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Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

A Guide to Swimming with Whales

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A guest blog from PADI to mark World Whale Day

There’s nothing more magical than an encounter with a gentle giant underwater. Looking into their all-knowing eyes, you’ll quickly realize you are a visitor in their world! Supporting responsible whale tourism around the world is a great way to support local conservation efforts and catch a glimpse of the ocean’s largest ambassadors.

As protected species in most of the waters of the world, often you are limited to viewing whales from afar on the deck of a boat. But if your dreams of swimming with whales run deep, then PADI, the world’s largest diving organisation with over 6,600 dive centers and resorts, can make those dreams come true.

In some parts of the world, it’s possible to not just view them from the deck of a boat, but to enter the water and responsibly swim with them – often without any dive training required!

From sperm whales to humpbacks to the charismatic orcas (who are actually dolphins but definitely deserve a spot on the list), these are the places around the world where it’s possible to meet a whale underwater. Why not celebrate this World Whale Day (Feb 20th 2022) by planning your dream adventure now.

Where to Swim with Humpback Whales

Humpbacks are famous for their mesmerizing whale songs, which can be heard by other whales many thousands of miles away. Growing 50 to 60 feet long, they are strong swimmers that can propel themselves completely out of the water and into the air (aka “breaching”).  Getting their name from the small hump in front of their dorsal fin, the underside of each whale is unique in its pattern and pigmentation. Perhaps the coolest thing about humpbacks (besides their crazy water acrobatics) is that they are known to blow bubbles in order to confuse and catch fish!

Their long migrations lead them from the poles to the equator, allowing whale lovers to have close encounters along many diverse coastlines. While there are pretty tight regulations against swimming with humpbacks in much of the world, here are a few where it is legal through sustainable tourism operators.

1. Tonga: July -October

Every July through October, huge numbers of humpbacks travel north from Antarctica to Tonga to mate and calf. The best places to swim with the whales from my experience are the islands of Vava’u or Ha’apai. Only a handful of boat operators receive permits to go near the whales each year, and each boat can only take a small number of people, so booking your trip early is important.

2. Tahiti, French Polynesia: August – October

From August to October each year, humpbacks travel to Tahiti to birth their calves in the calm, warm waters off the island. Today, French Polynesia is a designated shark sanctuary and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in order to protect its incredible marine life. Tahiti and Mo’orea are the main spots to swim with whales, offering both daily swim experience that also include the extra options of swimming in waterfalls and swimming with rays.

3. Western Australia: June – November

From June to November each year, approximately 40,000 whales migrate along the coastline of Ningaloo Marine Park, including Ningaloo Reef, in order to feed at the poles. Also referred to as Australia’s coral coast, Ningaloo is the site of a thriving coral reef which is home to other marine life including dolphins, rays, and turtles. Tours here take small groups on full day excursions to swim with the migrating whales and are designed to have little to no impact on the marine environment.

4. South Africa + Mozambique: July-October

Hundreds of humpback whales travel up the coast from Durban to Mozambique each July through October to mate and calf in the Indian Ocean. The coastal town of Tofo, which is also known for its population of whale sharks, is a great home base, where you can both snorkel and dive with the whales, as well as the countless other marine creatures that call the area home. Or you can catch them off the coast of South Africa during the infamous and epic sardine run.

5. Dominican Republic: January – April

The Dominican Republic’s Silver Bank is in a 650-square-mile marine sanctuary (now expanded as part of the “Sanctuary for the Marine Mammals of the Dominican Republic”) located about 50 miles north of the island. A large population of North Atlantic humpbacks gather here each winter and spring to mate and calf from the months of January through April. Take a week-long yacht trip to Silver Bank for the chance to to swim with the whales every day during the trip.

Where to Swim with Sperm Whales

Photo Credit: Jay Clue / Dive Ninja Expeditions

Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales, as they can grow to be nearly 60 feet long, and are recognizable by their huge, rounded foreheads. They can dive down more than 3,000 feet (deeper than nearly all other whales) and hold their breath for 90 minutes, which helps them in their quest to eat giant squid and 2,000 pounds of fish per day. Female whales and their calves travel in groups of 15 to 20, while male sperm whales usually travel on their own. They are the loudest animals on the planet, as the clicking sounds they make reach such an intense frequency (more than 200 dB) that the whales can hear each other’s clicks from thousands of miles away. (To a human, sounds over 110 dB can be painful, so sperm whale sounds could blow out your eardrums!) They’re not just loud, though, but also highly intelligent. A sperm whale’s brain is approximately six times the size of a human brain, making it the largest brain of any animal on Earth! (Another fun fact: the whale in Moby Dick is a sperm whale.)

Given that they dive down so deep and can be shy, the best way to swim with them is to find a group of ‘standing’ sperm whales, which is how they sleep. Through and through, sperm whales are gentle giants who sometimes even take interest in interacting with humans.

1. Dominican Republic: Winter Months

In the winter, females and their calves can be spotted off the shores of this Caribbean island nation, which is located halfway between the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Swimming with these whales requires some pre-planning: permits are required, only snorkeling is allowed, and you must be accompanied by a licensed operator.

2. Sri Lanka: February – April

Off the northern coast of Sri Lanka, sperm whales can be spotted from February to April. Tour operators need to obtain a  permit from the Sri Lankan government, with the majority of tours organised as a whale watching tours. But if you get lucky enough, there are a few that focus on actually swimming with these mystical creatures.

(*fun fact:  Sri Lanka is also one of the only countries in the world where you can swim with the biggest mammal in the world, the blue whale. They aren’t particularly interactive, so your best bet is to jump in the water as it passes by, like a freight train, underneath you.)

Where to Swim with Orcas

Photo Credit: Pelagic Life

Often called killer whales, orcas are actually in the dolphin family, but they deserve a spot on this list because they’re beautiful, amazing and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim with. While known to be some of the deadliest creatures in the ocean, they are equally some of the most intelligent. They can even hunt great white sharks! Orcas travel in pods of up to 40, so if you see one, there’ll be dozens more close by.

1. Norway: October – February

From the end of October to the beginning of February, the Tromsø region in the far north of Norway is perhaps the best place to see killer whales in their natural habitat, thanks to the high concentration of herring which brings thousands of orcas (and humpbacks, too) all to one geographical location. Scuba diving typically is not necessary, as the whales remain pretty close to the surface, but snorkeling and swimming are common each winter. Luckily, the orcas are not on the hunt for anything but fish, so they won’t take any interest in you. Because an adventure like this must be so tightly planned and regulated, spots are few and planning ahead is important. Booking online is easy, though, and there are many tours and excursions to choose from.

2. Baja California Sur: All Year Long

Baja California Sur’s magical waters offer an incredible array of opportunities to swim with all sorts of marine life, including orcas. You can easily hop on an exploratory trip with PADI Dive Center Dive Ninja Expeditions with the goal of finding resident pods of orcas that live and hunt off the coastline. There are on average, three core pods of orcas that swim through these waters, making an encounter with them highly likely!


Header Image: Jay Clue / Dive Ninja Expeditions

Marine Life & Conservation Blogs

Creature Feature: Undulate Ray

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In this series, the Shark Trust will be sharing amazing facts about different species of sharks and what you can do to help protect them.

This month we’re looking at the Undulate Ray. Easily identified by its beautiful, ornate pattern, the Undulate Ray gets its name from the undulating patterns of lines and spots on its dorsal side.

This skate is usually found on sandy or muddy sea floors, down to about 200 m deep, although it is more commonly found shallower. They can grow up to 90 cm total length. Depending on the size of the individual, their diet can range from shrimps to crabs.

Although sometimes called the Undulate Ray, this is actually a species of skate, meaning that, as all true skates do, they lay eggs. The eggs are contained in keratin eggcases – the same material that our hair and nails are made up of! These eggcases are also commonly called mermaid’s purses and can be found washed up on beaches all around the UK. If you find one, be sure to take a picture and upload your find to the Great Eggcase Hunt – the Shark Trust’s flagship citizen science project.

It is worth noting that on the south coasts, these eggcases can be confused with those of the Spotted Ray, especially as they look very similar and the ranges overlap, so we sometimes informally refer to them as ‘Spundulates’.

Scientific Name: Raja undulata

Family: Rajidae

Maximum Size: 90cm (total length)

Diet: shrimps and crabs

Distribution: found around the eastern Atlantic and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Habitat: shelf waters down to 200m deep.

Conservation Status : As a commercially exploited species, the Undulate Ray is a recovering species in some areas. The good thing is that they have some of the most comprehensive management measures of almost any elasmobranch species, with both minimum and maximum landing sizes as well as a closed season. Additionally, targeting is entirely prohibited in some areas. They are also often caught as bycatch in various fisheries – in some areas they can be landed whilst in others they must be discarded.

IUCN Red List Status: Endangered

For more great shark information and conservation visit the Shark Trust Website


Image Credits: Banner – Sheila Openshaw; Illustration – Marc Dando

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Guarding Against Coral Invaders

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Protecting (Dutch) Caribbean Reefs from Unomia stolonifera

Recent reports highlight the concerning spread of the invasive soft coral, Unomia stolonifera, currently devastating Venezuela’s marine ecosystems and detected in Cuba. With the potential threat of its expansion to the (Dutch) Caribbean islands, urgent action and awareness are essential to safeguard marine biodiversity and local economies from possible catastrophic consequences.

Invasive species are animals or plants from another region of the world that don’t belong in their new environment. These species can have major ecological effects by decimating native flora or fauna. They can also cause large economic losses and impact human health. Invasive species also pose a significant threat to marine ecosystems worldwide, including the Dutch Caribbean. Among these invaders is the octocoral species Unomia stolonifera or “Pulsing Xenia”, originally from the Indo-Pacific. With its rapid growth and lack of natural predators, this species can outcompete native species and disrupt fragile marine habitats such as seagrass beds and coral reefs.

Background

The invasive soft coral U. stolonifera was first identified in 2014, off the coast of Venezuela. It is believed to have been introduced via the illegal aquarium trade.  Since this species can reproduce sexually and asexually (or fragment), even small pieces can regenerate to spread.  Once introduced it quickly took over shallow reefs and hard substrate at depths of 0-50 meters, outcompeting local corals and seagrass for space.  Follow on surveys found that this coral species exhibited average percentage cover as high as 80%, vastly outcompeting native corals. In highly colonized areas, fish are disappearing due to loss of habitats.

In 2022, during a survey conducted in Cuba by the University of Havana, an unknown octocoral was discovered which was later identified as the invasive Unomia stolonifera. It is suspected that the coral larvae arrived in ballast water from fossil fuel ships originating from Venezuela, as nearby sites adjacent to Venezuelan ports have been heavily affected by the invasion.

How to help

Prevention through continuous monitoring, particularly in high-risk areas such as marine harbors and oil facilities, is paramount. Early detection plays a pivotal role in mitigating the threat posed by Unomia stolonifera.

The public’s involvement and awareness are also vital. Local communities, recreational divers, tourists, and all stakeholders are urged to participate in early detection efforts by reporting sightings (photo, location and date) of this invasive coral to their respective Protected Area Management Organization (PMO’s)- the Fundacion Parke Nacional Aruba (FPNA)STINAPA BonaireCARMABI Curaçao Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF)Nature Foundation St. Maarten (NFSXM) and St. Eustatius National Parks (STENAPA). If an invaded area is confirmed, follow the recommendations by the local PMO’s.

Keys to Success

Despite the challenges, early detection is key to mitigating the threat posed by Unomia stolonifera. With continued vigilance, research, and community engagement, there is hope for containing this potential issue before it becomes a major threat.

About the DCNA

The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA) supports (science) communication and outreach in the Dutch Caribbean region by making nature related (scientific) information more widely available through amongst others the Dutch Caribbean Biodiversity Database, DCNA’s news platform BioNews and through the press. This article contains the results from several scientific studies but the studies themselves are not DCNA studies. No rights can be derived from the content. DCNA is not liable for the content and the in(direct) impacts resulting from publishing this article.

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