Friday, February 24, 2017

The things that happen when you go looking for humpbacks.

It really could have gone wither way.  Back in 2010, I flew to Seattle, drove 3 hrs to Anacortes and took a 2 hour ferry to the San Juan islands, all with the goal of kayaking with orcas.  It is a beautiful part of the world and I'm so glad I got to see it and would go so far as to call the trip a rousing success but for one noteworthy fact. We saw zero orcas. Not a one- ok, well, maybe one if you count the one we saw on the ferry back to Anacortes but that was not the point.  Afterwards, I continued to exchange emails with the owner of Seaquest, the kayaking outfit we used and eventually learned that ours was the only trip all season that saw no orcas.

My fortunes improved the next year when I flew to Cancun, drove 3 hours to Chiquila and took a 30 minute ferry to Holbox in the hope of swimming with whale sharks. This one was a slam dunk. I was able to swim with 3 whale sharks, saw countless others from the boat and enjoyed three days of stress-free island living at its best.

A 2014 afternoon whale watching trip in LA continued my hot streak with dolphins and Pacific Gray whales jumping up to greet us.

So guess what I did when I stumbled across an article last month stating that almost the entire population of N American humpback whales goes to hang out in Samana Bay between Jan 15-Mar 15. If you guessed "googled where is Samana?", you would be correct. Follow that up with "learned it was in the Northeastern corner of the Dominican Republic and set about trying to figure out how to get there",  you know me well.

With dreams of getting the perfect breaching whale pic, I grabbed my camera, a swimsuit and flew to Santo Domingo.  From there, it was a 2.5 hr bus ride to tiny Samana.  Right off the bat, there were signs that I had come to the right place.

As I settled in, I began asking around about whale watching tours and learned that there are two kinds of people in Samana- those who offer tours and those who know someone who does. The whales are only there for a short window of time so everyone is in on the action.

Most of the tours are around the same price, around $60-65-on paper.  Once you start to ask around, the pricing becomes a bit more flexible.  After some calls to friends of friends, I had signed up for a $50 tour.

The next morning I woke up to a very blackened sky and dire forecasts of rain. The whales might not mind getting wet but I wasn't so thrilled at the prospect of freezing on a little boat in the middle of the bay .  I had two days to do this so I decided to cancel.

I went to the pier to make plans for the following day and found boats full of people about to set sail. Maybe the weather wouldn't be so bad.  I asked the price.  It was $40 but since there was a rush to get out of there, the price quickly dropped to $35. I was going whale watching!

The area where the whales congregate is a protected sanctuary, so the rule is that only three boats can be near them at any given time. The tour boats gets 45 minutes (the smaller boats get less) and then they need to give way to the next boat. This means you spend a good amount of time in a holding pattern waiting your turn.

While we waited, I was sitting in the front of the boat next to one of the spotters trying to get the inside scoop. He, on the other hand, was trying to get a date.  Typical exchange:
Me: Have there been a lot of whales around here the last couple of days?
Him: Yes.  Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: Uh, yes. Are they usually solitary or do they prefer to travel in groups?
Him: Depends, now they are in small groups but when it comes time to head back north, they join together into larger groups.  Do you dance bachata?

This went on until we saw the first whale and then it was all pointing, shrieking and taking shitty pictures.  I don't know why I believe that I can get good whales pics when a lifetime of attempts has left me with me way too many photos of empty ocean but here we were.

All along, we were eager for a whale to breach- or jump fully out of the water- so that we could see more than a dorsal fin and get that killer photo.  So of course it was at the moment that the Capt had called our attention to our left that Humpy Numbnutz (of the famed Let's Fuck with the Tourists syndicate) turned to his friends and said "Hey guys, watch this" He proceeded to execute a beautiful leap immediately to our right, where none of us were looking. I caught it out of the corner of my eye and whipped my camera around in time to get this brilliant shot.

Behold my breaching humpback photo, I didn't even manage to get the water!
For the rest of our time there, no other whale breached. My quest for the perfect photo remains unfulfilled.

After the whale watching, we ended up where all of Samana's tours end up, on Cayo Levantado. This is an island close to Samana that is divided in two.  One half is a private beach and 5 star resort and the other is a one-stop tourist stop.  There are bars, restaurants (all sharing one kitchen and primarily offering buffet-style lunches that are included with most tours) and souvenir vendors.

Since I was not so much a part of a tour group as a last minute stowaway, my lunch was not included I sat down at one of the tables without a buffet and had the following conversation:
Waiter: What would you like? We have fish, chicken, steak..
Me: Do you have anything vegetarian?
Waiter: (Silence) you like beer?

I ordered a Coco Loco, which is a rum drink poured into a coconut. Once I was done drinking, they split it open and there was my lunch.

There was also one dive shop on the island offering snorkeling tours so with the misguided hope that a disoriented humpback would find itself in the area, I signed up. No such thing happened, but the dive instructor did say he had experienced just that.

The snorkeling was ok but the late in the day visibility left a lot to be desired. By the time I got back to the island, most of the tourist boats had left so I returned to Samana on the employee ferry, making me feel that 24 hrs in, I was becoming a local. To highlight that, I spent the rest of the night hanging out with the staff of the dive center.

The next morning, I was a wizened pro.  Instead of going to one of the many travel agencies along the malecon to determine my day's plan, I went straight to the pier.  There I found a tour to the Haitises National Park for $40 (around $70 at the agencies).  The point I'm trying to make is that it's best to go to the pier.

Of course discounts come with a price and you might end up paired with an all-German tour group, as I did and find yourself the lone English and/or Spanish speaker. But once you see the beauty of the park, a series of lush karsts, none of that will matter.

During our tour, we circled around bird island, home of roughly one billion pelicans and frigate birds...

...passed through Shark's mouth cave...

...walked through a cave containing pictographs left behind by the Taino indians.

...and cruised around the mangroves.

This was to be a pier that was never completed and now has found life as bird pedestals.

We concluded our tour with a round of Cuba Libres, a subject on which the Germans and I finally found common ground.

As expected, we were taken back to Cayo Levantado but I opted to return to Samana, where I could take a local bus to las Galeras, a beach about 20 minutes away.

I spent the remainder of the day soaking in the sun. It was as ideal as a beach day could be.

Well, maybe it was missing one thing, more breaching humpbacks.  Yet in the ledger of my marine mammal adventures, this visit to Samana definitely ends up in the win column, whether I have the picture to prove it or not.

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