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)
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.
Yep, it’s breeding season.
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.
Be kinda like dodging a city bus while crossing a street in traffic, in a driving rainstorm at night.
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.
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.
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.
The waters are clear and the nutrients poor. Not what you’d want to base a food pyramid on. For that, head north.
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.
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.
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.