The Whale Experience
Swimming with Humpback Whales in the Silver Banks
My friend Mary and I walked towards the beach at our resort after a good night sleep. The air felt warm. The blue water sparkled with star flecks as the sun rays bounced off the water. I looked down the beach feeling the waves gently meet the sand. I felt welcome.
Mary headed towards the chairs to soak up the sun and meditate. I was drawn to walk along the shore...
allowing the water to bathe my feet with warmth from the sea. I felt the heat from the sun on my head. I thought about my journey with the Silver Bank whales and what it would be like.
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I had no experience with snorkeling except the few times I practiced at the community pool at home. I felt a little anxiety about my lack of experience in the ocean. I walked along the edge of the waves and let the warm ocean water soak my feet.
I met up with Mary as she rested. She told me she went in the water and swam. I smiled and said, “do you want to go again.” I didn’t have my swimming suit on but I was so excited to get in the water that I just walked in with my shirt and pants on. The water was clear and blue. The gentle waves rolled in. They invited me to trust that I would be okay in the ocean. I relaxed and began playing in the water, riding each wave. I felt at home. I was 57 years old and this was my first swim in an ocean.
Early afternoon we were picked up at our hotel and on our way to Oceanside Marina to meet up with the folks we would spend the next week with. The road was narrow with lots of cars and even more old small motorcycles weaving between traffic and riding along the shoulder. Many riders were carrying strategically placed boxes and containers and riding one handed while others had their motorcycles loaded with up to five people. The houses and shops along the way gave the impression of run down poverty. The joy seemed to be in the freedom of riding these small motorcycles and feeling the rush of air, connecting in some way to oneness.
We boarded the boat around 5 o’clock that night. We were met by a smiling crew and shown to our room. Mary and I walked in and were in awe of the giant window. My imagination had conjured up the little circle window we all see in books and movies. Too our great surprise the window was about three by four letting in lots of light and opening the room to the ocean; expanding the space. The room was spacious with plenty of room to unpack and put clothing and gear in drawers and closets. We were giddy and chatty.
Soon, we were called to the dining area to receive an introduction to the crew and learn about what to expect for the next few hours. We had a bit of time to finish unpacking and get some of our gear out in the tender boarding area. Then we met on the upper deck to visit with the other guests. We chatted and learned a little about each other. The dinner bell rang.
We were served the first of many lovingly prepared meals. The food was some of the best I have ever had! We sat around tables learning a bit more about the lives of those aboard coming from Germany, Belgium, California, Ohio, Netherlands, Oregon, Minnesota, Quebec, Illinois, Panama, Arizona and France. We ended the evening with a meditation led by whale communicator Anne Gordon de Barrigon.
We settled into our rooms to get a good night rest. Mary and I talked a little and then fell into a restful sleep. About 11:00 o’clock that night I was awakened by the roaring of the engines. We were about to leave port for our 8 hour journey to the Silver Bank about 75 miles away. There was no going back! The ship began to rock and find her feet in the ocean. The rocking intensified. I put on earphones and listened to calming music. I was not used to the noise of the engines and the rolling back and forth which caused me to lie awake. Soon, I shut down the music and put ear plugs in. I rested but with each roll in the ocean I awoke to steady my body.
Blurry eyed and excited I woke up early and headed up to the top level to watch the sun rise. The whales welcomed us with dozens of whale blows and breaches. I stood up front and took big breaths of the ocean air. When we reached the mooring, there was nothing but ocean shimmering blue in all directions. We watched the diver go down and get the boat attached. We had breakfast and then an information meeting letting us know what our next few days would be like.
Next, a practice swim near the boat. We put on our wet suits, fins, snorkels and mask. I was nervous as my turn to slip into the water arrived. The ocean was gracious to welcome us with a calm day which made the entry easy. I swam around getting used to the feel of the ocean and my equipment. I felt at ease until the end when I took in a bit of salt water. My fears began to rise as I doubted myself. A crew member asked me how I was doing. I said, “good, except I swallowed a bit of ocean.” He said, “that is to be expected, don’t let it worry you”. I thought, that was the perfect thing to say to me to calm my nerves and help me conquer my fears. My demon, self-doubt stemmed from lack of experience.
All these new experiences and sensations. It was starting to overwhelm me. My life, filled with challenges from ironman races, going back to school at 52, raising four adopted boys from Russia and three biological daughters, all gave me the strength to grab the demons and through them over board.
The rocking of the boat and tripping over my feet. Falling into walls and tipping into the stair rails. What fun to attempt to get my sea legs? Hold on, balance. Smile and laugh big.
After a delicious lunch I heard the bell ring. We would board the tenders in 15 minutes and go look for whales. I put on my swimming suit and headed out to the boarding deck to wiggle my way into my wet suit. I felt the excitement in the air. This would be our first opportunity to swim with the whales. The crew put the baskets with our gear under the padded seats and placed our dry gear in the compartment in front. It was a little tricky to leave the ship and land my feet on the tenders with grace as the ship and tender rocked gently to the beat of the ocean. I did it. Holding onto rails I found a place to sit.
I loved the feel of being in the tenders. I raised my face into the breeze and felt the energy of the ocean and the whales. There were 8 people, a guide and a driver in the boat. There was plenty of room to move around, to stand or to sit. We looked out over the waters to see if we could spot a whale blow, breach or tail flip. It felt peaceful. We toured around for a couple hours but could not find an opportunity that was safe to enter the water. We stopped near an old ship wreck and took a swim. We snorkeled around a reef. I saw colorful fish including blue tang and then was blessed with a greeting by a sea turtle. There was a rusty orange piece of coral shaped like a little tree and other small fish swimming around. It was fun to explore the area and get used to snorkeling for my first real time in the water in this peaceful environment.
We set out to look for whale activity. It was a quiet whale day. We chatted and looked out over the water. No one seemed to mind that we were not successful with the whales today. I felt content that I was slowly being introduced to the ocean. I was not sure how I would react when we would actually have the chance to get in the water with the whales.
It was getting to be early evening. We headed back to the big boat. I was a bit chilled from being wet from our swim. I took my wet suit off and rinsed my gear and then pulled the rope on the outdoor shower and stood under the water and warmed my body. I wrapped the fluffed up towel that the crew provides around my shoulders and felt a great peace and gratefulness surround me. I went into my room and took a long shower and put on clean comfortable clothes. I climbed the stairs to the upper deck where people were gathering.
There were snacks and drinks available. We talked about the day. We watched the sun set at the horizon as it drifted into the ocean with a spectacular blaze of orange and red. We chatted about our lives and got to know each other a little better. Soon, the dinner bell rang and we headed to the dining area for another colorful and amazing dinner. We sat around and told stories and laughed a lot. After dinner Gene gave a presentation about the Silver Banks. It answered a lot of questions and helped me to place where we were hanging out on Earth.
I was tired after the presentation. My lack of sleep was catching up to me. I went to my room about 9:00 and rested. I listened to some music and tried to read. My eyes were heavy and I drifted off to sleep. I fell into a deep sleep and woke up about 6 hours later. I drifted in and out in that comfy place until 6:30. I got up, got dressed, grabbed some coffee and headed up to the upper deck to watch the sun rise.
Our day began. Breakfast and then at 8:15 the bell rang giving us the heads up for leaving on the tenders in 15 minutes. Loaded and ready there was a sense of anticipation as we knew we would be in the water this day. We cruised around seeing a blow here and there in the distance. We got a chance when another tender in the area found some sleeping whales and invited us to join in. Gene slipped into the water and spotted the two whales resting near the bottom. He gave the signal that he had them sighted.
We were instructed to sit on the edge of the tender and when everyone was ready the boat driver would say go and we could quietly enter the water. I slid off the tender and started swimming toward Gene. He pointed and I saw the white pec fin and a hazy outline of the resting whales. We floated in a line above the whales and waited for them to rise for a breath. The whales started to stir. They slowly and quietly floated to the surface very close to us. Then they surfaced and blew a big blast of air. They did this a couple times and then settled in near the bottom again. We swam towards the area they went down and spotted them again.
We gathered with excitement and talked about how it felt to have these gigantic animals swim so close to us. We waited quietly. I looked down in awe of these amazing giants in the water. There was plankton floating in this area which made the water a little cloudy causing the view to be less sharp than in other areas. I was relieved and excited to have my first chance to be in the water with the whales.
It was getting to be time to head back for lunch. We climbed aboard the big boat and hung up our wet suits to dry a little before our afternoon outing. Lunch was served in the dining room. I sat by different people as much as possible to get to know everyone a little better. There was time to rest and relax in the sun on the upper deck and then the bell rang for the 15 minute tender call. Some people chose to hang out on the boat and rest, lay in the sun or take a swim around the boat. I went out on Jeff’s tender on this afternoon. We did not get a chance to swim with the whales in the afternoon session but I still enjoyed the tender ride, looking for whales and seeing blows and breaches and tail slaps.
This evening as we gathered on the upper deck for the pre- dinner festivities, Mary decided to play music and several people joined in dancing. The boat was rolling a little which made the dancing challenging and entertaining. There were lots of smiles and laughter. The dinner bell rang and we were seated for another amazing spread of food. We watched another presentation about the behavior of Humpback whales. I was getting really sleepy so I headed down to rest and get some sleep for another day of being with the whales.
The next day I woke up early and continued my routine of getting coffee and watching the sun rise. It was usually quiet at this time with just a few people up and around. The boat was rocking a little more. As people started getting up and moving around, I was entertained by the unsteady wobbly movement of adults. The waves were bigger today as we loaded onto the tenders. When stepping into the tenders on a day when the sea is a bit rough, it’s all about timing. I stepped as the boat rocked and made a very tipsy ungraceful attempt landing on my feet, barely. We were all settled and ready for another day.
Our spirits were high and we were again filled with anticipation about the possibilities today. Sometimes this trip is all about patience, waiting watching and appreciating every encounter we were able to participate in. This morning after quite a bit of searching, we were able to again get in the water with two resting whales. The water was clear and as the female came up to take a breath she turned over belly up and wrapped her pectoral fins towards us as if she was embracing our whole group in a loving hug.
The water was getting rough now. The waves were getting bigger. It was more difficult to be in the water. I thought, wow, I am out in this sea with big waves crashing and the rain is starting the come down and we are all filled with giant grins because we were swimming with the whales. It was a rough ride back to the big boat. The waves were crashing, big splashes coming into the boat and showering us with warm salt water. It was a rush and it was fun. When we got to the boat it was too rough to unload so we slipped off the edge of the tenders two at a time and swam to the boat from about 15 feet out. I felt great. I felt good. I loved the energy of the wind and the water.
It was not safe to go out for the afternoon session. We had a leisurely lunch staying longer to visit with my new friends. I rested and listened to some music. We had our visiting hour on the dining area level as it was rocking too much on the upper deck. It was festive and fun. I got settled into a place at dinner and started feeling the rocking of the boat. My stomach started feeling the rocking of the boat too. Luckily Mary had several packages of Bromine. I went down to our room and brought some up. There were a few other people feeling a bit sea sick so I passed them around. I ate a light dinner. I knew it was going to be a rocky night.
A couple of us were talking after dinner. We were telling stories. I told one about how the Universe stepped in and helped out in situations sometimes if you get emotional, even scream a bunch. Some of the people on the boat decided to do some meditation to try to calm the sea and bring in some awesome whale encounters. Kim and I decided to go up on the top deck and scream at the Universe at the top of our lungs. We mentioned that we would like calm seas and amazing whale experiences. We screamed and screamed and listed off everything we wanted until we didn’t have much voice left. Kim looked at me with a big smile and said, “I can’t believe I just did that. I feel great.” I don’t know if that helped or the meditations or the sea just wanted us to have an incredible time. The water calmed down by morning and we were able to go back out. Gene and Jeff later told us that they were worried because sometimes the ocean gets going with big waves and it can take a couple days to calm down. We were lucky. We were blessed with a glorious new day. The waves were slowly calming down, the sun was coming up with pinks and orange blazing through the sky and there were just a few scattered clouds.
Good morning. I was on the boat with Gene. We were feeling good about the weather and set intentions for more fun whale time. We set out in a random direction with high hopes. We were not seeing much so we decided to just stop and float a little. In just a few minutes, there was a blow very close to us. We set out in that direction. Gene got in the water where we saw the whales go down and he had them sighted. We slipped into the water and swam towards Gene. The whales were in clear water and I could see their sharp outline. I could see the markings on the pectoral fins. The whales lay close the bigger male slightly higher in the water than the female. They looked at peace and comfortable with us floating above them. I lay in the water gazing down watching and soon the male came up for air. He floated very slow and very close. I looked directly into his eyes and he was clearly looking right back at me.
He rose above the water and blew a big breath out and in. He did this powerful breath a couple more times and settled back down next to his lady. His head was resting just above hers. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about the love I felt. In about 20 more minutes the male and female started to stir. They both came up together. They were so close. My brain said, back up, back up a little so they don’t run into you. As I watched the female turn and face me, it felt like she was coming directly to me. I felt awe and amazement and remembered what gene said, “don’t move, the whales know exactly where you are.” She turned a little more and slid by me as the male rose in the water next to her.
I watched them reach the surface and lifted my head just in time to see them rise out of the water, these giant gentle beings. That was a powerful once in a life time moment. Julie was next to me and experienced the same moment. We looked at each other, eyes wide and the energy of our joy reaching far into the horizon. Wow!!!
We stayed as long as we could. I could see the couple resting near each other their pectoral fins reaching out as if they were holding hands. We watched about 4 more cycles. Each one as exciting as the one before. The day was past lunch and we were a ways from the big boat. The other boat was in the water with a baby, mom and escort having encounters equally as moving as ours.
We headed back to the boat content that we had spent several hours with this pair of whales. They liked us. They interacted with us and swam very close to us. The whales could have easily swam away at any time. They gifted us the choice to stay in our presence and allow us to be with them. We had a late lunch and were able to get back out in the tenders for a couple hours before the sun set.
I jumped in with Jeff and his people for the afternoon. We didn’t have much time but were lucky to find a group of 3 or 4 males that were cruising in the area. We pulled up along the group and raced at a safe distance beside them. We could see them come up. The long white pec fins sparkling an aqua color in the water. Their heads would glide along the surface looking like a giant alligator before they went below the surface again. We watched tail flaps and pec fin slaps. It was like being in the midst of a bar room brawl. The energy is our group was charged as we cruised along picking up the energy of the male group. It was a fun interaction and it felt like the whales were picking up on our energy too. Soon, it was getting late in the day so we headed back to the boat for the night.
I pulled off my wetsuit and got a little help from the crew as I struggled to get my feet out. I hung it up on the hangers to dry out overnight. I took a long shower and dressed in shorts and a light shirt. I went up to the upper deck where Mary was getting the dance party started. We danced and smiled and laughed with each other. I felt a lot of joy in the air.
We went to dinner and were served another amazing meal lovingly created by Jerri the cook and her assistant. After our meal dessert was always served, ice cream, pie, cake…..I was being served the best food I have ever eaten.
I sat back in anticipation. Tonight Jeff was presenting his work for his Whaleman foundation and his group trips to see the Grey Whales in San Ignacio Bay. I was fortunate to see the Grey Whales with Anne Gordon de Barrington and Laurie Reyon the year before. I was looking forward to seeing the Grey Whale pictures that Jeff had taken on his trips. Then, I headed to my bed and was happy to lay down and replay the whale day as I drifted off to sleep.
Today would be our last day on the tenders and our last chance to be in the water with the whales. We headed out in the morning and after a little cruising around we found a couple one year old whales playing in the water. They were moving around and exploring the reefs. We followed them at a distance and enjoyed watching them show us their tricks. Floppy tail slaps, twists and mini breaches. They were funny. They swam down with their mothers and were now separated and on their own. We noticed one whale left and the little female stayed around. We hung around with her as she explored the reefs and the balls tethered to the moorings at the big boat. She was curious and looked like she was having fun in her body.
She started to slow down a little. Jeff said, “get ready, we might have a chance to swim with her.” The driver said, quietly enter the water. A few of us were ready and dipped in. We were lucky to get a very good close look at the little girl. She swam close to me. I could see all the markings on her body and looked directly into her eye as she gazed back at me. It was as if she sent a beam of golden light right into my heart creating a sense of kindness and oneness, happiness and love. She seemed to be interested in us but swam off to explore.
We climbed back into the tender and followed her. She became more curious, so we slid into the water again. She stayed with us for a short time swimming in a circle around all of us. We each got a close look at her. She was cute and small, about 13 feet long. I asked her for forgiveness for our less than perfect behavior at times towards the whales throughout history. I felt a sense of deep sadness knowing that we still pollute the ocean, leave dangerous nets in the water, run our cargo ships through their migration routes, deplete their food supply and hunt them down. It was exciting to be in her beautiful fun loving presence for a short time. I wished her health and safety in her journey home and in her return travels back to these beautiful waters when she is 7 or 8 when she will be ready to join in the mating and birthing activities.
We left her to continue her curious explorations and headed back to the boat. It was time for lunch and then one more afternoon on the water. The afternoon trips were uneventful in both boats which gave us time to bask in the sun and take time to thank all the whales for allowing us to step into their home. Graciously inviting us to watch them slumber, entertaining us with their breaches and tail slaps and trusting us enough to let our group enter the precious world of mother and baby in the first month or so of life. I felt blessed as I gazed out over the sparkling blue water. I am one of the few people on Earth who have experienced the whales of the Silver Bank.
We were soon back on the big boat. Our gear was dry so we could begin packing. I started to place a few items in my suitcase. Mary and I laughed about her huge fully stuffed suitcase. We went to the upper deck to spend our last evening out on the Silver Bank. We watched the sun set spreading pastel pinks and orange along the horizon. We talked easily with all our new friends.
We were served our last dinner in the energy of thankfulness for this breathtaking week beginning in the sense of unknown and ending with a blessing from the whales to hold in our hearts. We would wake the next morning to the sound of the engines as we prepared for the trip back to shore.
I got up early to see the sunrise. I sat at the front of the boat as we broke through the water towards shore. Several of us watched for the hour and a half it took to cross the bank. We stood watching for the last shimmering sparkle of a whale breathe sitting upon the surface for a brief moment. It faded away as quickly as we were disappeared into the horizon.