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Finding more than Humpbacks Whales on the Silver Banks, An Artists Journey.

Updated: 5 days ago

A humpback Whale looking out of the water in front of the ship Sea Hunter.

I find myself sitting on the upper deck of the Sea Hunter, a 50-meter live-aboard dive vessel. My trip began when I woke up to the sun rising over Stuart, Florida. I finished packing my bags and traveled to the Miami International Airport for a flight to Porto Plata. After a few delays, a two-hour flight, and long lines clearing immigration, I was in the Dominican Republic. I exited the airport to find my driver who took me on the hour's drive west to where I met the ship.


White cap ocean waves from inside a breakwater.

Saturday, March 30th, I've just arrived at the port, there are ominous clouds overhead, the wind is blowing hard, and large white-capped waves are continuously crashing into the protective rocks surrounding the entrance to the harbor. I have to admit, I am feeling concerned. Our ship is scheduled to leave tonight. We need to cross over the open ocean to get to the Silver Banks, a distance of 75 miles. The captain decided to delay our trip till tomorrow in hopes the conditions will be more comfortable, I am very relieved.

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin leaping in a bow wake.

Sunday, March 31, 830 am,

We are leaving the marina for our crossing. The seas are still 8 to 10-foot swells! Happly a group of dolphins joined our boat to play in our bow wake. I enjoy watching them surf along with us like they are leading the way. It is such an honor to be escorted by such a lovely family of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins. They were very cooperative, they gave me time to get my iPhone so I can share it with you, now. I feel like it is a good omen and It was great to be welcomed in by this extremely intelligent species.


630 pm, (about 10 hours later) We arrive at the Silver Bank, a 649 square mile shallow underwater carbonate platform- a sedimentary body created by the accumulation of the skeletons of reef organisms (similar to the Bahama Bank) that protrudes up from the ocean floor to depths around 60 feet deep. In its northern end, many coral heads reach the ocean surface, especially at low tide. This shallow protected area is ideal for Humpback Whales to safely give birth and breed.


A view from high altitude of a large white ship moored to a buoy on the Silver Banks.

We have reached our temporary home, a mooring ball on the reef. After securing the vessel, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and dinner. Our Captian, Gene Felipe educated us on the "dues, don’ts, and etiquette" of swimming with the whales. This is for both our safety and that of the whales. He explained "You Don’t Approach the Whale; The Whale Approaches You. The whales are in control of the distance, duration, and tempo of any encounter." We were instructed to slip from the boat, down-current from them, and calmly approach. This keeps the current from pushing the swimmer into the whale. The Capt. reminded us there is a wide range of humpback behaviors on display at any given time on the Silver Bank. "While they all make for excellent whale watching, they may not be conducive to in-water encounters. Whales that are cruising or involved in rowdy behavior or surface social behavior are not candidates to swim with. In contrast, resting, singing, or courting whales, are. The Crew's job as guides is to find whales who are most likely to welcome interaction, making it the best possible experience for both the whales and you. Now we are here and we know what to do.



Monday 6 am. Contemplation with Coffee.


Spring Sun breaks the day,

the light evolves with the dawn,

Artist paints the sky.


The orange sun rising over the silver sea.


The morning brought us fewer clouds and the seas calmed down. A small amount of chop and a slight breeze. I have noticed these are the best conditions for engaging with the whales. Soon we are all getting ready, sorting out our camera gear, wetsuits, fins, and masks. Finally, we are ready! We board the tenders, and I have had such anticipation for today’s first adventure. As we foray, we scan the horizon but have yet to see a "blow" -the spout or spray of water droplets that shoot into the air when the large animal exhales, this is the sign of a whale.


My fellow travelers are a diverse and amiable group originating from various parts of the globe such as Europe, the Caribbean, the US, and England. Despite our diverse backgrounds, our shared passion for whale conservation unites us. Among us are a whale specialist who operates in Iceland and Antarctica, as well as a renowned National Geographic photographer. I feel perfectly at ease in this environment.

 

With all the reefs that surround the area and the water breaking over them, I keep thinking, is that one? No, how about that? no. Anyway, I am an optimist, I just keep looking for spouts of breath from the whales. This was to be our first full day in the water. We ventured out about 5 miles from the mothership in a small skiff. It was amazing to be amongst such natural beauty but I mostly I want to interact with the whales. 🐋


looking for the "blows" of the humpback whale, we see several off in the far distance but keep looking for a closer one. I was scanning the water as we went, wondering what today would reveal. Suddenly Our captain spotted a blow spout near us! He stopped the skiff and sat quietly in expectation of seeing a blow. Just waiting for it to come up again. A Magical thing happened. From the depths, we began to hear the singing of the humpback whale. We are above water, in a boat, and we can hear the sound surrounding us. I could almost feel the sounds. It is amazing and beautiful and sacred!! To be touched by the sound waves, calling out from the deep blue ocean to the blue sky.

 

We waited for the whale to come up and breathe, and he came up very close. Off our starboard bow. When the whale went down the singing continued, and we all followed instructions, quietly get in the water and swim towards the footprint of swirling water the whale left.


For an enchanting 20 minutes, we were immersed in the song of the whale as he sang his heart out and then slowly the whale rose to the surface with its head down and its tail coming completely out of the water I was able to capture this on video, which I was very excited about, then he went back down and then came up to take a breath. It was an incredible encounter. Click below to see the video and hear the song!




 

The whale then proceeded to travel along the surface and do a series of half breaches. It was frustrating at first for me as I could not get my camera to focus in time but eventually, I was able to capture this unique behavior kind of a lazy breach. Where only about the first third of the body comes out of the water, as we follow this whale, undoubtedly, he was calling to his fellow whales and traveling towards them. We saw another female slapping her pectoral fins in the distance. The two whales worked their way together. Soon we had a mother in the same area, we watched them for quite some time, but the conditions were not right to get in the water. We then headed back towards the mothership.

 

Along the way, we spotted another mother and calf that breached right in front of our boat. We slowed down and watched them for quite some time we got in the water, but the whales did not stick around.

 

Back to the ship for a quick launch, regroup, and then back out on the sea.

 


The tail fluke of a humpback whale telescoping above the blue water.

The afternoon was even more spectacular, as not far from the ship in the shallow areas where the coral comes up to the surface, we spotted not one, but several mothers and calves, and we followed them, we observed them until one had slow down and rested enough that we were able to get in the water.


This calf was completely relaxed, and allowed us to swim quite close, and we had a strong current, and the rules with swimming with the whales, you want to approach them from down wind, so that the seas don’t push you into the whales, where you could get too close and get hurt by the whale or I disturbed the mother and baby, so in this case we were still downwind, but the current was going towards the whale, and I had to constantly kick myself backwards to not get too close . The encounter lasted what seemed like a whole afternoon but another 20 minutes or so and it was awesome. The calf would come up for a breath and then come down and caress the mother's back and then swim under and then hang out right under her jaw, it was a beautiful experience.


We retreated to our boat to let the other group of swimmers have their turn in the water with this whale. I think this mother and calf were enjoying our company. After the other group was done. The whales moved on a little so that the calf was able suck milk from the mother, and they move along as they do this, the whales moved a few hundred yards and then slows down and stopped again, at which point we watched them go down and then entered the water again For another remarkable encounter.


Interesting. When I think just a couple of days ago, I met 19 other strangers from all over the world, who shared a common bond with the whales, as we all enjoyed our experiences, we not only bonded with the whales, but we bonded with each other. The human emotional connection between nature, and the animal also spreads between us. it is as if we have been friends for years.


Several of us have been on this trip before, this is my second expedition, and so I was already acquainted with Cat, Gene, Kelly and the crewmembers, but the bonding between us and the whales is truly remarkable something we could certainly take note of as a human species.


Swimmers in the blue water  with a humpback whale.

Tuesday, April 2nd

Today is our second day on the water. The seas are very calm, calmer than yesterday. Overhead the sky is blue with a few clouds, but not many. The sun is already shining, I have about an hour until we head out. Everyone is filled with anticipation. I feel a little tired, but I am looking forward to what the day will bring. The filming with the Insta360 was very cool and I’m looking forward to seeing what can be done with it. My big fancy Canon R5 created some incredible video of the whales but overheated and shut down. I continued shooting with the GoPro and the 360. It is great having Manu, the National Geographic explorer photographer on the ship, hopefully, I will get some pointers from him to improve my underwater photography, which only empowers me more to sculpt and create the beautiful humpback whale artwork that I love so much.

 

The anticipation of what the day will bring occupies my mind. I know the experience will be different than yesterday, and whatever happens, it will be awesome.

We will be heading out in less than an hour so shortly I will be putting on my slightly wet wetsuit and venturing onto the small skiff for the day

 

We had a full day on the water, although we saw many whales none were cooperative, allowing us to get in the water and swim. It was a beautiful day on the water.

 

Humpback whale tail above the water.

Wednesday, April 3rd

With Captain Gene at the helm, we set out at 8:30 AM. It wasn’t long before we found a mother and calf. We slipped into the water, but then she invaded us. We stayed with this pair of whales for quite some time following them up into the wind, we were able to get in the water a couple more times, and got some magnificent displays of the calf, coming up to the surface and back down as well as the mother. We went back to the mothership for a quick lunch and then joined Cat and her crew as they had been swimming, with a mother, calf, and an escort.


We stayed with these three whales for the whole afternoon when the conditions were right, we approached them in the water. The scene of the calf coming up, looking right at me as she swam toward the surface was amazing! We did this little dance multiple times taking turns with the other boats, everyone had a great experience. It was truly an epic day. The whales traveled down seas and led us a good 4 miles downwind from our ship, a slow and very wet ride back home, enjoying a spa treatment of Saltwater hydrotherapy.

 

Time moves fast out on the water, but simultaneously, it seems to stand still as one looks into the eyes of these whales. We made it back to our mothership The Sea Hunter just before sunset. the batteries on my Insta360 and the GoPro are both dead.


a humpback whale breaching into the air in the distance.

 The following day. Thursday, April 4th Oh my God, I ran down below to grab my Camera. A mother and calf are breaching a couple of hundred yards off our port side! I am alone on the deck of the Sea Hunter. I could not go out on the small boat this morning as I had suffered a little stomach issue, I am a thousand miles from Mexico and Montezuma‘s revenge still got me.


A white seabird with a very long, slender tail just flew over, it is the Tropic Bird. I was able to get a few beautiful pictures of it, as I write this I am seeing multiple whales breaching as I scan the horizon.

A beautiful long tailed white Tropic Bird flying overhead.

We are here at the very end of the season for the humpback whales. From here they will migrate some 2000 miles to the Selwagon Bank. And beyond to their summer feeding grounds.


It’s hard to describe the feeling of being so close to these wild animals in their natural habitat, they are not scared of us. I feel they may be a little curious about the human swimmers and the calves will approach us in the water. The Adults displayed above the water right next to the skiff. Certainly, if they did not enjoy our presence they could swim away at 30 MPH or divea to leave us at any time.

I am enjoying a week without internet access, but when I get home I would like to look up at what time were there an equal or greater number of Whales in the oceans compared to humans on Earth, it has not taken long for one species to wipe out almost all the others. We are certainly at a tipping point when it comes to the health of our planet, the oceans, and all life.

 

I am hopeful to get out in the skiff this afternoon, but if not, the whale show from the deck of the Sea Hunter is an excellent place to be.


 


Thursday, April 4 in the afternoon we went out for our last encounter. With the humpback whales. We found a group of mother and calf an escort, and a couple of challengers.

The whales were quite active and gave us quite a show on the surface. They traveled quite a bit and never settled down to where we could swim with them. On the surface they gave us quite a show, as the challengers fought with each other, and came up very quickly for air, often pushing against each other. The mother and calf would come up frequently as they were burning a lot of energy with all the activity going on. We stayed with this group of whales for over two hours. The whales were so close to the boat. I was filming and photographing with the iPhone as they were too close for the hundred-millimeter lens. We returned to the sea hunter. Where I took a quick swim behind the boat, knowing it would be the last time I would be in the ocean here for a long time.


Humpback whale tail.

Friday morning I rose at my usual time between six and 630 and by seven we had left our mooring and were headed back to the Dominican Republic, today the seas were quite calm and it was a smooth ride across. I spent most of the day going through my photographs and videos and erasing all those that were out of Focus, or of no interest. I would then name, and or put a red dot on some of the images and videos. I found it particularly interesting, and to help with the editing process when I get back to Florida. We arrived at the port, at about three in the afternoon ahead of schedule due to the flat seas. The afternoon was spent cleaning up our gear and packing for the trip home on Saturday.


6 PM Gene and Cat showed presentations from the photographs and videos, They took during the trip, condensing our weeklong adventure into a mirror 20 minutes made it look like a nonstop adventure. Watching the whales, and their interaction with us was remarkable as we all relived the experiences of the week.


7 PM we boarded a van and headed up the hill to a little restaurant called Le Papillon, For 20 years captain, Gene has booked this restaurant for his group at the end of the trip. Andre made a toast and said what he thought the trip meant to him, to expound on the grace and beauty of the whales. They’re large size yet softness. We then went around the room with each of us giving our thoughts on the week. It was a beautiful time to reflect upon our new friendships. For me, it was only a week ago, we all met at 4:45 5 o’clock in the afternoon as strangers and within a few days through the whales, we all connected through our shared experience. We’ve interacted with the whales far out in the South Atlantic Ocean. Many of the connections and bonds with the other travelers will continue, but many may not.


With shared emails and WhatsApp, etc.. It’s easy to stay connected with someone halfway around the world.. But right now, as we sat in the Papillion restaurant, we were the tribe of the Sea hunter and the humpback whale, we were connected, and experienced a sense of community.


Upon our return to the Dominican Republic, the Sea Hunter will then travel the two or three-week journey back through the Panama Canal and over to the West Coast of Costa Rica where it operates as a live aboard dive ship for Cocos Islands. The ship will travel several hundred miles out into the Pacific to this Marine sanctuary known for massive schools of hammerhead sharks. Library on the ship contains many books of the famous underwater photographers, who have traveled on this boat.


 Saturday, April 6 Caprice, Dominican Republic, Ocean World Marina

6 AM. I woke up and prepared my camera and duffel bag for the trip home. Coffee and a little fruit for breakfast, as we all hugged each other and made our final goodbyes. Off the boat by eight. This allows the crew to continue cleaning and prepping the boat for their next voyage as they head out this afternoon or tomorrow, on the long journey to Panama across the canal, and back up the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

The Sea Hunter a 50-meter-long ship, a converted fishing trawler was our home for a week. And now she’ll go back to her home port in Costa Rica where she will make the 300 or so mile trip back and forth to the Cocos Islands for the remainder of the season .. there they do 10-day scuba diving trips in an area, known for the largest concentrations of hammerhead sharks. Truly remote experience.


As I reflect on the week and what I’ve learned, the Silver Banks is a remarkable place, 75 miles offshore the reef is still subject to the hands of man, the water quality and the pollution from shore have reached there. Although there is quite a bit of marine life on the reef, most of the coral is dead.


The area is a national sanctuary of the Dominican Republic and fishing pressure is very limited. As far as the whales go, only three operators are allowed to do whale tours, so the whales have very little interaction with humans, and hopefully, what interactions they have are positive, many of the same whales appear year after year.

When we’re interacting with the whales, they could leave at any time, but many times they choose to come right to the boat and also swim up to us when we’re in the water, which can be a little frightening as their size is a little intimidating, to say the least.


One repeated theme. Everyone on the boat would say is, it hard to describe, it can’t be described the experience of having 30 to 40 tons of whale right in front of you while you’re in their environment looking into their eyes as they swim up past you. It’s

hard for me to describe, and I’m not doing a very good job at it, but I’m trying.


I use my experience and emotional connection to the whales to create my sculptures and oil paintings.


When you think about it, we're heading 75 miles off shore, getting in a little boat and looking for a whale blows off in the distance, and then hoping to get close enough to swim with one.

It’s a little like looking for a needle in a haystack, it’s like looking for one of those very small needles that you find in the hotel bathrooms, a very small needle in a very large haystack, like the ones with the big round bails.


The Whales are mammals and air breathers when they come up and clear their blow hole that can be seen for quite some distance on the ocean, as well as their breaching can also be seen for miles when the mighty Whale splashes down the spray looks like an explosion went off. It is so high and lasts for a long time. In addition, the morning I stayed on the boat, Thursday morning I watched and heard the tail flapping probably half a mile away. I could hear it very loud on the boat, the tail flapping or tail slapping can be heard at great distances by the other whales, as well as the singing, which also travels for miles. Although I am looking forward to going home. I already miss my home on the Silver Banks.


Conclusion


When I look at our environment and all its wonder, but with so much of our wildlife in peril. It reminds me of going to a funeral or a wake, or what we now call a celebration of life. When we lose a dear friend, and then come together to share memories of that person, and/or ourselves, processing our loss. The first thing that always comes to mind is what I hadn’t said to that person, or what I would say today if I knew they were still alive. Was I the best person I could be to that person?


When I look at our natural world, I’m thinking about that too, like we’re at a celebration of life. Did we do all we could for the humpback whale, for all the whales, and all the other creatures? Did we govern ourselves accordingly or were we instrumental in their early demise? I think we know the answer and it’s not pretty.


Mother nature will always go on. It always has, it has been developing over billions of years through cycles of growth, death, and rebirth. But these cycles take years, tens of thousands, to millions of years. One particular species evolved very quickly and has consumed everything in its path. At great expense of our natural environment. That species is us.


I believe we have time to alter this course, rewilding and living harmoniously with nature. Let us find ways to change the tide, to balance where humanity and the natural world thrive. Join me in celebrating the humpback whale.


April 2024 somewhere on the Silver Banks north of the Dominican Republic.


Be Loved,

Geoffrey Smith


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