Swimming with a Humpback Whale

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Sun 23 Jan 2011 02:12
Saturday night, White House Bay, St Kitts

It's been a day of wildlife today. After I finally manged to wake up, anyway. I was fast asleep until about 9am which is unusual for me. We had already decided not to go anywhere today so there was no pressure to get going and I think that meant I could really relax. Once I'd finally managed to rouse myself and have breakfast, Andrea and I headed over to the wreck. The theory was to get Andrea in the water with her mask and maybe her snorkel so she could see the fish and the destroyed ship. We got the flat fender out and took that with us so she could hold onto it while she was in the water.

When we got to the wreck, we tied the tender onto a small buoy that's there for dive boats to use and got in. Andrea held onto the fender and put her face under. She was able to see the wreck straight away and it wasn't long before she got over her initial fear of breathing through the snorkel under water. Within a couple of minutes, she was swimming around looking down at the strange world below us. I spent most of the time on the surface with her but dived occasionally. To be honest, you see almost as much from the surface so Andrea didn't miss much. I was hoping to see the "Lobster" again but he seemed to have moved. Andrea was so into it all that I had to point out that we should head back before we got cold. We scrambled back into the tender and back onto Saxon Blue with Andrea elated that she'd conquered her fear and seen such an amazing collection of fish. She's justifiably proud of herself.

Back on Saxon Blue, we had a cup of tea and discussed important matters such as lunch. Andrea looked out to seaward and said "There's a whale". I shouted down to Kali and almost immediately, we all saw a dark back break the surface followed by a proper blow. Amazing. The water where we're anchored is only about 8 meters deep and it shelves off very gradually so the whale wasn't in deep water atall. In fact, he was very near a shallow reef so even more surprising. Andrea and I were about to get settled into watching him when Kali suggested that we all got in the tender and go to swim with him.

Within a few seconds, we had the tender filled with us and our snorkelling gear and were heading off to where we'd last seen the whale. Of course, he immediately disappeared so we switched the engine off and sat bobbing around and looking. Just as we were about to give up and go back for lunch, I thought I saw him again between us and Saxon Blue so we put the outboard on again and headed in that direction. Again, he disappeared and I was thinking I'd imagined it when we saw a white fin lazily break the surface of the water about 50 meters in front of the tender. I turned the engine off and got into the water with Kali. I asked her to swim slowly with me and I don't think she needed much persuasion to stick together as we both snorkelled slowly forward.

The water wasn't that clear so I wasn't sure what I was looking at when I saw two seemingly separate white fish swimming in front of me. Then we got a bit closer and I could see that I was looking at the gleaming white underside of his enormous tail. A bit further away, I could see his white belly and then the almost glowing white of his elongated front fins. By now, it was clear that he was lying on his back on the sea bed and barely moving. I poked my head up and Kali had the same thought. We wondered if he was alright or ill, even dead. Putting our heads back under, we could see him start to move and his tail break the surface. I looked above the water and could see his flukes in the air while the rest of his body was still below the water. At this point, he was lying diagonally with his head on the seabed and his flukes sticking out. We were only a couple of meters away and I could see all the lumps and callouses on the sides of his fins and the top of his head. I looked into his enormous black eye and could see the line of his mouth. I could easily have swum forward and touched him and I'm not sure now whether I should have done it or not. It would be cool to have touched a whale but it seemed like invading his privacy at the time. I think it was the right decision not to do it but I'm a bit sad that I didn't. Hey, ho...

We watched as he pulled his tail back under the water, looked at us and started to swim. A slow movement of his tail up and down and he was instantly moving away from us. We both put our heads back above the surface and were swapping exclamations when we looked over at Andrea, still in the tender. She was stood up and waving at us as the whale swam on the surface towards her. She told us later that she was concerned that he'd knock her into the sea but she was partly hoping he would so she could swim with him, too. In the end, he got a few meters away from the tender before diving down beneath it and coming up again on the other side. Andrea could see his whole body pass beneath her and his brilliant white fins glowing in the water.

Kali and I swam back to the tender and hauled ourselves aboard, half expecting the whale to reappear at any moment. We kept our gear on and motored around. We did see him again, in the distance and headed over there but we didn't get another close look and, in the end, hunger got the better of us and we headed back to Saxon Blue for lunch. We were all jabbering away, trying to make sense of what had happened. It was a strange mix of amazement, fear and exhileration. When we first approached him, I think I was frightened but we were almost on top of him before we had time to turn back. As we got closer, though, it was clear that he was just hanging around and meant us no harm atall. I suppose he could have hurt us by accident but that's all. Looking into his eye, though. That's pretty amazing and I haven't had time to digest that bit yet.

In the end, we did get back onboard and had our lunch. We kept looking out for the whale but didn't see him again. After eating, I looked up the Humpback in my new book on marine mammals. I thought that I'd imagined the while tops to his flippers but that is a characteristic of the North Atlantic Humpbacks - the Pacific ones that you usually see on TV have dark upper sides to their flippers. The whales come down here to the Caribbean to mate and breed in the winter (now) and then go up to Baffin Bay in the summer so he's followed our journey this year. I don't think he was fully grown - maybe only 10 meters long - so he's just practicing for when he's big enough to have a mate and a calf himself. They don't eat in these waters which makes sense as I couldn't work out what he could catch in these shallows.

After sorting all that out, Andrea and I went ashore in the tender. We fancied a walk before it got dark so we followed a track just behind the beach. The land here is a narrow strip between the shoreline and a salt-water lake just behind. The lake didn't look like much lived in it and I assume it's too salty but it was pretty horrible looking so I didn't fancy tasting it to find out. We followed behind a low hill to the next bay where there was an abandoned-looking Hitachi digger that looked as if it had been used for letting the sea into the lagoon when required. Whether it's used for salt production or something, I'm not sure. Somebody wanted to control the water flow at some time but it doesn't look as though they could have got anything much out of it.

We tried to walk back to our bay along the beach but reached a bit that we couldn't scramble over. Turning back, we retraced our steps and came back home the long way around. That was worth it, though, as we saw a troop of monkeys cross the track in front of us. Then it was tender back to Saxon Blue for a short break before Kali and I set off again to do a night dive on the wreck. It was soon dark and we set off, picked up the buoy and dived in. It was certainly strange looking down at the wreck in the torchlight. The best bit was when Kali turned off the light and I could see the phosphorescence in the water. There were strings of it below us and shooting stars when I moved my hands through the water. We set off to see if we could see anything moving but had to abandon our attempt when we started getting devoured by sealice. That was nasty as I couldn't see what was going on and it took a while to realise that it was lice rather than jellyfish or something else dangerous. We decided to go home while we still had flesh on our bones and jumped back into the tender.

Andrea had cooked up a lovely pasta while we were gone so we ate that sitting in the cockpit with the stars shining above us and the lights of a cruise ship marking the horizon out to sea. In the end, our lazy day not going anywhere turned out to be full of excitement so that just goes to show. We've been trying to hook up with our friend Tash who we met in Oban months ago and who's out here now on a yacht. She's in the area but we're not quite sure where. Hopefully, we'll make contact and catch up with her in the next few days. Who knows? In the meantime, we seem to be finding plenty to keep ourselves entertained.


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