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.
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.
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.
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.
Mother and calf surface to breathe. It's hard to imagine, but ancestors of these conscious air breathers once lived on land.
Conservationist Gene Flipse, founder of Conscious Breath Adventure, looks on from the dive ladder. He has a unique gift with both whales and humans.
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.
Coral reefs make the waters of the Silver Bank very dangerous for shipping vessels. The Korean freighter Polyexni went aground here in 1982.
A beautiful fluke just off the port side of the tender.
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.
Coral reefs and light make for fabulous backdrops.
The experience in the water was often extremely tranquil, almost dreamlike and surprisingly familiar. Everything seemed to move in slow motion.
The highlight of the week was two days swimming with this mom and her baby. The calf became so familiar, we named her Scarlett.
She approaches and starts spinning and twisting. She seemed a bit disappointed that I'm not a more nimble playmate.
She comes so close, I'm just inches from her fluke.
On my final day, Scarlett comes especially close and just hovers…a goodbye I'll never forget.
A sweet farewell to the Silver Bank.
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.
"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