Humpback Whales of Salt Cay

As a dive professional you can travel the world and do some pretty amazing things and call it "work". An AquaSub instructor, Lee Munson, found himself conducting humpback whale research in the Turks and Caicos islands this past winter. I was in awe of his video footage and asked him to write a blog piece to share his experience with us. Thanks Lee!

The Humpback Whales of Salt Cay 2012

On the 19th of January I arrived in Salt Cay, a sleepy island on the South Eastern side of the Turks and Caicos. My plan was to investigate the response of the Humpback Whales toward the boats and tourist that seek that unforgettable whale experience. Working through Salt Cay Divers and with permission of the Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources (DECR) I devised a piece of research that would try and measure the tourism impact on the Humpback Whale. Salt Cay is one of the few places in the world where it is still allowed to enter the water and swim with these majestic animals. My study would aid in the implementation of future rules and regulations for “soft water” encounters in the Turks and Caicos.

Each year between January and April an estimated 4000 Humpback Whales megaptera noveangliae of the Western North Atlantic population migrate to the Silver Bank. The largest breeding aggregation of Humpbacks worldwide congregates just 90miles to the South East of Salt Cay for mating and calving. Not only does Salt Cay act as a road block for these passing Whales, it also boasts over 40 square miles of shallow (>40ft) bank providing refuge for nursing mothers and there calves.

Out of 31 field excursions conducted over a 2 month period, 41 focal pods were encountered within just 8 miles of Salt Cay of which 30 pods included a mother and calf. 23 out of the 41 focal pods resulted in an in water encounter which lasted any where between 1-7mins per swim. Within the criteria of avoidance, approach, neutral and aggressive, most animals showed a neutral response to both the boat and snorkelers. 19 of the 23 successful in water encounters involved a mother and calf and 16 focal pods were filmed on a GOPRO HD2 camera.

The success of the field excursion was directly related to the area covered and the approach technique. It is an extremely sensitive time for these animals as they are effectively fasting (except the Calf) and may loose up to a third of their body weight during the winter migration! The trick was to position the boat where we expected a focal pod (usually 2-5animals) to pass by, cut off the boat engine and wait to slip silently in to the water. In 40 ft of clear water a 40-50ft and 30 tonne animal has no where to hide! The encounters were therefore breathtaking to say the least. Some days we would encounter competing escorts breaching, tail slapping and on one occasion a singing male resonating up through our small boat and vocalisation so loud that I felt my lungs vibrate.

These types of encounters are very emotional and humbling. They also require a certain level of fitness and swimming ability due to the winter sea conditions. These animals are incredibly agile, streamlined and fast in the water. Sometimes you may get a passing glimpse and other times you are permitted to swim alongside these incredible animals. Mother and Calf pods proved to offer the best encounters due to the relaxed behaviour of the mother. Toward the end of the season, late March it was commonplace to observe over three separate mothers, calf and escort focal pods per trip highlighting the population density around Salt Cay.

The calves with there plentiful supply of rich milk stole the stage with there playfulness and ample energy. We counted 40 consecutive breaches with one particular animal with many curious in water encounters. I am currently working on the ability of conducting a more in depth study to try and quantify the duration that mothers need to nurse their calf before making the journey back to the northern feeding grounds.

For me it became addictive. Any days spent on land due to bad weather became frustrating. I found myself dreaming about the whales off shore, breaching, socialising, singing, slapping and swimming up to me turning, rolling and twisting, making eye contact then gracefully swimming away with just one flap of the enormous fluke. Alike the whales, I eagerly await next seasons migration…..

To learn more about my study and how you guys may be able to get involved in my Humpback research next season or any of my other planned programs, I will be conducting a presentation at Aquasub Scuba later this month. So keep an eye out!


Lee Munson, Marine Researcher and Naturalist

When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breath, only then will you discover you cannot eat money."
~ Crees Prophecy ~