Searching for Sperm Whales in Dominica

Will Bolsover

05 Jan 2016

Day One of searching for sperm whales

Ok … so weird as it is, I have never been to the Caribbean as I have never really felt the urge… However my 16 day, 10 flight bonanza has now arrived and I am boarding the plane for Antigua. Not my final destination, but just a stop-over on the way to Dominica (note; not Dominican Republic…Dominica!). Antigua, I have to say, is not a bad first taste of the Caribbean. A smart new airport, easy immigration and smiling faces all round makes this an easy place to warm to.

A short drive brings me to my overnight stop, the aptly named Tradewinds Hotel with views out over the bay. My taxi driver, Kiesha – whose preferred saying is a thickly accented ‘Boderaaaaaation ‘dem peeeeple!’ (Boderation comes from the word bother) – leaves me to relax and promises to be there at 0530hrs the next morning to transfer me back to the airport for my next flight. I settle in and then set off down the hill to explore. A 20 minute walk brings me to the local beach with pristine white sand and sunset views. Making my way back to my hotel, I sit on the terrace overlooking the bay enjoying my first Caribbean beer. 

As I sit there and soak up the evening glow of the sun, a moment of appreciation creeps up on me, as I ponder the adventures of past and present and wonder what is to come over the next few weeks.

0445hrs I wake and get myself ready. Keisha’s cab is there and we wind our way back to the airport. Swift check-in and a quick wander round the shops and I am ready to leave Antigua behind for the Nature Isle of Dominica. My flight is with LIAT Air – apparently an acronym for “Luggage in Another Terminal” – which progresses smoothly as we have a short 30min hop down to the isle of Dominica. A crazy hour or so drive across the thickly vegetated mountains, steep valleys and rushing rivers of this Nature Isle brings me to the capital of Rouseau and my cosy lodging for the next five days, Castle Comfort Lodge. Located directly on the seafront, there is probably no better base for the focus of this trip, swimming with the sperm whales of Dominica. 

As it happens, our expert guide and boat have not left yet for the day so I get the chance to dump my bags and join my sperm whale compatriots as we jump aboard and set out to sea. Whilst this is an extremely unique trip, within an hour or so we have our first success! With pairs of eyes scanning from every corner of our catamaran, we soon spot the water spouting into the air from the blow holes of these docile creatures. This is not the last however, as throughout the day even though we have unusually rough seas, I lose count of how many sperm whales we encounter. Clients are in and out of the water subtly as we place the boat carefully in order not to disturb the whales, but to give people the chance to swim alongside them. Some clients are here for just the sheer pleasure of swimming with them, some for the best photographs possible, and some (me!), to see how it all works! The day is a success. Whilst I was unlucky on this occasion not to swim with any, my time will come, and I conclude what can only be said is a very successful first day of swimming with sperm whales.

DAY TWO

So, not the earliest of starts when you go looking for sperm whales…

By 0930hrs we are all boarded (usually a maximum of four clients due to the specialised nature of the trip) and set out to sea again. Today we are in luck as it has been raining non stop overnight and as we pull away from shore, the rain eases, the skies clear and the waters appear calm. Slightly different to yesterday when there was 10ft swell which made embarking and disembarking fairly tricky let alone trying to get close to a 50ft long sperm whale!!!

Sailing north, we are soon to be rewarded (not even using the rather makeshift sonar kit) as we come across our first sperm whales. Calmly our first two observers enter the water and settle themselves as this giant of the seas drifts past them disappearing into the endless blue with an effortless flick of the tail. That is not even the best encounter though; the day gets better and better. Throughout the course of the day we encounter a variety of couples, individuals, mothers with calves and more. Some of them play, some are inquisitive moving to within metres of where we float and others dive down to the depths in search of their favourite food - sea squid. Most of my day is spent observing as clients swap in and out of the water, but this doesn’t make it any less interesting. One sperm whale even decides to put on a show for us boatside moving to within a few metres of our catamaran and doing a vertical twirl with a rather flamboyant twist of the tail as she loops down under our boat and pops up on the other side.

I lose count again today how many sperm whales we spot; not through disinterest, but just through the variety of personalities that we see…

Personalities including Can Opener (with the utility-like notched tail), Digit (with the small piece of rope stuck around her tail - researchers are using our pictures to assist in how to remove this potentially life threatening debris), or Fingers ...

Sperm whales done for the day, we return to shore and following dinner set off to the local hot sulphur springs. Set up in the hills, we have a short winding drive to what is known as ‘Screws Spa’ made by a local Rasta who has managed to build and sculpt his own sulphur baths down a narrow gorge. An amazing set up; we strip back down to our swimmers and dip ourselves into the series of pools starting from the coolest at the bottom and slowly working our way up to the hottest at the top which must be in the region of 40 degrees C. As we soak up the sulphur and relax in the natural springs, we listen to reggae music bouncing off the gorge walls and my mind wonders to how Can Opener and co. wind down after their day of watching humans…

DAY THREE

Third day on the sea for me and a sunny one as well which makes it even better. As it turns out...it may be sunny, but our friendly sperm whales have all but disappeared. Even using the hydrophone the waters are quiet...seven hours of sailing and not a whale in sight! It is days like this that you remember that it is not always easy. We have had sperm whales popping up all over the place for three days solid but, just like that, they disappear.

We are however, greeted by pods of dolphins galore! Fraser's dolphins up to two hundred strong escort us along the Dominican shoreline, playing gracefully in the turquoise waters, flipping up out of the ocean break every now and then as if showing off to their dolphin friends.

Late in the day we return to Roseau stopping off along the way at Champagne Pools a snorkelling spot where volcanic bubbles sprinkle up through the ocean floor, an encrusted canon lies on be sea floor, and we are overlooked by Captain Jack Sparrow's filming location from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

DAY FOUR

So after a slow day yesterday you can imagine that everyone was a bit more twitchy wanting the final day to go as well as possible. It started slowly, for the first few hours we see…nothing!!! Heading out approx. three miles off shore, we keep dipping the hydrophone into the water every 30 mins or so to see if we can pick up any ‘whale chat’! And finally…we succeed! An amazing thing with sperm whales is that for some reason you can pick up the direction of their chatter, whereas with other whales this is almost impossible. This means that as soon as you pick up the trace, you get an idea of their direction and can head off to find them – with the hydrophone picking up chatter up to 10 miles away, this drastically increases your chances of spotting whales!

So, we set off almost directly west out across the deep water trench that these friendly sperm whales like to patrol in search of their favourite food - squid - and it is not long before we come across them. Different to the previous pod we saw, these guys are not so habituated – they haven’t had people swimming with them before – so we are slightly concerned as to how they would react i.e. whether they would disappear immediately. We are in luck however, and the social nature of sperm whales pulls through as the at first slightly nervous pod of sperm whales becomes more and more used to our presence. They resurface after each dive down to the depths (they are typically surface side for 5-10 mins and dive for approximately 45mins).

As the day progresses, we make our way further out to sea, following different individuals, getting quality images as the whales twist and turn underneath us, amusing themselves as they play together, or approach us with their natural curiosity. Whilst I am more of an observer than a participator on this trip, even my limited time beneath the waves with these gentle giants is worthy of enduring the criss-cross of flights that it takes to get here.

So the final day on the seas comes to an end, and my time with the sperm whales of Dominica comes to a close, for now. Whilst Dominica is not the most famous of Caribbean islands, I have come to think that that stands in its favour. With a limited infrastructure and lacking the white sand beaches of its neighbours, Dominica instead offers a friendliness that you rarely encounter in the modern world. Not once did I hear a word said in anger, not once did I feel unsafe, not once was I not greeted with a smile and a warm word. For me, Dominica remains one of the truly untouched destinations of the world, with a world class sperm whale experience and a hospitable people to go with it. 

Will is going to be updating his travel diary throughout his trip so check back regularly. You can also see additional images of Will's experience in Dominica over on our NWS Instagram and Facebook pages, as well as on his own Will Bolsover's Instagram page. If you're interested in swimming with sperm whales in Dominica, please get in touch.

Comments

Arabella

6/1/2016 2:30 PM

not jealous at all.... ,-)

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