Have you ever seen a whale up close? The experience is otherworldly. I recently snorkeled within a few feet of a mother whale and her baby calf in Silver Bank, a humpback whale breeding ground 90 miles north of Puerto Plata. Let me tell you: A baby whale, while a baby, is not small.
I was traveling with Aquatic Adventuresthis, a Dominican Republic-based tour operator that organizes week-long excursions to see the whales up close. In many ways, these trips transcend the modern age of Instagram-inspired travel. You’ll learn quickly that whales explicitly don’t do it for the gram; the animals have this great power to remind you that nature often trumps technology.
It’s refreshing. Even when when your fellow passengers point behind you, and you turn around just seconds too late.
Aquatic Adventures’ 124-foot boat departs out of Puerto Plata, a beach city with direct flights from the U.S. on several major carriers. They operate from January through April — humpback season, when thousands of whales travel down to the warmer waters around Hispaniola. I embarked on a Saturday night, with a 10-hour overnight trip to Silver Bank before me. The miraculousness of whale watching will hopefully make you forget about the turbulent ride out: Dramamine is your friend, and the boat is fully stocked with other remedies lest your pride gets in the way of careful packing.
The crew aboard the Turks & Caicos Explorer II runs a pretty tight ship, if you will: Tom Conlin, who has led Aquatic Adventures since 1991, is a bonafide whale expert. He and his team, most of whom have some kind of marine biology degree, do as much as they can to ensure guests are comfortable both on and off the boat. This is a true expedition vessel, but it’s not without its comforts: there are 10 cabins, each of which is equipped with a private bathroom with running hot water (a true plus for sleeping out on the open ocean). The Instagram factor is low, but that’s not the point. Your cabin a place to wash up, change, and sleep before heading back into the water — and the whales.
Twice a day, weather-permitting, Conlin and his team take guests out on the two 25-foot tenders that accompany the Explorer II. Experts drive eager whale watchers out across Silver Bank to delight in the world of whales. Everyone’s in charge of spotting them, and — if your captain deems it safe and worthy — you’ll soon be headed in that direction to get a closer look.
I learned that humpbacks are generally indifferent to nearby people, and the more gregarious ones will let you “work” them. (This is whale-watching lingo: to work a whale is to assess how it responds toward your boat’s presence and to gauge its comfort with your proximity.) When a whale seems amenable to human company, a crew member dives into the water in snorkel gear; if everything goes right, it’s your turn to come in.
You won’t be unprepared: In your orientation training, you’re taught PIWWE, or the Passive In-Water Whale Encounter technique, which helps you approach the animals with non-aggressive movements. Equipped with fins and a snorkel mask, it’s surprisingly easy to tread near the humpbacks and behold their inconceivable grace. Don’t worry — unlike many of their marine brethren, these animals are not interested in eating you. (Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier.)
On one of my dives, I swam above two adult whales sleeping near the bottom of the ocean. Their size was hard to grasp — and I felt a bit like an intruder as I watched them rest. Another day, I stopped just a few feet from a mother and her calf; the mother assumed her maternal role and warned a person from my group not to get much closer. She (lightly) tapped his underwater camera with her fin!
We also spotted countless acrobatic performances from inside the boat. I watched a whale torpedo out of the water’s surface like a screw on a drill — it twirled. I looked on as the animals lazily came up for air, and couldn’t help thinking they looked like enormous, gray school busses. I saw a “lobtail” — when the whale slaps the water, loudly, with its colossal tailfin. There is something entirely fantastical about the size and the movements of these creatures, and at some point, seeing them so close starts to feel unreal.
When you’re not whale watching, you might be suntanning, learning more about whale behavior, or effortlessly stuffing your face. The chef on my trip pulled inspiration from seemingly every cuisine imaginable, drawing on her recent travels throughout Southeast Asia. Beyond the daily meals, the ship is brimming with snacks and beer — you can expect the friendly and fun kitchen staff to ask if you’re hungry several times a day. We were treated to crunchy slaws, slow-cooked pork shoulder carnitas, fat breakfast burritos and avocado toast… but back to the whales.
I can’t tell you what you’ll feel when you see your first whale just a few feet before you. What I can say: photos will not do it justice. Don’t misunderstand — there’s ample opportunity to take great pictures on this trip, especially if you’ve got hi-tech, water-safe gear. But you’ll come away from this once-in-a-lifetime experience feeling small.
If anything, the whales prodded me to remember that we humans are just a speck on the world map. Swimming with humpbacks was a welcome relief from the world of perfectly staged, envy-inducing travel photos. On this trip, no matter how hard you work to get the shot, the whales will dazzle only on their terms. And when they do, you won’t kick yourself for not capturing it on camera — because you’ll have seen it with your very own eyes.