Whale Watching Extravaganza

By Tracey Blanchard

During the winter months, migrating pods of North Atlantic Humpback Whales pass through the Turks Island (Columbus) Passage between Grand Turk and South Caicos on their way to breeding and birthing grounds on the Silver Banks. If you are lucky, as was the author, you might be able to spot these graceful giants.

I awoke on the morning of February 7 and waited for the familiar sound of a southeast wind to fill my ears . . . instead, there was silence. Only the sounds of a donkey braying and sea birds chattering on the salina filled the room. Wiping the sleep out of my eyes, I walked onto the deck of the house and looked out onto a calm cerulean sea. Since our arrival three weeks earlier, a relentless wind had swept across Grand Turk, churning up the sea like a powerful washing machine.

I washed and dressed hurriedly and made my way to Oasis Divers. I was keen to know if there would be room for me on the regular Sunday whale watching trip. Everette Freites, calm and friendly as always, said yes, he had room for one more.

Excitedly, I joined the rest of the “watchers” onboard the large and sturdy Prince of Whales. It truly was a beautiful morning–the sea was as still and blue as a swimming pool. The sun wrapped its rays around my skin like warm, comforting hands. I felt that luck was in the sultry air.

Soon we were on our way and heading south, passing by the deserted island of Long Cay. We kept a steady pace until we could see the Sand Cay lighthouse directly in front of us. Here the boat was slowed down, as we were in the passage through which the whales are known to pass.

All eyes were on the azure sea; each one of us filled with excitement at the thought of spotting the “blow” from a Humpback whale. Time slowly ticked by. After an hour or so, hopes started to diminish. Watching for whales was replaced by conversation and devouring the food and drink that had been provided for us. Our skipper though, still kept his eyes staring out to sea.

I was beginning to think that the luck promised in the air had been snatched away by the passing flying fish. Then Everette shouted that he had spotted whales to the west of us. The boat was swiftly steered towards the blows. There was much movement onboard, as we all juggled around to find the best viewing position. As we neared the whales, the boat slowed down, giving us our first chance of viewing these mammals up close. It was over all too soon, just a quick glimpse of the backs of two whales and then . . . nothing.

After about 20 minutes, hopes of seeing the whales again began to wane. Then, once again, the “expert eye” came up trumps, exclaiming that he had seen blows to the north of us. The boat was turned around and we speedily headed back in the direction of Grand Turk. Excitement onboard began to mount, as blows like plumes of chimney smoke rising out of the sea became visible between Salt Cay and Cotton Cay. Soon, the rising backs of four whales–three males and one female–could be clearly seen.

There were whoops of joy as we watched these huge creatures rise majestically out of the water and then gracefully re-enter, like silent submarines. It was explained that we had to keep as quiet as possible, so as not to scare these sensitive creatures. So, whoops of joy were replaced with huge grins and whispered “Wows!” as we slowly came right alongside the whales.

The water was approximately 50 feet deep–because of this, the whales regularly came up for air. So for the next two hours, we were entertained by the three males, each trying to gain the sole attention of the female.

I stood in quiet awe as I watched them time and time again rise out of the sea. Each time, they would reveal their huge knurled and volcanic-like blowholes which would shoot a burst of water up into the air, occasionally covering us all in a fine salty mist! Intermittently, they would make a cow-like noise, as they exhaled their stale air and took a deep fresh breath.

I watched in wonder at their control and grace as they raised their grand tails out of the water, speckled with white barnacles. They reminded me of the bejewelled mermaid’s tails that I had read about as a child. The sea was so clear that I could view these gigantic mammals as they swam underwater. Their flukes, like large silver platters, made them easy to spot. It was difficult to comprehend how these 45 foot long and 35 ton creatures could make their cumbersome bodies rise out of the water with such elegance.

Suddenly, all eyes were on the boat’s bow. I watched in bewilderment as a large male breached 100 feet in front of us, shooting his body into the air like a powerful rocket. He must have heard the muffled excitement onboard, as he breached twice more!

Shortly afterwards, there were only two males. One had grown tired of his contemporary competition and left, perhaps in search of another mate. The rest of the pod kept tracking in a large circle. Rather sadly, it was explained that the whales were confused. The water was too shallow for their sonar to connect with other whales who were heading down to the Silver Banks–an area 85 miles southeast of Grand Turk–to mate and deliver their young. It could take them days to find their way out of the shallows.

In spite of the whales’ dilemma, their main preoccupation seemed to be gaining the attention of the female. Because of this, they were not perturbed by our presence. We were told that we could get in the water and snorkel with them if we so wished. Shortly, the boat became a frenzy of activity as fins and masks were quickly put on.

I stared in amazement from the boat as I saw two whales turn towards the snorkellers. The whales stopped in suspended animation and looked curiously at the brightly coloured creatures swimming above them! Needless to say, when the snorkellers returned to the boat, hearts pounding, they said that it was an unforgettable experience!

I longed to get in with the whales too, but my fear of the water overpowered me. An American girl, seeing my keenness and trepidation, said that she would go in with me next time. So, as the boat was steered towards the whales once more, I prepared to get into the water.

Before I knew it, I was in the clear ocean and looking at the largest creature I have ever witnessed. Like the view from a camera lens, his image filled my mask. Suddenly panic began to set in, as I had allowed my snorkel to fill with water. I stuck my head above the sea to breathe clear air. By the time I looked back underwater, the whale I had been watching was swimming at speed into the distance.

Back on board, our skipper said that the pod was beginning to be bothered by our presence, as they had increased their speed and were heading away from us. Rather than disturb them, it was decided to call it a day, content in the knowledge that for the whole duration, the whales never disappointed us. They had treated us to their whole repertoire of breaching, tail flapping and coming up for air–it was a true extravaganza.

We slowly headed back to Grand Turk and were in for further treats as we watched a group of whales raising their flukes into the air. From the distance, they looked like small white lighthouses. As we left Salt Cay behind, two further whales rose out of the water. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

Once back in Grand Turk, I was filled with the sense that for two precious hours, I had witnessed a truly remarkable sight–one that I shall never forget. My only regret was that my husband was not there to share it with me. He had chosen to spend the morning scuba diving!

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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