Natural History

Big Thrills

Meeting Humpback whales in Grand Turk
By Brian Heagney, B.Sc Marine Biology ~ Photos by Sabine Frank & Brain Heagney

The Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI) are made up of a number of islands and cays divided into two distinct groups . . . somewhat obviously, the Turks Islands and the Caicos Islands. These are separated by the Turks Island Passage, a body of water 80 miles wide and over 7,000 feet deep. In the winter and spring month, this passage serves as a natural corridor of navigation for Humpback whales as they migrate into their TCI nursery grounds.

Visitors typically land on Providenciales and then easily access Grand Turk (and the whales) via a short and scenic flight of about 25 minutes. (There’s hardly time for a nap, but you can begin to search for whales from the plane.) If you are staying on Provo, you can take the first flight in the morning, meet the whales and then fly back in the afternoon for the day trip of a lifetime!

Although there are plenty of watersports to keep you entertained in the TCI (including diving, snorkelling, paddle boarding, kayaking, wind surfing and kite surfing), one of the most awe-inspiring, mind-blowing, adrenaline- pumping, truly exhilarating and absolutely breathtaking experiences here is that natural wonder—the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Every winter from early January to late April, migrating Humpbacks turn the waters of the TCI into an amphitheatre for one of the greatest spectacles on the planet—the calving, nursing, courtship and mating rituals of these incredibly powerful, yet sublimely graceful, marine mammals.

The mother Humpback whale feeds her calf about 150 gallons of fat-rich milk every day. No wonder the calves are so playful!

Although whales may be sighted throughout the TCI during the season, the Turks Islands, comprising Grand Turk, Salt Cay and several smaller cays, may be considered the hot spot for people focused on meeting a whale. This is due to the fact that two very deep passages run on either side of the Turks—the Turks Island Passage to the west and the Mouchoir Passage to the east. These passages provide natural corridors of navigation for the whales as they migrate into TCI nursery grounds. Furthermore, the vast expanses of shallow reef systems surrounding the Turks Islands offer the perfect habitat for a mother whale to stop, rest and begin nursing her newly born calf in a protected environment, safe from the hazards of the deep sea.

Best of all, the TCI is one of the few locations in the world where it is actually possible to swim with humpbacks. Other destinations for this unique experience include extremely remote islands in Oceania, the Silver Banks (Dominican Republic) and Australia. However, TCI has several advantages for the discerning whale watcher, including its relative proximity to North America, Canada and Europe. Grand Turk is only 600 miles south of Miami, meaning travel costs are significantly lower and you leave a much smaller carbon footprint when compared with a trip to Oceania!

Day trips to meet the whales are shore-based from Grand Turk. This is very convenient when compared to the necessity, expense and constraints of a liveaboard trip to the Silver Bank, the only way to swim with the whales from the Dominican Republic. Finally, the whale watching industry in the TCI is in its infancy. This means that there are only a handful of operators offering the experience, and the feeling of “too many boats” that may be experienced in some other destinations is still very far off here. Hopefully, with proper management of the industry’s growth, this uncongested feeling around the whales can be preserved.

The Humpback is well known as a gregarious and playful creature. On any given day you may observe numerous aspects of their behaviour. One of the most impressive is breaching, when the whale throws its entire body out of the water in a back flip and then crashes back down in a literal explosion of water. The splash from a 50-ton adult breaching can be seen for more than 20 miles. The calves also breach, sometimes in unison with their mother—a sight to behold.

When you make eye contact with a Humpback whale, you feel their awareness, intelligence and curiosity.

A variation on the breach is the head lunge, when the males thrust the front half of their body up and forward out of the sea before smashing their head back into the water with a loud crack, usually several times in succession, a mating display of sheer power and fitness.

Tail slapping is another favourite, where the whale stands in a vertical position, head down, with tail raised clear from the sea. It then repeatedly slaps its flukes on the sea surface, making loud bangs. This can continue for several minutes and is thought to be a method of communication.

Pectoral slapping is similar, but in this instance the whale slaps their huge, three-meter-long pectoral fin on the water’s surface (megaptera means “big wing”). Females in heat will often use pectoral slapping to attract males in the area. If she attracts enough males, a very exciting display can ensue called a heat rush. During a heat rush, several males rush, barge, gouge, jostle and fight at high speeds to gain the favour of the female. As the males break the surface during the rush, the sea foams and they can be heard to trumpet in excitement. Once the female has selected her mate, the two animals then enter into a courtship dance, an underwater ballet that is very rarely seen. During this helical dance, the whales dive and then return to the surface on several occasions, sometimes raising their heads clear from the sea in harmony, like synchronised swimmers—it’s a truly magical display.

When a whale raises its head from the water, it is called a spyhop. You might go to see them but sometimes they decide to have a peek at you too, raising their head up and peering into the boat.

Aside from visual displays, the Humpback is also famous for its distinct and haunting song. A single whale may sing for several hours at a time and the structure of the song is just as complex as a language. The singing is one dimension to this animal that should not be missed on a day out. Choose a tour operator who employs the use of a hydrophone, an underwater microphone that can detect the whales singing, so you can hear it out loud on the boat. Have your phone handy and you can grab a unique new ring tone, the live song of a whale.

Of course the ultimate thrill is slipping quietly into the water beside the whales to observe them in the water while snorkelling. This can only be conducted when the whales allow it. An experienced operator can interpret whale behaviour and know when the time is right, or not. Humpbacks might be big but they are very gentle, timid in disposition and easily spooked, so an extremely sensitive approach is necessary for interactive success. This means a period of experienced observation, a very slow approach if the situation permits, and no splashing or sudden movements when actually in the water. If the whales should feel at all disturbed they will simply swim away, as they are not aggressive animals at all. If a whale keeps moving away from a boat then you know it is time to leave it alone. The best case scenario is when the whale comes to you on its own terms, called “a soft encounter.” Talk to your prospective tour operator, ask how the tours are conducted and get a feel if the ethics sound right for you.

You can meet the whales on a day boat trip from Grand Turk, without a lot of other boat traffic around you.

Remember, as with any wildlife encounter you get out what you put in and time is really the key here. It is great to be optimistic, but imperative to be realistic. Go on a few trips if you can (as every day is different), plan free days to allow for bad weather or days with grumpy whales who might not be open to snorkeling. Accept that nature is uncontrollable and you might just have the experience of a lifetime.

If you will be in the Turks & Caicos between January and April, you can always pop over to Grand Turk for the day to meet a Humpback whale in the wild. It is a must-do, bucket list experience and in high demand so book early.

Brian Heagney moved to the Turks & Caicos with his wife Sabine in 2016 where they opened the Humpback Dive Shack on Grand Turk. Brian received his degree in Marine Biology from the Queens University of Belfast and has been traveling the globe as a PADI Master Scuba Diver Trainer and underwater photographer since 2003. He is a certified whale and dolphin guide, a qualified boat captain and a self-taught outboard engine mechanic.



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