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The Sleeping Humpbacks of Salt Cay

Although Salt Cay is rich in history, it doesn’t boast the same tourism industry as Provo, or even Grand Turk. But it is well known for one thing in particular: humpback whales.

By Kieran Bown

Although modern-day Salt Cay in the Turks and Caicos has a population of only 50 to 100 people (numbers dwindle during hurricane season), the island has a rich history as the former economic center of the Turks and Caicos and the largest exporter of salt throughout the British West Indies. Reminders of this era are everywhere, from the old salt ponds to the now-wild donkey population, (donkeys were brought to the island to pull carts of salt) to the magnificent white house, a salt baron’s manor, built in 1835. I arrived via a tiny 8-passenger plane from Providenciales (Provo); these puddle jumpers make the flight a few times a week from both Provo and Grand Turk.

Sleeping Humpback Whale from Panga MX on Vimeo.

Although Salt Cay is rich in history, it doesn’t boast the same tourism industry as Provo, or even Grand Turk. But it is well known for one thing in particular: humpback whales. Every year between January and April, the migrating population of Atlantic humpback whales travels past Salt Cay over the shallow banks. Salt Cay sits perfectly perched between the deep Columbus Passage, which reaches 3,000 feet in some areas, and the shallow banks favored by mother humpbacks as a nursery for their newborn calves.

Weather permitting, two other researchers and I headed out each day to search for whales and collect data on their location, group size and behavior. We also attempted to photograph the whales in an effort to identify individuals that had been spotted in previous years. Over time we identified hotspots, and would often return to find the same whales hanging around their last noted location. We found great success throughout the season in the surrounding waters of Great Sand Cay, an uninhabited island seven nautical miles south of Salt Cay, and nearly as far from civilization as you can get in the Turks and Caicos.

One of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen, Great Sand Cay is a hidden paradise, with long, golden beaches and white cliffs. The surrounding waters begin to level out at around 25 to 35 feet (8 to 12m) and are protected from the Atlantic swells. It was here that our most spectacular interactions with the humpbacks occurred. Whales often exhibited different behavior than normal in these waters, and we concluded that this area promoted a more relaxed encounter. Mothers were able to rest, allowing their inquisitive calves to explore the surrounding waters without wandering too far from their mother’s protection. The crystal-clear water made it easy for us to find the whales, and while waiting for them to surface we sometimes could even make out their silhouettes through the water.

Our protocol stated that we had to stop operating the boat when we got within 325 feet (100m) of the whales. If the situation allowed, we entered the water without splashing, and swam without slapping our fins to prevent spooking the whales. One or more of us stayed on the boat to act as a guide, directing the swimmers toward the humpbacks.

February was our most successful month, and one day in particular stands out among them. The conditions were great, with calm seas and little wind. The sun was high in the sky, giving us great light. We would often spot the blows first or the whale’s dorsal fin, but this day as we looked into the sun, we noticed that there was light bouncing off something at the surface — a potential whale — but it was not a shape we had noticed before. We were still around 2,000 feet (600m) away from whatever it was and began to approach with the engine idling. As we neared, the shape became clearer to us and appeared to be a fluke, but the side on show was mostly white and completely static. Most Atlantic humpbacks have darker skin pigmentation than other populations, and we had never observed a white fluke before. We got within 650 feet (200m) of the whale and were approaching on the windward. The whale hadn’t moved at all since we initially spotted it, and it was a behavior that we had never witnessed before — we’d seen sleeping or resting whales before, but they were always fully submerged. No one said so at the time, but later that day we all admitted to being worried that we were about to come upon an injured, or even dead, whale.

Once we got within range of an in-water encounter, we donned fins and masks and entered the water even more quietly than usual. The shadow is the first thing that emerges out of the blue as you swim towards a whale; then you notice the white, piercing the blue of their long pectoral fins. The full body became clear and we laid eyes on a fully healthy humpback, sound asleep. She was vertically aligned, with her fluke out of the water, and, having been confused before about the color, we now realized that it was the animal’s underside on show. The whale was so relaxed that the fluke had fully flopped over and was acting as a sort of stabilizer at the surface. The whale was completely at peace in the water; remaining silent, we floated and observed, getting a great look at the giant.

We had been floating for around 10 minutes when the whale made her first movement. Humpbacks, and the majority of other whales, sleep by resting half of their brain. The other half remains alert, remembering to breath and remaining watchful of danger in the area. Whales, unlike humans, must make a conscious effort to breathe. As she came up for a breath, with a slight movement of the fluke and twisting of her body, she brought her head close to us, as if to check us out. I froze exactly where I was; a whale had never approached me before. Slowly passing us, in a trance-like state, she took several breaths and continued to sleep nearby. The encounter lasted for around 20 minutes, and it’s one none of us will ever forget.

She continued to rest, and upon surfacing again checked out the other researchers before returning to sleep. We left her after this. Although I referred to the whale as “she,” I have no real idea of the animal’s gender, but with the few scars on her body and the look of her face — despite sporting a little beard of algae growth just under her chin — I imagined that she was a female, still young, and making the migration for the first or second time.

I managed to record the entire encounter on my GoPro and you can check it out on my Vimeo page. Although this was the first time we saw this behavior, it wasn’t the last; we witnessed another whale in exactly the same state and another sailboat in the area presented us with a diagram they’d drawn after witnessing this behavior near the relaxing waters of Great Sand Cay.