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    Posted March 20, 2014 by
    Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

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    For their spring break, whales frolic in Dominican waters

    Spring break isn’t just for college students. Other mammals seek out tropical fun and frolic, too.

    Every January through March, several thousand North Atlantic humpback whales congregate in the warm waters off the Dominican Republic's northeast coast. In their biggie-sized version of spring break, they birth their calves and court animatedly for the following year.

    With skyrocketing leaps, flipper waves and tail slaps on the sea surface, their behavior is so gregarious that Herman Melville in "Moby Dick" described the humpback as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales.”

    While visiting beachfront Las Terrenas, my wife and I booked a whale-watching tour, a bit unsure if the experience would come anywhere near the spectacular photos in the tourist brochures and travel websites. Our shuttle picked us up at 8:30 a.m. near our hotel for a scenic, 30-minute ride across a low-rise mountain range to the bustling harbor at Samaná on the south side of the Samaná peninsula.

    Our guide had already arrived with another group of tourists, and we all filed aboard a blue-and-white tour boat with smiles and high expectations.

    The mission was a moving target—any of the approximately 1,000 humpbacks that congregate in and around Samaná Bay from mid-January through late March. In all, some 3,000-5,000 humpbacks are estimated to migrate annually from the northern Gulf of Maine to the tropical waters off the northeastern Dominican coast.

    “We suggest that Samaná Bay is one of the most important winter habitats in the West Indies for humpback whales from all over the western North Atlantic ... ,” according to a study by David K. Mattila and others published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology (1994).

    After plying across gentle, turquoise water for about 15 minutes, we spotted the unmistakable sign of a whale about to breach—a geyser of water blasting into the air as the mammal exhaled.

    Our skipper slowed, turned and brought us closer. Not one whale but four took turns surfacing to fill their lungs and descend again in a massive ballet.

    Over and over the whales gracefully surfaced, backs arched in the distinctive hump that gave them their name. Sometimes they smacked the surface with a flipper or their broad tail for a last splash before disappearing beneath the waves.

    Given the relatively shallow depth at this spot in the bay, there was no energetic leaping in which males engage to impress potential mates. After all, if you’re 40-60 feet long and weigh 25-40 tons, 30 feet of water is like the shallow end of the pool.

    A few minutes passed. The pod had vanished—whales can go 30 minutes or more between breaths—so we rumbled away for deep, dark blue water. On the horizon, the mountains of the Samaná peninsula seemed to melt into the sea.

    Enter Ernest Hemingway. We waited. Like the fisherman in "The Old Man and the Sea," I wondered if the whopper would jump.

    Meantime, our guides passed out crackers and cold drinks and told us about the humpback's size, diet, lifespan, migration pattern, habitat and ...

    "O, mamacita!" my wife exclaimed. Gasps and cheers erupted from passengers who happened to be looking out the rear of the boat.

    Sure enough, less than 50 yards away, a proud male soared out of the water and splashed back down. Kicking up a sea-foam storm, he undoubtedly hoped to win the interest of a nearby female.

    To the delight of the rest of us who missed his first assertive show, the humpback quickly skyrocketed again. In addition to their romping antics, males are known to emit distinctive songs—sequences of squeaks, grunts and other sounds—quite likely part of courtship.

    Soon a pod (three, maybe four) surfaced to our right, and over the next few minutes we saw even more gentle breaches, bold leaps and frolicsome tail smackings that characterize the humpbacks' winter ritual in Dominican waters.

    The long trek would qualify some of those whales for a seaborne version of frequent-flier miles:

    "Long-term research tells us that the same individuals that summer off New England spend their winters off the Dominican Republic," reported Craig D. MacDonald, Ph.D., superintendent of NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which sits at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.

    On the back way to the marina, our entourage stopped at
    Cayo Levantado, a small island in Samaná Bay, where we enjoyed drinks, a refreshing swim in crystal bay waters and an overstuffed lunch buffet.

    Yes, indeed, the tour lived up to its billing. "Misión cumplido!" ... Just don't spend too much time fumbling with your camera. Unless you're an accomplished shooter, you might miss the show.

    • Photos by Nicolas Warembourg of Flora Tours in Las Terrenas, Samaná.

    • Map of migration route from NOAA.
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