It never occurred to me that a whale-watching excursion in the Dominican Republic would kindle memories of classic literature and 1970s pop culture.
Staying in Las Terrenas on the northeast Dominican coast, my wife and I booked a whale-watching tour last season, 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.
As the boat lumbered away from the marina, I found myself humming John Denver’s Calypso, the 1975 tribute to undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. Our guide, passing out motion-sickness pills as we eased away, explained we’d be at sea for three hours. A three-hour tour? Shades of Gilligan as we 20 or so whale seekers strapped on bright orange life jackets.
The mission was a moving target — any of the nearly 1,000 North Atlantic humpback whales that congregate in and around Samaná Bay from mid-January through mid-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, where some mate and others give birth.
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 delicate, albeit 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 none of the 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 with his skyrocket, 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 repeated his aerial display. In addition to their romping antics, male humpbacks 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 the Caribbean.
Given their animated behavior, it’s no wonder Herman Melville in Moby Dick described humpbacks as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales.”
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 (mission accomplished)! ... Just don’t spend too much time fumbling with your camera. Unless you’re an accomplished shooter, you might miss the show.