Posted by: Anni Orekh | February 26, 2010

Samana: Humpback whale watching season

Hundreds of humpback whales come to Samaná Bay every year from Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the United States north coast, to mate and give birth.

 Other species have also been observed that in the current season such as sperm whales and sharks, “which means that the safety and quality of the ecosystem make these species feel safe and remain in the country’s Marine Mammals Sanctuary, according to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary in Samaná (Dominican northeast).

The Bahía de Samaná, part of a marine mammal sanctuary that encompasses the northern and eastern coasts of the Dominican Republic, is one of the best places in the world to go whale-watching. Each winter, from around mid-January to the end of March, some 3,000 to 5,000 humpbacks migrate from the North Atlantic Ocean south to the waters surrounding the DR to mate and give birth.

End of February and March are the perfect time to observe the whales at their most active, because breeding season is when the males – as eager to impress females as those beach boys back at the piña colada bars in town – are the most animated, aggressive, and playful. (Humpbacks are known as the most frolicsome of whales, though when it comes to mating, they aren’t fooling around.) Opportunities abound to watch them spout, slap their fins, breach (leap out of the water), and lobtail (beat the surface of the water with their flukes, or tail lobes), as the male whales seek to establish their territory next to the females and ward off potential competitors. With the right equipment, which is provided on some whale-watching vessels, you can also hear them sing to attract female mates. (Some critics have described the “singing” as more like moaning, but to the whales it’s no less romantic.) You might also spot recently born calves, the result of the previous year’s mating (and moaning) season. If you come to the Dominican Republic in winter, you aren’t likely to regret making the trip to Samaná for this incredible natural spectacle.

Several companies offer whale-watching excursions from Samaná, mostly on the Bahía de Samaná. You can book daily whale-watching tours through many Samaná-area hotels or local travel agencies or us .  Half-day trips cast off twice daily from mid-February to late March (9:30 am and 1:30 pm from Samaná and 9:30 am and 2 pm from Cayo Levantado, an island in the bay; see below) aboard 50-foot motor vessels equipped with bathrooms and snack bars. Adults pay US $49, while children under age 10 are half price.

Alternatively, you can simply venture down to the dock in Samaná and make your own arrangements with one of the independent boat captains who run small excursion boats. While these trips may be cheaper, you probably won’t find the same level of scientific expertise as you would from Hineni . Also keep in mind that boat captains must follow strict rules designed to protect the whales. For example, no more than one large boat and two smaller ones may be in the vicinity of any group of whales at one time, and even then must stay at least 165 feet away (and another 100 feet farther if there’s a whale calf in the group). A boat may remain with one group of whales for a maximum of 30 minutes. Boats must also slow down or stop when they encounter whales in the bay, and not permit any passengers to swim with the whales. If your boat captain violates any of these rules, don’t be afraid to speak up.

Longer excursions, lasting one week and costing about  US $2,500, run up to the Silver Bank Marine Sanctuary, a 1,158-square-mile area, 60 miles north of the peninsula. Hispanilapossibilities, based in Toronto, runs naturalist-led excursions to the Silver Bank aboard 18-passenger, 120-foot vessels, equipped with hydrophones for listening to the whales sing.

TIP: If you want to learn more about the whales, you may want to visit the Center for the Conservation and Eco-Development of Samaná Bay and its Surroundings (CEBSE ), located on Av. La Marina (Malecón) in the town of Samaná (☎ 809-538-2042, www.samana.org.do), a nonprofit organization committed to sustainable tourism in the area. The CEBSE office in Samaná is open to the public and offers free information on the whales such as vital statistics, migration activity, and breeding habits.

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