Swimming with Humpbacks – 02/19

We pulled up in our rented van to the meeting point for our live aboard cruise to swim with Humpback whales. There were three ships waiting at the dock for their passengers and we were intrigued to see which one would be ours. She was sleek and stately and the biggest of the three. We had access to three of her levels, the guest quarters deck, the dining level and the lido deck where we enjoyed the sun rises and sunsets from every single day. We boarded the ship for a truly delicious dinner but had to wait till nearly midnight before we set sail. Heading out on our ship late in the night, we slowly made our way to bed, knowing sleep would be difficult. Not only was excitement coursing through our bodies but the sea conditions were just shy of heaving, causing us to roll back and forth in our beds with no way to lay still. As morning neared, dawn just a whisper in the air, one by one we each began to emerge from our bunks and into the brisk morning breeze, knowing it was still too dark to see anything but not wanting to miss the first sight of humpback blows all around us. We still had over an hour to wait before it was bright enough for our eyes to discern the misting exhales of the animals we came to see.

There were blows on the horizon in every direction, there were whales near and far. We were all enthralled in every moment, pointing out each whale, each exhalation, fluke and breach like we had never seen whales before. We were a group of professional whale watchers and the wonder and awe you could see on each of our faces was like watching a child who had been begging for a puppy all year open up a present on Christmas morning and finding the dog of their dreams licking their face.

As our vessel was tied to the mooring line and we quickly ate our breakfast, our excitement was palpable. We were so ready to go! As ready as we were, we still had to wait through safety briefing, information session and lunch, while whales tail slapped and half breached out the windows, before we got to dawn our wetsuits, pack our snorkels, fins and camera gear and board our tenders to take us closer to the whales.

Two tenders, aptly named Fluke and Pec, headed out in roughly opposite directions. These would be our gateway to the underwater world we were aching to see. We were all on high alert searching for the animals we came to see. It wasn’t long before we came upon a trio of Humpback whales, a Mom (nicknamed Hook, for the hooked curve of her dorsal fin), her new calf and an escort that mom didn’t really seem to enjoy having around (based on behaviour). Later we realized she was either playing hard to get or his personality and persistence must have won her over, as he was with her everyday of our trip. This trio was a surprise to us and the crew, who had never had the same mom and calf pair, let alone mom, calf and escort threesome for a full week before. They also never seemed to go too far from the anchorage.

Slipping into the crystal blue waters for our first swim with these extraordinary animals, I was both extremely excited and a little nervous. These gentle giants are indeed that, giant. Swimming towards them, at first we could only see the white of their pec fins gleaming through the mysterious blue of the sea but as we swam closer the enormity of these animals became more clear than ever before. We see humpback whales at home, we know they are huge, we have no doubt in their bulk and heft but slipping into the water and viewing them within the expanse of their own world brings their size to a whole new consciousness of their enormity. The closer I moved towards this trio, the more my vocabulary became a chant of ‘Oh my god, Oh Wow, Oh my god, Oh Wow’ How do you find words in moments like that, your brain, your eyes, your entire being becomes too enthralled to think, all you can do is experience and be. What an incredible moment to just BE in. As they slowly moved past us, watching us, looking AT us as they went by, I experienced one of the most breathtaking moments of my life. It was not the last breathtaking moment I would experience.

Every day the plan was the same: Get up, eat breakfast, head out on the water (get in the water), come back for lunch, go back out on the boat (get in the water), come back for dinner, enjoy the sunset. Repeat!

I will touch on three encounters in particular that stand out from all the rest of the beautiful, stunning and awe inspiring encounters. Each leaving a slightly deeper mark on me than the rest. The first I’ve touched on a little, that very first entry into the watery world of a Humpback whale breeding ground. That first swim was a life altering, awareness awakening experience… deep mark number one. Slipping into the water we had no idea what to expect. How would these giants react to us in the water, how would we react to them? We began our swim in their direction and slowly the white of their pec fins was visible. Then the shadow of their enormous bodies began to take shape. The closer we swam the more we started to see, until our eyes alighted upon our first full view of these beautiful, otherworldly creatures. A Mom, calf and male escort, taking in the sight of us as much as we were of them. The calf was curious at first, still sticking to moms side but not altering course or behaviour. We must have been quite a strange sight for that little calf, who first boldly watched us beside his mom before finding shelter and comfort beneath her giant barrier of a pec fin. A safe place to peek out at us and remain protected by mom. The grace of the movement mom made to shelter her young son with her pec was beautiful and so gentle. What a truly amazing introduction to swimming with these marvels.

The second, a moment missed on GoPro but unfailingly carved into my mind. We had slipped beneath the waves with our favourite trio. As we swam closer towards them I peeked above the surface (to see how far off they were) and noticed two other dorsal fins surface a bit farther off. Interesting, I thought, what might happen now? We continued to swim towards our trio, when all of a sudden the escort sent mom and calf heading quickly in the opposite direction (towards me and another swimmer Courtney) so he could go chase off the interlopers. At first I tried frantically to get out of their way, trying to back out of there… quickly realizing they swim faster than I do and mom (Hook) would know exactly where I was and avoid me. I stopped swimming and watched with both awe and a smidge of trepidation (lest she not try to avoid me) as both mom and calf (who we nicknamed Pan) sailed past us. No more than a human body length away from us, watching us as they went. It still takes my breath away to think about it. They glided past, gazing at us and though there is no way to know for certain, I got the sense Hook was trying to reassure me (us) with a look that said, “don’t worry I see you there”. Getting out of the water after that I went to turn my GoPro off and realized it was not turned on… I missed that incredible, close encounter and had no idea if I would experience anything like it again. A moment of devastation was quickly followed by the dawning realization that it didn’t matter. That was such an intense and surprising situation that I would never forget it. Definitely another deep mark and impression.

The third encounter I’m going to reminisce over was brief but beautiful. We had two adults swimming one above the other. These two glided beneath us, graceful white pennate fins outstretched, the embodiment of large winged sea deities. They moved past us in seconds, eighteen if I was counting, glowing fins visible still, well past the point their massive bodies disappeared in the deep blue depths of the sea. It was a very brief flyby but it stuck in my head so clearly amongst so many unfathomable memories.

Each day brought unforgettable moments, memories I will cherish for the rest of my life. Every entry into the water, every time a calf would keep mom from napping (meaning we couldn’t get in the water) by breaching over and over and over again, every time we met new animals, moments describable and those so incredible they may very well be indescribable, every glimpse of these beautiful creatures is indelibly etched in my mind, on my soul. Magic is real and it reveals itself in moments only nature can create.

-Ashley

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