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Stranger in a Strange Land: Swimming with Humpbacks

In the southwestern corner of the North Atlantic, a mountain range rises dramatically from the ocean depths. This shallow plateau near the Dominican Republic is known as the Silver Bank, and it's one of the most mysterious and magical places in the entire world. It's to this protected sanctuary that humpback whales return every year to breed and give birth.

I recently had the rare opportunity to swim with these magnificent creatures. Led by Captain Gene Flipse and Jeff Pantukhoff of Conscious Breath Adventures, I set out aboard the Sun Dancer II for the 70-mile journey from Puerto Plata, D.R., to the Silver Bank.

Conscious Breath Adventures is one of only three operators sanctioned by the Dominican Republic to conduct in-water encounters with humpbacks. Called "Soft In-Water Encounters," swimmers float passively on the surface with snorkeling gear, allowing the whale's natural curiosity to draw them closer. I'm normally quite comfortable in the water, but the idea of floating on the surface waiting for a 50-foot creature to approach silently from below challenged my normal self-preservation instinct.

By Christopher Michel
(Christopher Michel)
whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback

In the southwestern corner of the North Atlantic, a mountain range rises dramatically from the ocean depths. This shallow plateau near the Dominican Republic is known as the Silver Bank, and it's one of the most mysterious and magical places in the entire world. It's to this protected sanctuary that humpback whales return every year to breed and give birth.

I recently had the rare opportunity to swim with these magnificent creatures. Led by Captain Gene Flipse and Jeff Pantukhoff of Conscious Breath Adventures, I set out aboard the Sun Dancer II for the 70-mile journey from Puerto Plata, D.R., to the Silver Bank.

Conscious Breath Adventures is one of only three operators sanctioned by the Dominican Republic to conduct in-water encounters with humpbacks. Called "Soft In-Water Encounters," swimmers float passively on the surface with snorkeling gear, allowing the whale's natural curiosity to draw them closer. I'm normally quite comfortable in the water, but the idea of floating on the surface waiting for a 50-foot creature to approach silently from below challenged my normal self-preservation instinct.

By Christopher Michel

A humpback "spy-hops" to get a better look at us. The Sun Dancer II is in the background.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


Two small tenders, Pec and Fin, serve as our base of operations each day. With an "all-clear" by the Captain, we enter the water.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


With some trepidation, I slip into the water for my first swim. I float in the open ocean as the leviathan rises from the murky depths, her enormous fins passing under my feet as her soulful eye stares looks right at me. Without words, she seems to communicate "I trust you." Any anxiety I feel just washes away.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


After about 45 minutes with that incredible adult, we board the tenders and quickly find a mother and calf. The baby, just a few months old, comes right over to say hello.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


Mother and calf surface to breathe. It's hard to imagine, but ancestors of these conscious air breathers once lived on land.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


Conservationist Gene Flipse, founder of Conscious Breath Adventure, looks on from the dive ladder. He has a unique gift with both whales and humans.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


While on the bank, we were greeted by hundreds of whale breaches, pec and tail slaps, and spy-hops. There was never a dull moment.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


Coral reefs make the waters of the Silver Bank very dangerous for shipping vessels. The Korean freighter Polyexni went aground here in 1982.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


A beautiful fluke just off the port side of the tender.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


For five days, we swam with whales every morning and afternoon. Hull and twin 90HP engines of the tender can be seen near the snorkelers.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


Coral reefs and light make for fabulous backdrops.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


The experience in the water was often extremely tranquil, almost dreamlike and surprisingly familiar. Everything seemed to move in slow motion.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


The highlight of the week was two days swimming with this mom and her baby. The calf became so familiar, we named her Scarlett.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


She approaches and starts spinning and twisting. She seemed a bit disappointed that I'm not a more nimble playmate.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


She comes so close, I'm just inches from her fluke.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


On my final day, Scarlett comes especially close and just hovers…a goodbye I'll never forget.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


A sweet farewell to the Silver Bank.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


On my journey home, I dreamt of swimming with whales. I realized that I’d had this same dream many times before. Then I knew why everything had seemed so familiar. We weren’t strangers to the sea; it had been our home, too. And deep down, we remember.

We have a profound and abiding obligation to protect these amazing creatures. Join me in supporting Jeff Pantukhoff and The Whaleman Foundation.

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)


"They say the sea is cold, but the sea contains the hottest blood of all, and the wildest, the most urgent. —D.H. Lawrence

Christopher Michel is an explorer and photographer. He enjoys shooting from extreme locations such as the South Pole, Everest, The Korean DMZ, and at the edge of space (aboard a U-2 Spy Plane). His photographs can be found online at www.ChristopherMichel.com or on Twitter @ChrisMichel

whales christopher michel photos North Atlantic Dominican Republic Silver Bank Humpback
(Christopher Michel)

Filed To: Nature / Photography
Nicolas Henderson/Creative Commons )

San Marcos, Texas

Billed as the world’s toughest canoe race, the Texas Water Safari, held each June, is a four-day, 260-mile jaunt from the headwaters of the San Marcos River northeast of San Antonio to the small shrimping town of Seadrift on the Gulf Coast. There’s no prize money—just bragging rights for the winner. Any boat without a motor is allowed, and you’ll have to carry your own equipment and overnight gear. Food and water are provided at aid stations along the way. Entry fees start at $175 and increase as race day approaches.

The Ring

the-ring-race.jpg
(Courtesy Quatro Hubbard)

Strasburg, Virginia

The Ring is a 71-mile trail running race in early September along the entire length of Virginia’s rough and rocky Massanutten Trail loop. To qualify, you need to have run a 50- or 100-mile race before the event and win a spot through the lottery system. Entry is free. Complete the run and you’ll become part of the tight-knit Fellowship of the Ring and be eligible for the Reverse Ring, which entails running the trail backwards in the middle of winter.

Plaza2Peak

plaza-to-peak_h.jpg
(David Silver)

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Each spring, competitors gather in Santa Fe’s historic plaza with a simple goal: be the first to reach 12,308-foot Deception Peak, 17 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain away. Competitors run or bike the first 15 miles to the local ski area before transitioning to their waiting ski-touring setups for the final push to the top. Time stops only when they’ve skied back down to the tailgate in the resort’s parking lot, which is funded by the modest entry fee of around $25. To add to the sufferfest, some participants sign up for the Expedition category, in which they strap their skis, skins, boots, and poles to their bikes for the long ride up. Start dates vary depending on snow conditions, but look for the event page to be posted on Facebook in late March or early April.

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