republic!
My destination was the Silver Bank, which lies approximately 70 miles north of the coast of the Dominican Republic. Surrounded by deep ocean waters, a 10 x 20 mile area rises to a submerged plateau, know as a bank, with an relatively shallow average depth of 100 feet. It is here where the Humpback Whales come every spring to give birth and breed.

The journey to the whales started in Puerto Plata, a small port town on the Dominican coast. Shortly before sunset we were allowed to board our ship, the Nekton Rorqual, a catamaran style vessel operated by Aquatic Adventures, which would sail us smoothly to our anchorage place at Silver Bank.

As we woke up the next morning, we already had dropped anchor and were greeted by whales and the wreck of the Poyxeni,  a landmark of Silver Bank .

Everybody was anxious to get in the water, and after an extensive security briefing, we were divided into two groups, for the two smaller boats, that would bring us closer to the whales.
I was rather nervous, I'm a fairly good swimmer, but had never snorkeled before, nor had I ever trusted my beloved camera in an underwater housing...

Our skipper again explained the rules of a so called soft encounter with the whales: No approaching the whale, no touching (that sounded funny to me at the time, but let me tell you they came quite close), and no free diving, while they were resting on the ground. The idea was simple, we would find a mother with her calf, slide quietly into the water, and watch her and her calf . The calf would come up every 5 minutes or so, the mother can hold her breath for about 20 - 30 min.

On the afternoon of my first day, one of the calves started to come up for breathing when it must have seen me out of the corner of her eye. She came closer, and closer and closer, looking directly into my eyes. I can't exactly described what happened in these seconds but I was completely transfixed, looking into the eye, and as it seemed into the soul, of another intelligence. Completely stunned, I didn't take a single image, the camera was dangling rather useless somewhere on my arm. But I didn't mind, these few seconds made my trip....

Over the next day this would be our routine, locating the whales, observing them, snorkeling in the water. The calves were quite curious and every time they came up, they would check out one of us. Usually when the mother came up to breath, they would swim off, either just for a bit, with an entourage of frantically following snorkelers, or for good.

Unfortunately for the photography part, it was a very windy week. And due to the shallowness of the bank this meant the water was rather murky.

Mother and calf interacting.

The rules said not to approach the whales, since the mothers can get protective if they believe their calf in danger, and you really don't want to have a 45 feet long and 40 ton heavy angry whale charging at you.
But the calves, still imposing with 15 feet long and a weight of about a ton, would quite frequently come rather close...

A group in the water watching the calf come up for breathing

Mother and calf resting

All to soon, our time was up...

...and after a last wave from our new found friends, we had to sail back to Puerto Plata.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

March Conservation Tip

Plant a Tree

This month California celebrated Arbor Day, which means now is the best time to plant a tree.

Why plant a tree?

Well, for one, they provide food and shelter for wildlife

Two, "For every ton of new wood that grows, about 1.5 tons of CO2 are removed from the air and 1.07 tons of life-giving oxygen are produced. During a 50-year life span, one tree will generate $30,000 in oxygen, recycle $35,000 worth of water, and clean up $60,000 worth of air pollution or $125,000 total per tree without including any other values." ( ) Some impressive numbers, right?

Three, trees can be very effective snow and windbreakers

Four, trees prevent and/or reduce soil erosion and water pollution

Five, for an example how strategical planted trees can function as natural air conditioner check out my blog entry about a visit to the Solar Living Center last September

Six, planted along streets they can effectively reduce noise and air pollution

Seven, one of the most important points to me, trees provide a multitude of fruits and nuts

Eight, they are beautiful to look at, especially in spring when they bloom and in fall when the leaves turn, and

Nine, the falling leaves make an excellent natural mulch

Ten, trees provide immediate relief for tax season stressed minds...;-)

Can't plant a tree yourself?

Check out these links for ideas!

Plant a billion trees

Trees for the future

Gift Trees