Thursday started out with the underside of high clouds painted red by the sun. The breeze was still blowing, but not quite as hard as on previous days. The persistent wind made me wish we were allowed to bring our sailing kayaks out on the Silver Bank. I asked Gene whether I could bring my foldable kayak, but he said it is against the rules to kayak with the whales on the Silver Bank.
As the sun came up, it was obscured behind lines of clouds. The effect made the horizon area quite dim, while the sky above us was bright and blue. There were small storms scattered around, which looked to be about 20,000 feet tall, a few miles across, and barely raining. The tops were blown off in the classic "anvil head" shape, but I'm used to seeing that on much taller, bigger storms. Kind of like the Pan-Tropical Spotted Dolphins were miniatures of the ones we have back home - miniature anvil head storms!
We had a nice breakfast and got out on the tenders, and right away Brandon found a mother and calf resting and called us into the water. We all formed up in a line beside him, and I wound up on the end of the line nearest the whales. It looked like they were going to pass on one side of the group, then the calf turned to go the other way around us and his mother turned right toward me!
This is a bit like having a bus turn right toward you, and my initial inclination was: I need to get out of the way of this giant creature! I remembered what we had been told, though, which was that if the whales want to swim right up to you and check you out, that's good! A sudden movement to avoid them would be bad, so I just sat on the surface, hurriedly switching my camera from video to still picture mode as I watched them come closer.
With her calf crossing in front of her, the mother whale finally turned to go by us when she was about 15 feet away. The scarring on the right side of her face indicates she is a Stellwagen Bank whale. They were studying me closely, probably thinking: I did not know they made humans that skinny! Or maybe: These people must be seriously lost! Possibly: Tourists again? Who knows what they think about, but this mother did not seem to view us as any kind of threat to her baby.
The pair of whales surfaced to breathe right in front of our little group of swimmers. Being this close to these enormous animals and watching them watch us was not like anything else I have ever done in a lifetime spent getting out on the water as much as possible. I can see why people return year after year, and how Gene came to want to do it every year and share it with as many people as possible through his business.
The mother whale was in no hurry to go anywhere, and she just slowly descended nearby. Her calf was feeling playful, and would loop around her head. I caught one of those on the video below. Human mothers of the world should be thankful that their babies cannot twirl around their heads while mom is trying to have a nap!
My underwater camera is a Canon Powershot D10, and for comparison, Elliot Davidson was kind enough to share these two pictures taken with his Panasonic Lumix underwater camera. The two both received good reviews online, and the Lumix was my second choice when I bought the Canon. Interesting to see how differently the two cameras draw the blue of the ocean. I think his captured the actual color better. It could have to do with the settings used, or the fact that he knows what he is doing with a camera, while I do not.
Elliot also shared this picture of the calf descending in front of its mother. She is that large, dark blob with white spots at the bottom of the frame. The splotchy background is actually the ocean bottom, barely visible about 80 feet below.
We must have been on "whale time" while we were with the mother and calf, because we were with them for quite a while without really realizing it. Meanwhile, the Sea for Yourself group had not found any cooperative whales as yet, so we did a whale "handoff" to their group and we all got back in the boat. I really do not have any reason to publish this picture, but since I already apologized in advance to Elliot for publishing a picture of him with seaweed stuck in his dreadlocks...
We headed back to the Sun Dancer II, and when the other tender returned it was time to leave the mooring. We planned to depart early in the morning to head back to Puerto Plata, and since this was the last week of the whale season, the mooring had to be removed. That meant a night spent at anchor a bit further out, away from the cluster of coral heads that protect the mooring area from most wave action.
Chef Jerry prepared a delicious fish curry with rice dish and other good things for lunch, and we ate as the boat was moving out to anchor.
Some Dominican fishermen came over to see Scooby again, but their timing was bad, approaching as the big boat picked up speed toward the anchorage. They wound up tagging along behind us as the boat moved out, then came up to the dive platform to chat. I think they might have traded a few parrotfish for cold Cokes. In the picture you can see them following along, with whale tender Bago on a short tow line. The other whale tender, Trini, was out on a whale tagging mission with Oswaldo and Amy.
At one point, the whales that Oswaldo and Amy were trying to tag with satellite tracking devices came near to the anchorage, giving us a front row view of the tagging operation. On the surface, you can see a female and her escort. The escorts sometimes view the tagging boat as a rival who might be trying to take his woman, so they get pretty worked up.
While we were waiting for the afternoon dive, some whales were breaching not too far away. As soon as I saw the nose break the surface, I would hold down the shutter on my camera, making it shoot continuously. This is where a better, faster camera would have been nice, but those tend not to be waterproof and rugged, at least in my price range. I spliced together 3 sequential images to get each of these pictures.
I also got a bunch of pictures of empty ocean and pictures of giant splashes. I threw away hundreds of them.
While we were out on the afternoon trip in the tenders, we saw this whale lobtailing and pec slapping over near two of the tenders from Turks and Caicos Explorer II and Bago, our companion tender. This seemed to be a pretty common occurence, but they never did it near the tender we were aboard.
For those curious about the capabilities of my consumer-grade underwater camera, the picture at right was taken without zooming at all, using the default "action" setting. The lobtailing whale and the three boats in the picture are about half a mile away. I preserved the original pixel size of the inset (circular) blow-ups when optimizing the picture for the web.
The picture at left was taken using the 3x optical zoom of the camera, and was cropped to be 700 wide (the expanded version, click to enlarge). It was not otherwise altered, other than JPEG compression using Photoshop's "Save For Web" function.
We were not successful in finding whales that wanted to swim with us in the afternoon. We rode around quite a bit looking for them, and got in the water a couple of times, but got only a dim view of one mother and calf, who left the scene fairly quickly.
We encountered some whales that were on the move, and I took the opportunity to try to get some fluke shots for the scientists. That is harder than you would expect! I got the one at right, which is pretty good, but that is the original pixel size, altered only by cropping and JPEG compression.
As with the breaching photos, I was using the camera in continuous-shooting mode, and got lots and lots of junk. There were also quite a few in which the camera took a shot the moment before the fluke was exposed to us, and another shot the moment after. At left is a compilation of some of those fluke failures.
The last time we went into the water, Brandon was calling us over to see a mother, calf, and escort. I got to him first, and when I arrived, he swam down a short distance, then returned to the surface and started pointing down. I could see nothing down there but blue gloom, not even the bottom. I lined up to look down his arm as he continued pointing. Nothing.
This went on for a little while, and the rest of the divers around me were also looking down where Brandon was pointing, apparently seeing nothing. Meanwhile, back on the boat, Luis and Captain Eddy were about to die laughing. The had seen the mother and calf surface a couple of hundred yards away, and were certain that Brandon was showing us a rock or something, not a whale. I was beginning to wonder myself.
I was just getting ready to ask for permission to dive down a bit (something they told us is prohibited when swimming with the whales) when I saw a big, white pectoral fin loom up out of the gloom. I turned on the video and caught the escort whale as he came up to breathe. It is unusual for an escort to let the mother and calf wander away like that, so Luis and Eddy had been certain we could not be looking at those whales. If that whale had not shown himself, Brandon would probably have been given a hard time about it for years.
Video from our morning encounter with mother and calf, plus a brief clip of Brandon's Invisible Escort Whale
When we got back aboard the Sun Dancer II, the big evening excitement at the Sundowner Party was a little land bird who had decided to take a rest aboard. At least, it was very exciting to the bird people. In addition to having bright yellow and orange colors, this particular bird is pretty rare, and Amy reported that the only time she had seen one before was on a ship at sea. She tells me it is a Blackburnian Warbler. They gave him some water and some crackers or something.
The bird was probably pretty tired, but not too tired to fight his own reflection in the salon window. He was still aboard the next morning at dawn, hiding behind the ice machine in the bar.
Another whale lobtailing not too far from our ship as we watched from the aft deck. Turns out this was the last Silver Bank whale to wave bye bye to us.
It was a really fantastic sunset view from the ship's bar that evening. The camera really does not do justice to the band of gold on the underside of that cloud. Spectacular.
Are they really serving us Baked Alaska on a boat? Yes, they did, and it was great! The picture is not so great, but I thought I was doing well just to make sure the flash did not go off and spoil Chef Jerry's moment!
Leaving the Silver Bank
One last sunrise on the Silver Bank, and we were soon under way back to Puerto Plata.
There was a small storm near our path as we left, with a nice rainbow. Weather was generally good, but the quartering wind and seas did cause some rolling.
Approaching the north coast of the Dominican Republic, I was really enjoying the view of the mountain sticking up into the clouds. Those cloud bases are probably less than 3,000 feet up, so I guess to many people it is not much of a mountain, but I am from the flattest part of Florida. It looks like a mountain to me!
Our destination is tucked in the foothills surrounding the mountain, dead ahead in the picture. I'm glad that no one set off that four-trumpet horn while I was next to it! They say it's LOUD!
This is the Ocean World Casino (left of center), hotel/marina (right of center) and boat dry storage (further right), all protected by the rock breakwater. Some wave surge does make it around the breakwater and into the marina basin, so even the big boats are never quite still at the docks.
Shortly after we arrived, the larger of these two luxury motor yachts approached the dock, and they put on quite a show. The first attempt was nose-in, but that was aborted. The crew quickly went to work resetting fenders for the stern-to docking, but a few of them were clearly too high. We were placing bets there for a bit on whether someone would fix them before the boat got scratched.
For dinner on Friday night, most of us went to a restaurant called Papillon not too far from the marina. It was a really interesting place, with no exterior walls, thatch roof, driftwood sticks for chandeliers, and all kinds of interesting nautical decor items. I really like the giant schooner model over the bar. The proprietor, Thomas, is a man who understands food, and more specifically, the unbelievably large amounts of it that Gene wants to consume. He knows how to keep him coming back!
The pass-through window to the kitchen at Papillon was capped with driftwood and topped with the exoskeletons of cowfish. One of the dining tables was also constructed of driftwood; it was a large, split log.
I wandered over to another section of the restaurant, where Joel and his Sea for Yourself group had a table.
A couple of passengers did not come along, so our table consisted of Robert and Michaela, Gene, Sonja and me. The tall beers you see are Weihenstephan, and it turned out that one of Michaela's relatives actually worked in the brewery that produces it. It was very good! I could see why Germans will not drink our beer.
Sonja and I ordered a Chateauxbriand that was large enough to feed four people, cooked to perfection, and served with a vat of bernaise sauce that would drown a cow. For the first time in any restaurant, I did not ask for more sauce. This was followed up by a bite of Gene's chocolate mousse, which I had to agree was quite possibly the best thing in the world. Last but not least was some of Thomas' "special" coffee. I'm pretty sure that what was "special" about it was that no actual water was used in producing it. It was blended using brandy or something, and there were chocolate, cinnamon, and a few other flavors in there. It was powerful stuff, and made you feel really good, even after a too-big meal. It should probably be illegal.
Disembarking in the morning was easier said than done! With the tide low, it was quite a step up to the dock! Some of the passengers went around and exited at the bow, where it was not such a big step off the boat. Here Terence is helping Sonja off. I was probably supposed to do that!
A last shot of the Sun Dancer II as we left the marina. We were not going far, just walking down the street to a restaurant that Gene had told us about that has a good wifi connection.
Another great restaurant recommendation. Chris and Maddy's was built to look as if it grew naturally out of the Dominican jungle, incorporating limestone into the short walls and floors and vines hanging from the thatch roof beams. The roof supports are concrete, but made to look like parts of trees. The little bridge in the picture goes over a Koi pond that runs through the restaurant. The bright sun blotted out the best part: the view across the street is a beautiful Dominican beach.
We had a hot breakfast and surfed the net for a while having an after-breakfast coffee. I could have lounged around there all day, and could see why Gene sometimes uses the place as his "office" on Saturdays while the boat is in port.
After a while, Gene called us to come back over to Ocean World. Conscious Breath Adventures is buying the whale tenders, and they are coming here to my place for some work. We wanted to have a look at what we would be doing. I could not resist taking a picture of the red sailboat with the pinched transom.
Knowing I would want to poke and tap on the boats, I had kept my Gerber Multitool and my SOG pocketknife on me. Sure enough, they came in handy, and since I wear them all the time at home, I forgot all about them right up until I arrived at the airport security check point. There went over $100 worth of knives. How annoying!
Going over the Bahama Bank west of Andros, I spotted several fish muds out on the bank. These mud plumes are caused by feeding fish stirring up the bottom.
We got into Miami in the evening and escaped the airport and the city with little hassle. Driving back across I-75 (Alligator Alley) I caught one last sunset picture for the trip.