Gentle Giants

Spending a season with the humpback whales.

Story & Photos By Kelly Currington

The stillness of the water is broken and silence gives way to the sound of a low, powerful groan as air is being expelled from the lungs of a creature at an approximate speed of 200 mph . . . and the spell is cast. There are few things in this world that truly humble you, make you realize you are just a tiny part of the greater picture. Being in the presence of a creature weighing up to 40 tons and 40 feet in length reminds you of this and changes your heart and soul.

Imagine slipping quietly over the side of the tender into the sea, putting your face in the water and seeing the silhouette of a massive creature below you. The silhouette slowly gets more defined as the animal inches towards the surface for a breath. Your heart stops beating, your breathing is paused, the only sound you can hear is your own heart pounding, and every ounce of you is focused on the movement—a moment that will leave a permanent mark on your soul. And just when you think that moment can’t get more impressionable, her calf comes into focus. There are really no words that can describe the feelings and emotions of that second in time.

Meeting a humpback whale face-to-face, especially a calf, is a moment that will leave a permanent mark on your soul.

When one of these mammoths of the sea makes eye contact, you feel the awareness and intelligence within them. You feel their curiosity about you, and their gentleness in your presence. You know instantly that they could harm you if they chose to, but feel no fear that they will. Instead, you are filled with a sense of peace.
These magnificent animals are North Atlantic humpback whales and they migrate annually from the northeastern United States and Norway, usually starting around January, down the eastern coast, through the Bahamas and around the Turks & Caicos Islands, settling in the Silver Bank, Navidad Bank, and Samana Bay off of the Dominican Republic. The migration’s purpose is to mate or give birth depending on the previous season. They mate one year and give birth the next, and the return migration is usually complete by the end of April.
They come to these whale sanctuaries to mate and give birth because there are no predators. They are safe in these shallow banks to teach their calves how to be whales and to build their strength for the long migration back to their feeding grounds up north.
Humpback whales get their name from the distinct “hump” in their back. North Atlantic humpbacks are distinguishable from other humpbacks because the topside of their pectoral fins is white, where others are black.This white is very visible in the water because it reflects as a brilliant aquamarine. This is what made it easy for whalers to hunt them. The space between those two aquamarine fins was called “the hunter’s mark”—if they aimed at that spot it was almost always a kill. Thankfully these days, it’s simply a beautiful characteristic of these creatures that whale watchers and scientists get to experience.
Humpbacks have the longest pectoral fins of any whale, reaching up to one-third of the length of their body. Humpback tails, or flukes, are also a way to identify specific whales. Each tail is different from any other, like fingerprints. Where a humpback is white, it will scar black, and where they are black, it will scar white, making each one unique. Another interesting fact is that each type of whale creates a specific blow, the action of exhaling at the surface. Very fittingly, the humpback’s blow is in the shape of a heart created by their split “nostrils.” As the exhalation pushes air, water, and oily mucus (snot) into the sunlight, it creates a rainbow in the mist . . . or “rainblow.”

It is incredible to see an adult humpback breaching, and when you hear the thunderous boom it makes, you will never forget the sound.

It is incredible to see an adult humpback pec slapping, tail slapping, and breaching, and when you hear the thunderous boom it makes, you will never forget the sound. They are teaching their young to be whales—these skills will strengthen them and instill the communication related to each one of these actions. When the calves are first learning they are clumsy and awkward, but when they finally figure it out they will repeat the action over and over and over again like excited kids who are showing off! So fun to witness.
The sacrifices the females make to endure this journey are tremendous. Once they reach the sanctuaries, they don’t eat for months because there is no food source for them. This causes them to lose up to a third of their body weight, all while feeding their calves about 150 gallons of fat-rich milk a day. They are trying to give their calves the absolute best chance of survival during their return migration, where they will encounter many threats—the biggest threat being orcas. Orcas hunt baby humpbacks and kill them solely to eat their tongues. The mothers know their calves will have to be strong and have endurance to survive this journey. Other threats they may encounter are being struck by ships, entanglement in nets and debris, ingesting plastic, and starving if something happens to their mother.
I was privileged to have spent two seasons in the Silver Bank, guiding and filming these gentle giants, and my heart and soul were deeply affected. The harsh reality is that only about 50% of calves survive the migration back. For those of us who get to know these whales on a very personal level, this is a sad truth.
During their passage around the Turks & Caicos Islands the largest numbers come close to Salt Cay, where you can see them daily from whale watching boats and from shore, where they are visible breaching. You may also be lucky enough to have topside encounters and (possibly) in-water encounters on dives off any of the islands and cays there.
Even if you don’t see them, you will definitely hear their song underwater. It is a beautiful sound that resonates through your entire body, you feel it in every organ. There are many speculations as to why the males sing—whether it’s to attract a mate, to warn other pursuing males, or just because they enjoy it. The song changes a little each year and every seven years the song has changed completely. Hearing this song envelops your senses. It takes over everything at that moment. You close your eyes and stop exhaling so you can hear it without clutter, then open your eyes and try to visually locate the singer, and no other creature you see at that moment can thwart your focus on the song.
Some say that the mythical song of mermaids was the song of the humpback and I can see why—it’s mesmerizing. I have heard their song many times and I can assure you that every time you hear it, it moves you as intensely as the first time—it’s beautiful and emotional.
The calves are playful and curious with humans under the watchful eye of their mothers and escorts. They will come in close to snorkelers, pivot and spin and make eye contact. They are very interested in what these strange creatures are in their home. The mothers and escorts tend to keep their distance and let the calves explore as long as they feel comfortable. The feeling of having a 10–15 foot baby approach you, look at you, and connect on a level that cannot be explained is incredible. You know you are a tiny piece of the puzzle of life and that you are experiencing a moment few will ever know. You will hold on to this moment for the rest of your life.
Humpback whales are powerful creatures who can completely launch themselves out of the water in what is called a “breach.” They can travel massive distances using their fluke to thrust them forward at speeds up to 15 mph. Yet they are so aware of their body placement that they can approach you and move their fins with precision to not touch you while never changing their body position.

This close-up of the blowhole shows the whale’s split “nostrils.”

Another display of their control and intelligence is what we refer to as “Rowdies” —a group of males pursuing a single female. The power and determination of these boys are evident in their displays of dominance and strength as they challenge each other with massive bouts of “bubble streaming.” This is creating a huge bubble curtain intended to prevent the other males from being able to see the female, breaking another male’s breathing pattern so he will fall behind to catch his rhythm again, and by bumping each other to break stride.
With all this power, they are also very polite suitors. The female always leads the chase, and if or when she slows down or stops, all the males stop and hold their position until she moves forward again. There is no evidence that the males ever try to cause mortal injuries to each other, but instead engage in fairly gentlemen-like brawling.
Once a male has been successful in wooing his lady of choice, they start a tender and gentle dance we call the “Valentine.” This dance is extremely physical and textile. The whales use their pectoral fins to touch each other, they rub their bodies together and slowly twirl and move fluently together, keeping contact as if dancing a slow romantic and passionate dance. (This is the equivalent of humans holding hands and touching each other in a sort of foreplay role before the mating starts.) There is very obvious affection and tenderness between these creatures and it is an absolute honor to witness. They are in every sense of the words, Gentle Giants.
Each of the hundreds of encounters I’ve had in the Silver Bank with these creatures is special and has touched me in very intense emotional ways. The one I will leave you with is an experience I had on a dive in the Turks & Caicos. It is one that I feel with as much emotion, power, and intensity today as the day it occurred.
I was on a dive off the northwest point of Providenciales at a site called Eel Garden. We were about 35–40 minutes into the dive and we had made our way back under the boat. The faint sounds of the songs in the distance had serenaded us the entire dive. The sound comes in and vibrates off the sheer wall and is easy to hear. At this point, most divers had already started their ascent, so there were only five of us still down.
We were on top of the edge of the wall when I suddenly heard the song much louder and closer. I moved out over the depths and floated in a state of neutral buoyancy. My vision was suddenly filled with violet blue movement as a massive school of creole wrasse and blue runners engulfed me. I had dubbed these violet clouds as “Purple Rain” because they seem to fall from the surface like beautiful raindrops all around you. I looked around at the other divers who had joined me in suspension off the wall. We all just floated there, weightless and motionless, paralyzed by the indescribable beauty we were witnessing. Tears filled my eyes as I watched the purple rain and listened to the magical sounds of the humpback, and the one thought that went through my mind was, “If these are my last moments on Earth, I am at complete peace.”
Even though I could not physically see the singer, I could feel him, and his song moved me because I had shared the whales’ presence and looked them in the eye and understood their plight. This is the magic of the humpback whale, gentle giants of the sea.
There are a number of land-based whale watching operators in the Turks & Caicos that will take you out for a chance sighting of these mammoths of the sea. Salt Cay, Grand Turk, and Providenciales are the main islands for whale watching excursions within the country.
There are only two places in the world where there are permits to snorkel with these amazing creatures: the Silver Bank and the Kingdom of Tonga in Polynesia. In the Silver Bank, you can have these experiences with the Turks and Caicos Aggressor II, the Turks and Caicos Explorer, and the Belize Aggressor. They have held permits for years and are very skilled in sharing these magnificent creatures with guests. They are more than just “snorkeling with humpback” charters—they are educational experiences that will empower you to help protect these amazing animals and the oceans they call home.

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