The whale-watching season starts 14 January and continues through 15 March and sometimes the season extends itself through the end of March.
Thousands of humpback whales from the North Atlantic migrate to the waters of the Dominican Republic each winter to mate and give birth. Their most popular winter rendezvous is Silver Bank, the 3,000-square-kilometer reef system north of Samana. But from there many circulate to other popular areas like humans do at singles bars! One of these gathering places is Samana Bay. More than 1,500 humpbacks visit the bay, with as many as 300 present at any given time during the mating season.
The World Wildlife Fund considers Samana Bay one of the best places in the world to watch whales. It offers something for everyone—the outer bay is where you might find aggressive males competing for the favors of willing females, and the sheltered inner Bay is one of the most important humpback nurseries in the world.
Mid-January to the end of March is the usual whale-watching season in Samana Bay; however, the excursions continue as long as enough whales remain. The rest of the year, the whales feed in the cold, fish-rich waters of the North Atlantic between Massachusetts Bay and Iceland and Greenland. There is no better time than the winter mating season when the male humpbacks, eager to impress the females, are most animated, and when newborn calves can be seen swimming alongside their mothers.
Humpback whales have been wintering near Samana for centuries. Cave drawings made by the aboriginal inhabitants of Los Haitises National Park long before Columbus arrived depict the spouting whales. And Columbus saw them too, as the log of his travels along the north coast in 1493 makes clear.
About Humpback Whales
Humpbacks are air-breathing mammals belonging to the group known as “great whales”. Adults measure 40-50 ft/12-15 m and weigh 30-40 tons. Babies measure 10-15 ft/3-4.5 m and weigh 1.5-2 tons. When born they have little blubber (fat) to protect them from the cold water awaiting them in the north but grow quickly on the rich milk provided by their mother. Each day they drink 50 gallons of milk that are 50-60% fat and gain 100 pounds, much of which is blubber. By comparison, the milk of a human mother is 2% fat.
Adult humpbacks are black or dark gray with white patches on the flippers, the belly, and the underside of the tail. At first glance, all look alike, but there are differences. The black and white pigmentation on the underside of the tail flukes is the most common means of distinguishing one from another. No two have the same markings, enabling whale scientists to identify humpbacks in the same way humans are by their fingerprints. Permanent scars, dorsal fin shape, and other unique markings also help distinguish one from another.
No whale species is more active than the humpback, causing Herman Melville in Moby Dick to call them “the most lighthearted and game some of all the whales.” And the breeding season is when they are the most animated. Among the behaviors that delight whale watchers are:
Breaching: Whale builds momentum swimming underwater, then launches itself into the air, exposing some or all of its body before crashing back onto the water’s surface.
Flippering: Whale rolls on its side or back, raises one or both flippers, then slaps it/them against the surface.
Rolling: Horizontal on the surface, the whale rolls between 45 and 60 degrees, perhaps slapping the water with its flippers.
Surface Active Group: Two to 20 rowdy males compete aggressively to mate with a fertile female. They may breach, slam heads and bodies, and even draw blood.
The humpback whale is also known for its haunting melody, a variety of chirps, yups, grunts, and eooooos that form a “song”. Jacques Cousteau called them the “Carusos of the deep.” Whales can hear the songs for up to 20 miles; humans can eavesdrop with an underwater listening device called a hydrophone.
Whale-watching excursions in Samana Bay
Whale-watching excursions can be booked from most hotels in Samana or at the city dock area. The boat trip and government fees to enter the whale sanctuary are included in the price and a meal. The excursion can also be booked through a number of tour companies with offices located in all tourist areas.
Samana Bay is a marine sanctuary by decree of the Dominican government. Whale watching tours must, by law, protect the whales within this sanctuary. Among the rules are: limits on the number of vessels that can observe a whale at the same time; the minimum distance that must be maintained between vessels and whales (unless a curious whale approaches the boat); speed of travel through the whale area; and the length of time a vessel may spend watching an individual whale. Additionally, no vessel may permit passengers to swim with the whales.
Video by Atef TALBI. We were in Playa Fronton in the Samana Peninsula, north of the Dominican Republic, when we saw some people staring at the horizon. So I’ve sent my drone 2km away from the shore. What I saw then was way beyond my expectations; a male humpback whale was courting a female.