Snorkeling with Humpback Whales

humpback whale calf
Humpback Whale Calf off of the Silver Bank, Atlantic Ocean

My Experience Snorkeling with Humpback Whales off the Silver Bank, Atlantic Ocean

I slid into the Atlantic Ocean off the small boat like a seal sliding off a rock and into the water. I heard my breathing through my snorkel and blinked while focusing on the deep blue beyond.

Suddenly, there they were, a 40 foot (12.2m) long mother humpback whale with her 15 foot (4.6m) long calf circling her. It was an astonishing sight. I have seen humpback whales and their antics above the water off of Hawaii and California, but here was the gentle giant in her own watery environment.

They swam around us and our boat, eyeing us. No doubt they were curious about the ungainly creatures who had literally came out of the blue. The mother and calf swam next to us, under us and so close that I knew with flick of her tail, it could be the end of me.

It was like a dream, one that would be long lost if it weren’t for the pictures my small point and shoot underwater camera took. There were full body shots of the mother and calf, and body parts like flukes or the long pectoral fins filling the entire frame.

The largest animal I had snorkeled with before was the ocean’s largest fish, a whale shark, and it was only as long as the calf! I remember counting the seconds as the whale shark would slowly swim by, head-body-tail, gulping down water through its gills to filter out plankton to eat.

The calf needed to come up for air every few minutes, with mother in tow even though she could average 20 minutes per breath. The calf swam close to its mother the whole time they were with us, a good 30 minutes. They circled our boat many times. Our 25 foot long boat paled in comparison to the mother. Female humpbacks can grow up to 50 feet (15m) long and 35 tons (31.8 tonnes)!

humpback whale pectoral fins
Humpback whale mother’s pectoral fins

Out of the water the pair put on quite a show, tail lobbing (slapping their flukes on the surface of the water), pectoral fin slapping and breaching their whole bodies out of the water!

Intentions are powerful. The previous night while introducing ourselves (our group had all previously snorkeled with wild dolphins in the Bahamas with Wildquest over the years) and why we were there, I shared that I wanted to see a mother and calf pair underwater as well as write a blog post, a children’s book and article. I’m not saying I’m solely responsible for the long and memorable encounter—the humpback whales made that happen—but considering we only got into the water once more during the week (we heard a male humpback singing underwater!), it made this encounter even more special.

Aquatic Adventures specializes in “Passive-in-Water Whale Encounters” or PIWEE (pee-wee) on the Silver Bank Marine Sanctuary, which is halfway between the Dominican Republic (where we flew in to) and the Turks and Caicos islands in the Atlantic Ocean (the Caribbean borders the other sides of the Dominican Republic).

From Aquatic Adventure’s website, “Research indicates that the Silver Bank contains the largest seasonal population humpbacks in the North Atlantic Ocean, if not the world. The sanctuary is only 40 square miles but 5000-7000 humpback whales pass through each winter.”

The Silver Bank is a calving and mating ground for humpback whales. The calves grow quickly on their mother’s milk of 70% fat (whole cow’s milk is only 4% fat in comparison!). They are born 10-15 feet long and 1-2 tons in weight. The mother will not feed again until she reaches somewhere north like Stellwagen Bank off of Massachusetts, USA.

I want to thank everyone on the boat, guests and crew alike, for an amazing experience in and out of the water. For more on snorkeling with humpback whales in the Silver Bank, visit Aquatic Adventure’s website.

Feel free to comment or email with any questions!

Willow, the All-White Humpback Whale Found Off of Norway

all white humpback whale
Willow the White Humpback Whale found off of Norway (photo by Dan Fisher)

While it is nice to get some attention for being an all-white humpback whale, I wanted to clear a few things up. First of all, I am not Moby Dick! Moby Dick was a sperm whale, and a fictional one at that, created from the imagination of author Herman Melville. The only thing I have in common with sperm whales is that we are both whales.
Whales are mammals (not fish), and as such, we have the following 5 characteristics:

1. Breathe air
2. Give birth to live young
3. Young drink milk from mom
4. Have hair (yes we whales have hair, but the hairs are really small)
5. Are warm-blooded

Sperm whales are toothed whales that hunt large prey, while I am a baleen whale that “hunts” very small prey called plankton. Other toothed whales include orcas (killer whales), and dolphins (all dolphins are whales, but not all whales are dolphins!). Other baleen whales include the blue whale (the largest animal to ever live on planet earth), and the minke whale.

While white humpback whales such as myself are rare, there is one off of Australia named Migaloo, who is quite famous. He has been seen by humans off and on for two decades. He even has a lesser seen pal named Bahloo who is all-white, except for some black spots on his head and tail. I will never meet those two as we live in completely different oceans.

Like Bahloo, I have black on the undersides of my fluke (tail). That means that I am not an albino, but rather hypo-pigmented or possibly leucistic. True albinos are completely white, and have pink or red eyes.

If you are ever so lucky to spot me, I hope you will follow the guidelines the Australian government has made for Migaloo so he does not become harassed: vessels must stay at least 500 meters away, and airplanes can fly no lower than 2000 feet. The fine for harassment of Migaloo is $16,500.

UPDATE: There have been reports of an all white humpback whale calf seen off of Queensland, Australia. Wildlife Extra reports that white killer whales (orcas) have been spotted off of Alaska and Russia (it could be the same animal), white right whale calves have been spotted off of Southern Australia, and an albino dolphin has been spotted off of Louisiana, USA. An albino Risso’s dolphin was seen off of Monterey, California June 2017.

Meet Migaloo, the All-White Humpback Whale of Australia

The white (not albino) humpack whale of the Great Barrier Reef of Australia
Migaloo, the all-white humpback whale

Hi, my name is Migaloo. I am the famous all-white humpback whale that lives off the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. My name is an aboriginal term meaning “white fellow.” I have been called an albino, but what I really am is “hypo-pigmented.” That means that I have low (hypo) levels of pigments. True albinos have genetic mutations that cause melanin to be produced in very low quantities, or not at all, and have pink or red eyes. Melanin is what causes human skin to tan. My buddy, Bahloo is also all-white, but he has black spots on his head and tail. That’s one reason why humans have chosen to call me “all-white” instead of albino.

Those terms don’t matter to me as I’m just like any other humpback whale! I still have to migrate to the Antarctic in the summer to feast on krill, and then make my way back to Eastern Australia. There we mate, and if female, give birth. Females’ calves are 14 foot (4.3m) long and weigh 2.5 tons (2.3 tonnes) at birth! No wonder their pregnancies last up to a year! They want to give birth in warm tropical waters, and they mate every year. That is why we go to the trouble of migrating every year! Otherwise with my thick layer of blubber, I could stand being in the frigid Antarctic waters all year long.

If you should ever be so lucky as to spot me, please e-mail my human friends at the Pacific Whale Foundation, or The White Whale Research Centre in Australia. Also, I hope you are with a responsible whale watching boat or airplane operator, as the Australian government has specific guidelines to prevent humans from harassing me (thank you!): vessels must stay at least 500 meters away, airplanes can fly no lower than 2000 feet near me, and the fine for harassment is $16,500. It’s okay if I approach you though!

UPDATE: In November of 2012, an all-white humpback whale named Willow was photographed off of Norway. There have been reports of an all white humpback whale calf seen off of Queensland, Australia. Wildlife Extra reports that white killer whales (orcas) have been spotted off of Alaska and Russia (it could be the same animal), white right whale calves have been spotted off of of Southern Australia, and a pink albino dolphin has been spotted in a lake in Louisiana, USA. In June 2017 an albino Risso’s dolphin was seen off of Monterey, California USA.