There Be Whales

Swimming along the wall, in the dark, the senses are focused, attuned to different things. The feel of the water seemed almost warmer.  Colors seemed brighter.  And somehow, way off in the distance, I heard something special.

Sometimes shrieks, sometimes croons, sometimes a sub-harmonic bass you could almost feel more than hear.  There be whale song – the soul of the ocean.

We left off on a night dive, with the sound of whales in our ears, with the sense that if the ocean has a soul, it was speaking to us. But where are the whales?

Whales migrate.  Humpback whales, who summer in the North Atlantic to feed, come to their senses and head south for the winter.   We’re talking the far North Atlantic here, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and the Arctic Circle. If you were a whale, what would you prefer: enduring winter where winter is truely brutal, or spending that time in much warmer waters?

(Click on any picture for a larger version)

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The whales don’t just head south to the Caribbean to escape the cold.  Once their vacation begins they’re thinking less of food and more of putting the hump into humpback.

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Yep, it’s breeding season.

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Competition for the right to mate is fierce.  Like many species, the intent is to show that you’re the biggest and baddest.  Behaviors include breaching, spy hopping,  tail-slapping, pectoral fin-slapping, charging and parrying.  Whalesong may also play a part – it’s the males that perform the cetacean opera.

Imagine what it would be like to have a 40-50 foot long, 30-ton animal charging you.

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Be kinda like dodging a city bus while crossing a street in traffic, in a driving rainstorm at night.

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After all the sound and fury has ebbed and the female has picked the winner, the gestation period lasts 11 1/2 months.   This means that these warm blue waters provide not only a romantic playground, but also a nursery.

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But why is all this going down in Grand Turk?

The Turks and Caicos are on a plateau that rises 10,000 feet from the ocean floor. This plateau is split by the 6,000 foot deep Turks Islands Passage which separates the Turks Islands from the Caicos Islands. Whales are funneled through this channel, focusing their numbers.   (Note: on the map link, Grand Turk is the island that shows “Cockburn Town”, and Salt Cay is the island that shows “Balfour Town”.)

Grand Turk and Salt Cay are on the east side of the passage.  The plateau of these islands provides a nice combination of very shallow and growing depths.  The whale mother’s like this combination; it provides a safe place for their calves to learn to swim,  learn to dive, learn to survive.

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But even if you go to Turks and Caicos to see the whales, you can’t go just any old time.  Remember the whales are here for a break from North Atlantic winters, a bit of hanky panky, and a chance to train the newborn youngsters in more benign waters.

But as nice a place for diving that Turks and Caicos is for both man and beast, it’s not a great place to feed a whale-sized appetite.

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The waters are clear and the nutrients poor.  Not what you’d want to base a food pyramid on.  For that, head north.

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North is where those murkier, nutrient-rich waters are.  North is where the krill is that feeds on the nutrients, and the small fishes that eat the krill, and all the resulting protein that makes a whale whale-sized.

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But it’s a long swim back to the food-rich waters of the far north, and to get there by summer they have to leave by the end of March.

And you thought 12 hours was a long trip.

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So it’s back up north they go, for a summer of pigging out. (Whaling out? Whaling on the krill?)   Then, come fall, they start the long swim back to the Caribbean for their January meet up, and do it all over again.

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42 thoughts on “There Be Whales

  1. Wow! Dasve, I learned more about whales, their migration from the freezing waters of the polar region to the tropical waters in the Caribbean, their mating behaviour, the raising of the young, etc. etc. than from any other source. Thank you for putting this highly informational photo essay together for us!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A wonderful post, Dave! I have learned a great deal more about whales from your story. I live on the West Coast and we often see whales. Yet, I have never heard the sounds that they make. I was not aware that the males “perform the cetacean opera.” I like how you talked about, if the ocean had a soul.

    Interesting information about Turks and Caicos.

    Amazing photos! Thank you for sharing:) Erica

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I also live on the west coast, but I don’t think I’ve seen Humpbacks before, although I know we have them. I’ve seen California Greys several times, and Orcas, and even a Minke once.

      While I think my better posts are from describing personal experiences, a lot of them have background info I’ve had to research. This ends up being educational both for me and the readers. Hopefully, they don’t get too dry (except maybe the brand of humor.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well said, Dave, and I understand. I think I get a better response (those that do respond) when I write about a personal subject. Although, I also find I will start researching something interesting or applicable and I decide I might as well share the information. Someone I respect recently told me that it was my story and I can tell it anyway I choose. I found I was drawn into your story about the whales. Definitely not a dry post:) Erica

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Ha! I’m sure it’s one the mother has heard many times.

      Actually, I’ve read that Humpbacks from a region (say Atlantic versus Pacific) all sing the same song, and the song evolves only slightly over time.

      Like

  3. As with many others I loved the “putting the hump in humpback” line! Really a nice, informative post but without the bore.

    What would they eat over at the Turk? Is it a case of fasting down there and gorging up north?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 🙂 He, he. I got this cheesy little grin when that line presented itself and I wondered, “should I really put that in?” Ultimately I couldn’t resist.

      I think they mostly gorge up north, and are opportunistic eaters while in transit or in the south.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this post, Dave! I learned a lot about whale behavior, in addition to seeing the great photos. I knew they went south to breed, but didn’t realize that they headed back north because there was better food for them up there. Interesting….

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sometimes I wonder how creatures that do long migrations got into the patterns. Did they just start in the middle and expand their range? Does somebody just get a wild hair and decide to go for a long swim/fly?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a lot of interesting information and beautiful photos of whales. I saw the once close up when we were in Santa Cruz but unfortunately I got so seasick in the boat, that I could not really enjoy them as much as I would have liked. So thanks for this!

    Peta

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I did a whale spotting boat once here in California – it was pretty awesome. We only saw one whale (a gray whale), but we also saw about two hundred dolphins! I’d love to go again someday, but I find I don’t handle the big ocean swells as well as I used to.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. It is always fun to get out on the water and search for cetaceans and pinnipeds. You captured some representational images of these gentle giants. It is interesting to learn about their migration patterns and how they are conveniently timed for reproduction and childbirth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Up until this trip I’d never gone on a formal whale watching tour. I’d mostly seen them from the boat while out on a diving excursion. Pretty cool either way, but this way I had the proper camera gear at hand.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Unlike the USA, I don’t think they were bound by the “stay 100 yards off” law. We’d get 40-50 yards off and idle, and if they came within 25 they’d shut off the engines. I was shooting with a 70-300 (plus APS-C crop factor), but was almost always in the 70-140 range.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. We were definitely lucky that day. We got to hang out with the whales for a couple hours, and I was happily clicking away. It was bright, so getting a fast enough shutter speed wasn’t a problem. The only thing more I could have wished for was breaching whales, but I guess Mom wasn’t teaching her calf that just yet.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I can’t imagine anything more enjoyable than watching frisky whales getting their hump on. Did you arrange your whole trip so you’d be there at the right time to see them? (No pressure, but you’ll earn major kudo points from me if you did.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually, I did pick the time (first week in March) because of the whale watching. When I researched Turks and Caicos as a dive destination I learned about the migration window (Jan to the end of March) and thought it would cool if we did see the whales. My wife had never seen whales at all so that was an extra bonus.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Gay Julian

        Great writing and photos Dave. Don’t they make you feel insignificant and as if you are rushing unnecessarily. Whales do love Hawaii. I saw them off Maui. November to March I was told. Saw some off the Australian South coast when on a ferry once. That was a lovely surprise. Apparently Tonga is one of the few countries that don’t have the distance rule. Keep up the great work.

        Liked by 1 person

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