Whale watching Samana Bay January to March when the humpback whales come to breed and calve is a highlight of a winter visit to the Dominican Republic. I’d seen orca whales breaching and cavorting from a friend’s little boat in Alaska several years ago, and loved the experience. (I’m sorry to have mentioned the word “orca” in the same sentence as humpback whale, since the smaller orca is their major predator with a 50% success rate.) So, I wondered what a professional excursion such as Whale Samana could add to an already positive introduction. The answer is PLENTY.
For example, did you know that all humpback whales are Dominican citizens? True, because humpbacks choose the Samana Bay as their birthing area.
The mature humpback whale is equal in volume to the boat we were in that weighed three tons with all the passengers included (not the one in the photo above, which was much smaller and overloaded). But the humpback whale is more dense and weighs about four tons, not three.
The Whale Samana captain turned on the amplified hydrophone system so that we could hear the noises the humpback whales use for communication. Only the males sing, and they all sing the same song to attract the females. Our guide said, “I guess you could see Samana Bay as a gigantic singles bar for whales, all with the same pick-up line.” The song evolves slowly over time, and they each follow the changes. I heard a huge range in pitch. Sometimes it was a bass grunting followed by a contralto swoop that was sort of a cow-like moo. Other times the bass was like a deep creaking door, and then a high whipping whistle in the soprano register. We listened for maybe ten minutes and I didn’t hear a repetition in the melody line anywhere! Not sure how you’d know the song had ended or begun. But I do know they’re a very vocal breed. Here’s a link to whale sounds for a number of kinds of whales that you can check out for yourself.
The humpback whale is the most active breed in the North Atlantic, so the likelihood is high that you’ll see flippering, breaching, and tail lobbing during your excursion. Whale Samana is so convinced of it, in fact, that if you don’t see whale activity on your excursion, you get a free do-over the next day.
The photo I’m including here is one we actually took from the boat. You have to be facing in the right direction at the moment it happens. The professional photographer for Whale Samana braces herself outside on top of the hull in the center of the window so she can photograph 180 degrees. It’s important for the captain to locate the exact position of the whales and to anticipate correctly where they will swim. Her collection of photos for the morning of 17 Feb 2017 that are posted on Whale Samana FaceBook form a more complete collection of what we saw that morning.
The quality of a whale watching tour also largely depends on the quality of the guides hired by the excursion operator. There are many whale watching tours to choose from during the season, but we found that Whale Samana with Kim Beddow (as the full name reads) hires guides who consistently exhibit a high level of knowledge about whales. They exhibit a truly remarkable range of language facility to suit the particular needs of each excursion.
In addition, Whale Samana provides a complimentary booklet of facts about whales to answer the questions of the most interested patrons. One fact that interested me was that whales must be conscious at all times in order to breathe. If they are anaesthetized, they suffocate. When they do relax, it is usually very near the surface of the water, with only half their brain asleep. That’s why boats are prohibited from turning off their engines in close observation.
43 vessels are regulated to run in Samana Bay, and only 3 are allowed to approach the whales at any given time. The speed of approach and the length of stay for observation are also highly regulated. So we were startled when some jet skiers came roaring up. They waved to us on the boat like they were having a great time, but the crew observed that their fun was about to be cut short and their jet ski confiscated. The marine laws are strict and carefully observed. [Which is very different from laws in general on the island — see my collection of traffic blogs for blatant examples. A lawyer friend explained it to me this way: US laws are loose, but strictly enforced; Dominican laws are strict, but loosely enforced.]
Lunch at El Timon — It’s a little open-air restaurant near the wharf across the street (to the west) from the Whale Samana office. It looks more like a shack than a café, but we found the food tasty as well as cheap. Try their moro (rice & beans). Add a little meat and you’ve got la bandera (the flag), the staple of the Dominican diet.
Here’s the drill:
http://www.whalesamana.com/ Phone: 809.538.2494
Address: #4 Mella Street, Samana – on the north side of the Malecon (name for any seaside drive)
- Phone well in advance for reservations. It’s best to have several dates available in case the weather doesn’t permit boating (wind or rain), or in case you need to take them up on the re-do offer.
- Be sure to check the times the cruises are scheduled on your particular dates. During the height of the mating and calving season in Samana Bay, launches run twice daily—morning and afternoon. Earlier and later in the season there is only one run.
- The day before, confirm the launch at the office if you’re in the area. They’re open 8-1 and 3-6. If you miss those hours, phone 809.538.2494 to confirm.
- The day of your launch, show up at the office to pay your money by at least 8:30 AM for the 9 o’clock launch. Dominican pesos are preferred, but we saw some people paying with credit cards.
- You will be ushered across the street to the main town dock where you are issued wristbands to help with motion sickness.
We found the boat to be clean and comfortable. Free water and soft drinks were always available, and the guides insisted on viewing etiquette (down in front, standing in the back). I also liked the sterling silver earrings in the shape of a whale fluke that were available for purchase (but not hyped).
Lovely Cayo Levantado
The Whale Samana launch stops at Cayo Levantado to pick up patrons from the hotel on the island. The company offers the option of stopping there at the end of the whale watching tour and having an outdoor picnic on the beach. We decided not to do it because we’d rather stay at the hotel itself on some future whale watching trip in Samana Bay.
While we were dropping off patrons, we watched a number of young Dominicans in a circle splashing in the water. We were told it’s a fishing technique. Apparently, the local fishermen throw a net into the bay. Then the young people swim around the net splashing as much as possible, thus driving the fish into the net. Why the fish don’t head out for deeper water instead, I don’t know.
More JMBryceTravel blogs about visiting the northeast Dominican Republic area:
- First Itinerary for Visiting Northeast Dominican Republic
- Second Itinerary for Visiting Northeast Dominican Republic
- Paradise Amidst the Trash at Playa Rincon
- Samana’s Fierce Blowhole and Granite Mine
- Visit Samana on New Year Day
- Dominican Tree House Village & Samana Zipline
- Riding Horses to El Salto del Limon