Al Hornsby has been diving since 1962, when he discovered the undersea world of Micronesia at the age of 12. Leaving a career as a photographer for music concerts, auto racing and fashion, Hornsby entered the dive industry full time as a dive instructor in 1976. He moved on to become one of the principals at PADI, where he worked for 20 years.
In 1998, he joined Skin Diver, the culmination of a childhood dream, where he serves as group publisher and editor. Hornsby now specializes in underwater and wildlife photography, frequently visiting many of the world's most remote and beautiful places.
Dive Log, Day 1
We flew into Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, on Saturday night. Along the ocean drive in town, it's party central; people in the streets, loud music. The architecture of the old town is exactly like I've pictured, old Spanish with a combination of masonry, wood and lattice-work in intricate patterns and designs. Many of the buildings are hundreds of years old, yet still in use.
The view from the Wind Dancer.
With a sliver of a moon hanging in the sky, we sail out of the harbor at midnight, heading northeast for the Silver Bank, some 80 miles away. After an overnight crossing, we arrive on the Bank, a vast sandy area 50 to 90 feet deep, sprinkled here and there with large coral heads.
Guest gather on the deck of the live-aboard.
We've come to observe and photograph the magnificent Humpback Whales , which come here every year to mate. On our first afternoon, after an orientation and briefing on the habits of the whales and the important rules of engagement we are to follow, we head out in Wind Dancer's two tenders, looking for the Humpbacks. There are a great many whales to be seen, with many mother-calf pairs.
The calves, 12 to 15 feet long at birth, grow at a fantastic rate, gaining 100 pounds per day on their mothers' rich, fatty milk. Each baby stays close to its mother, riding her slip-stream just above her dorsal. Often they are accompanied by an escort, a male whale who will stay near until the female goes back into estrus.
A Humpback Whale breaches off the bow of the boat.
On this first afternoon, we go into the water with mother-calf pairs three different times. The goal of these so-called "soft, in-water encounters," is to let the whales come to us on their own terms. They make it clear, by their behavior, whether they will allow an interaction or not. Our role, once we quietly enter the water, is just to float, letting the whales come to us, with their curiosity controlling the meeting.
We watch from our small boats as the whales breach and tail-slap. One mother-calf pair, recognizable by their unusually notched dorsal fins, is comfortable with our boat's approach. We slip into the water on snorkel, my camera with 13mm lens ready. As I look down, the pair swims slowly by, then directly under me, only 15 feet away. As they pass, the mother rolls slightly to look at me with a large, intelligent eye. Her 18-foot-long baby glides at her dorsal, watching me as well. I snap off a series of shots, fighting the urge to dive down to them, to follow, but knowing my compact to respect their space means I must not. In my mind, however, is left an indelible image of huge majesty and lovely grace. My soul remembers it differently though; as if I was the captured image, a small being held clearly in this huge but gentle mother's patient regard.
Divers leave the tender for their first encounter with the Humpbacks.
A Trip of a Lifetime
So began the log of my recent trip to the Silver Bank aboard Peter Hughes' Wind Dancer. It was the beginning of an experience that I will never forget. For it was a trip—just a few days in length—that would give me my first glimpse into the world of the great Humpback Whale. When I accepted Peter's invitation to join him on one of Wind Dancer's regular whale season cruises, I had little real idea of what to expect. By the end, I had discovered much; in some ways not all I had imagined, but in others far more.
One of the Wind Dancer's two tenders.
Each year, beginning in December, North Atlantic Humpback Whales, fat from eight to nine months of feeding in the north Atlantic, begin arriving at the Silver Bank, a large area some 200 square miles in all, located north of the Dominican Republic. Mothers with calves born somewhere on the long journey and other females, along with many males, show up in huge numbers—a recent study estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 will pass through the area each season. Mothers nurture their calves and other females go into estrus to begin the mating cycle. Males compete for the notice of the available females, performing spectacular, aggressive displays of breaching, tail and fin slapping and other boisterous behaviors. Even females with new calves are competed for, with virtually every one accompanied by a male, an "escort," who may be extremely protective, even aggressive, to interlopers.
A Humpback breaches between the tender and Wind Dancer.
For visitors to the Bank during this season, it is a fantastic experience. For me, the first powerful emotion came from simply realizing the presence and sheer numbers of these beautiful, majestic animals. On some days, they would appear all around us, seemingly every few minutes someone yelling out, "Breach at 5:00!", "Fin slap at 11:00!" or "Blow and baby blow at 1:00!".
A whale lifts its flipper (pectoral fin) from the water.
For one who has fantasized about whales and worried for their survival, it was an incredible feeling to be in their midst, so many of them, with so many newborn calves. It gave a real sense of hope that, despite the transgressions humans have carried out against them over the centuries, they endure as a species, and their mysterious lives go on.
Beyond this, the week also gave us a fascinating education into their habits and characteristics. Tom Conlin, Wind Dancer's resident whale naturalist, gave daily seminars and on-going explanations about the whales, providing each of us with a new sense of appreciation for them. Conlin, recognized internationally for his whale study and observations, has devoted his working life to studying whales. He spends various portions of his year on the Silver Bank, on the feeding grounds of Stellwagon and in the Azores, an area noted for its large numbers of Sperm Whales. Conlin was responsible for developing the soft, in-water encounter protocols that allow snorkelers to be in the water with the whales of the Silver Bank.
A tail in the air signifies a diving whale.
Because of the whales' curiosity (or tolerance, perhaps), following these guidelines does not prevent the experiencing of up-close encounters. In fact, it probably allows them. Despite their size, the whales are elusive, and if disturbed by being chased or approached too directly, they will simply disappear out of sight, not to resurface for another normal breathing cycle (about six minutes) perhaps several hundred yards away.
Al Hornsby, Peter Hughes and Tom Conlin.
Our days, from about 8:00 am until lunchtime and again from 2:00 pm until after 5:00 pm, were spent ranging out from Wind Dancer, scanning the horizon for signs of whales—blows (the vapor of a whale's exhalations), breaches (jumps out of the water), tail slaps and so on. We would then move toward the whales we spotted, and if they allowed proximity, slip into the water with them. We took a lot of topside photos and a got a few shots underwater, photos of animals that most people will never experience, except in imagination. For all of us on the trip, it was a remarkable experience that we vowed to have again. For myself, I'm already planning my next trip. This encounter with great whales was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had in the sea; I know that this "once" will never be enough.
The sun sets on the Silver Bank.
Diving aboard the
MV Wind Dancer
The Wind Dancer is a 120-foot-long steel ship with accommodations for 18 guests. All staterooms have private bathrooms, air-conditioning and porthole view. Passengers have their own gear lockers, and two, 20-foot tenders are used for whale watching; each tender has a crew of two. Other amenities and services aboard Wind Dancer include film processing, entertainment system, complimentary bar and a ship's boutique.
Whale expeditions run from January 15 through April 1 each year, for seven days each. Participants fly to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, to board Wind Dancer. For more information, call Aquatic Adventures at (409) 291-1210, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.aquaticadventures.com. You may also contact Peter Hughes Diving at (800) 9-DANCER or (305) 669-9475, e-mail at email@example.com or visit the web at www.peterhughes.com.
A Humpback rises toward the surface of the water.