A Tale of Three Whales: My Humpback Encounter

It was so good to retell my story of three humpback whales, whom I met some miles off the coast of California, a few years back. That entire, magical morning came back to me quite vividly.

I got a nudge to do this from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) office in Kingston (which is also the Cartagena Convention Secretariat), who had seen my tweets about their Marine Mammal Month campaign. This June and until July 7. UNEP has been aiming to raise awareness about marine mammals in the Caribbean (yes, we have orcas and whales and manatees) – which as we noted on World Oceans Day this year, face a whole range of threats (here are some older thoughts and quotes on World Oceans Day). By the way you can find me on Twitter daily @petchary and UNEP is @UNEP_CEP.

Many of these amazing creatures, and specific zones, are protected under the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife (SPAW) Protocol of the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment of the Wider Caribbean Region (Cartagena Convention). SPAW came into force in 2000 and is the only regional biodiversity legal agreement to advance and protect the marine environment in the Wider Caribbean Region. Its key goal is to build a network of Marine Protected Areas across the region, which the European Union-funded CAMPAM project describes as “biodiversity lifeboats for the Caribbean.” Yes, our marine mammals need lifeboats, and so do all the other living things that make up our sea’s biodiversity. Here’s a little bit about the magnificent Humpback Whale…

My experience was during a whale-watching expedition in California. UNEP has produced a brochure on best practices for whale-watching in the Caribbean, which you can find here. Eco-tourism, here we come.

Note: Although Jamaica has signed the Convention, it has not ratified or acceded to the SPAW Protocol. I do not know why, as there are many benefits in terms of assistance, etc. – and most importantly, our marine environment would be better protected. The Protocol has been endorsed by 17 other countries, including Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, as well as all the French and Dutch Caribbean islands. I hope Jamaica will do something about this.

But I digress. Let me get back to my story, which UNEP kindly tweeted some snippets from today. For more information on marine mammals, visit the UNEP website and follow their great social media posts. If you get on their mailing list you can keep up to date with their webinars, too; there was an interesting series on sargassum recently, for example. So, if you care about our Caribbean Sea and its inhabitants, large and small, allow UNEP to keep you in the loop.

A Tale of Three Whales: My Humpback Encounter

It was a bright morning, and the sunlight sparkled along the shoreline in Monterey, California. The Pacific Ocean was azure blue. The sea lions had been up from daybreak with their loud honking calls. Seagulls were crying. The town’s fish restaurants and stores were opening their doors. Out on the calm waters, sea otters were playing in the floating kelp. Harbour seals waved their flippers further out. And I was going whale watching.

My husband watched me clamber over the huge, slippery bodies of the sea lions, lounging in close quarters on the jetty, to reach the boat. I do wish that on this occasion he had joined me for the trip, but he is not fond of boats. The memories will stay with me forever and an experience like this is something that you really want to share with your loved ones. My husband became quite tired of me telling him about it, in detail, over and over again!

The whale-watching company (which I would highly recommend – this was the first of two trips I took with them) had a marine scientist as a guide on board, who knew what she was talking about. She stood up top on the roof of the boat, keeping a look out. We were a group of about twenty whale watchers, of all ages and different nationalities. Some were equipped with high-powered cameras and binoculars. As it turned out, they would not need their telephoto lenses, as we were about to get “up close” with the whales.

As we pottered gently away from shore, our guide began to give us some background, and to described what we might see (and what she hoped we would see) on our trip, based on the migration of different whale species along the coast. It seems that mornings are better than afternoons for whale watching, perhaps because of the weather and sea conditions. Leaving the harbor was delightful: we saw the sea otters up close (they were quite unafraid) and sea lions sat dreaming on mooring buoys. There was plenty to watch and listen to, as our guide gave us some background on whale species, dolphins, and more.

We saw some dolphins leaping from a distance away; sometimes, this can suggest that a whale might be nearby. Another indicator is seabirds, who often draw attention to whales and other marine mammals possibly feeding in a particular spot.

As the shore became more distant, it became quieter. Our guide told us to keep a sharp eye open for any sign of activity. Every now and then, one of us would call out that we had seen a splash of something, as we scanned the horizon. Looking back at it now, I think our anticipation was so great because we knew that we were going to experience something quite unforgettable.

The three humpback whales approached our boat remarkably swiftly. I learned that although they may not normally move very fast at all (and very slowly while feeding) they can speed up to around 10 to 15 miles per hour. All I remember is that they appeared, and just kept coming closer and closer. And closer!

We humans on board – suddenly feeling very small and vulnerable – reacted in all kinds of ways. Some were quite nervous; others overjoyed; most of us were so excited and overwhelmed we could hardly express our emotions at seeing a whale. Some of us even cried (I admit it, I was one). And not just one of these leviathans – but three! So close that if we had been able to reach down from the deck, we would have touched them.

One at a time, the whales came close to the boat. At one point, we had one on each side, and another one about fifty feet underneath the boat. They were “exhibiting friendly behavior” according to our guide. They were also as curious about us as we were about them. And they checked us out thoroughly. Apart from diving under the boat (which made some of us a little nervous!) they were looking at us. I never, in my life, thought I would actually make eye contact with a whale! But this happened. One of them tilted its body at us, right alongside the boat, and I found myself looking straight into its eye, which was surprisingly small compared to the rest of its huge body.* I have since discovered that humpbacks’ eyesight is not wonderful. They rely more on other senses, such as echo-location, and their hearing is acute.

That was one stunning moment. The other was when a whale actually “spoke” to us – a huge trumpeting sound – while spraying us all from its blowhole. “Now you know what a whale’s breath smells like!” our guide joked, as we all clutched onto each other.

The sound – and the overpowering fishy stink! – knocked us all sideways, as much as the sight of these magnificent creatures, their beautiful humps, their huge glossy sides streaming with water. This overpowered our senses.

How could an animal like this be so graceful, I wondered? One of the three was somewhat larger than the other two, and probably a female. Our guide estimated that she was around forty tons in weight (and at least 50 feet long), with the other two coming in at a mere thirty tons each. A combined weight of one hundred tons of marine mammals, circling and diving around our boat, which suddenly seemed so very small! Remarkably – and this is quite amazing, considering their bulk – their movements were so controlled that none of us felt them even touch the hull.

After about half an hour, the whales decided they had enjoyed enough of our company – a bunch of excited humans, fumbling with cameras and trying not to tip up the boat as we ran from one side to the other! Gradually, they moved off in the direction from which they had come, their backs curving through the blue water.

Finally, they dived one by one, showing us a glimpse of their flukes as if in final farewell. On the way back (we had been about ten miles out) we were all rather quiet, trying to gather our thoughts on what we had just encountered. All I felt was so deeply thankful that I had this experience. I hope one day, dear reader, you will too. It was awesome – in the true sense of the word.

A Humpback Whale’s eye. (Photo: whalesforever.com)

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