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Close encounters: Whale watching on board sailing yacht Tiara
Need some inspiration to plan your next superyacht adventure? The owner of sailing yacht Tiara tells Cecile Gauert about his whale watching experience in the Dominican Republic
Here I am, floating in the Atlantic, 90 kilometres from the nearest land. Buoyed by a wetsuit and breathing through a snorkel, I gaze down through a mask into the aquamarine ocean at a mother humpback whale and her calf cuddling up to each other. From where I am it looks as if they’re holding hands and I can’t believe they are allowing me to get this close. I am mesmerised.
The Dominican Republic is known for its whale-watching experiences but usually the tourist boats leave from the port town of Samaná, on the north-east coast, about 200 kilometres from where I begin my trip. The friendly taxi driver who has picked me up from the airport in Puerto Plata asks what my plans are and seems perplexed when I tell him I’m going to the Silver Bank to see whales. He glances back at me. “You mean Samaná Bay?” No, I insist: “Silver Bank, Banco de la Plata.”
The Silver Bank (Banco de la Plata) in the Atlantic between the Dominican Republic and Turks and Caicos owes its name to shipwrecks in the area and, more specifically, to Nuestra Señora de la Concepción – a galleon loaded with silver that sank here in 1641. Since 1986 it has been designated a nature reserve, but its biggest claim to fame is as a breeding ground for humpback whales.
Interacting with whales there is strictly controlled and regulated. The 54.3-metre aluminium-hulled sailing yacht Tiara, built by Alloy Yachts in 2004, is one of very few private vessels to have been granted a permit to moor in this spot during whale season. The owner of Tiara first discovered the whales on the Silver Bank 10 years ago and he loved the experience so much he vowed to give others the chance to look into the eye of a humpback – an experience he calls one of his top marine encounters of all time.
Aquatic Adventures, a company founded by Tom Conlin, an American boat captain, adventurer and whale expert, is one of just three licensed operators of whale encounters on the Silver Bank. He has been running “passive in-water whale encounters” (or Peewees) for 30 years for a few visitors each season, while keeping a watchful eye on the sensitive area. Aside from operating a luxury live-aboard dive boat, he serves as an expert guide to a handful of private yachts.
Tiara is already in position on the Silver Bank when I arrive in Puerto Plata, on the northern coast of the Dominican Republic. I am part of a small group of invited guests, and we meet at Ocean World Marina in Cofresi, where Tiara’s big tender, a 22-metre Viking sportfisher namedY Nut Kokonut, is waiting for us.
Y Nut Kokonut’s captain, Nathan, and first mate, Mary, prepare us for what can be a rough ride. The coast here is very rocky and waves crash fiercely. More than two hours into the trip, Nathan slows down the tender noticeably, which snaps me out of a Dramamine-induced nap. I’m hoping for my first sight of the humpbacks that travel from as far as the North Atlantic to this area each year from about mid-December to April.
But no matter how hard I stare, I see no sign of whales; not a hump, fluke or blow. It’s not much longer, however, before everyone is revived by the sight of a tall, thin mast: Tiara. What seems like a very short time later, we are tied alongside, and Nathan and his crew help us onto the big sailing boat’s teak deck. With her long fixed keel, Tiara feels as solid as a rock. Captain Pascal Pellat-Finet and his crew greet us with cool scented towels and refreshing drinks garnished with fresh mint.
After settling in we gather on the flybridge deck for our first of several amazing spreads with an Italian twist. Chef Luigi’s extensive repertoire includes bresaola carpaccio, veal scallopini, and magret de canard with ginger sauce, fresh salads and pasta, plus desserts such as tiramisu and mascarpone brûlée.
Winter 2020 was the first season that Tiara was back in the Caribbean after four years in the Pacific and a six-month refit in the south of France. Captain Pellat-Finet, who was part of the build team, has been at the helm since Tiara was delivered. The custom yacht designed by Ed Dubois, with an interior by John Munford, won several design awards. The smart layout gives the owner’s suite its own entrance via a cosy lounge/library. And flexibility was built in, from two cabins that combine into one large suite, to tables that can be expanded, raised and lowered. In all, with a couple of Pullman beds, Tiara sleeps 12.
As beautiful as the mahogany interior is, the outer decks are very inviting, and the indoor dining room is seldom used. Like nearly everyone else who has spent time on board, we enjoy all of our meals outdoors, and cocktail hour in Tiara’s Bedouin-style tent, which the crew sets up on the aft deck. It is one of the boat’s best-known features and, the captain says, “a lot of boats copied the concept”.
The ambience on Tiara is relaxed and it would be easy to settle into a routine of delicious meals, yoga, swimming, listening to music on the great sound system and falling asleep to the boat’s subtle rocking motion.
But we are here for so much more. Over lunch, our guide, Conlin himself, tells us about the upcoming attractions. We will be getting close to the humpbacks, riding on one of his eight-metre whale-watching tenders and, if all goes well, we’ll get in the water with the whales, so we need to know the rules of engagement.
The humpbacks are here to give birth and find mates, Conlin explains. Competition between males is fierce and the females themselves can be quite demonstrative in their desires (or lack thereof). Given their size, which rivals that of a city bus, a casual slap of a fluke can spell trouble for an eight-metre boat or a swimmer.
Conlin compares the humpbacks’ mating season to “Friday night happy hour”. “At the beginning of December, it’s 5.30pm and the bar is starting to get crowded,” he says. The more the season advances, the more males there are and “testosterones are going crazy”, he says. He calls these males “the rowdy group”.
“I can show you videos from drones, where one whale is holding the other whale down so he can’t breathe,” he says. “Whales have died in rowdy groups. Whales will come up with bloody tubercles, dorsal fins ripped off their back; you will see blood, scarring and bloody heads. It gets very violent to get next to the female.” Before my anxiety has a chance to overwhelm me, he volunteers: “We don’t want to put you in with a fin-slapper, lop-tailer, breacher or anything that could get you hurt.” Phew!
He goes on to explain that a Peewee doesn’t involve scuba, free diving or even energetic swimming, but rather “passive, non-aggressive floating at the surface with a mask, snorkel and fins, allowing whales to develop an interest in humans and approach us on their terms. We are not going to put you in with a rowdy group,” he confirms. “We want the whale to get curious with us and then we get hours with it if we do it right, and they are in the right mood.”
Bright and early the next morning we board Conlin’s Escort, a custom-made outboard-powered tender, and we motor away, waving Tiara’s crew goodbye. Conlin drives gently, an eye on his GPS because Silver Bank has about 1,300 coral heads that reach the surface. “This would be a World Heritage site, but it is out-fished,” he says. “There is no place like this where coral heads come to the surface; this is an amazing place.”
The expedition starts slow. We spot a few whales, but our attempts to get closer are rebuffed. Conlin believes whales recognise the signature sound of each engine and he is mindful never to force them to interact. Although he’s told us that whales are acoustic creatures and has cautioned us to keep quiet, after an extended period of inaction we’ve lost our focus and are chatting away when, all of a sudden, a humpback appears not far from our boat. Then another surfaces in the distance, and another. Pretty soon we are surrounded by whales swimming, breaching, waving pectoral fins in the air and slapping their flukes.
“We’re downtown!” Conlin exclaims, as thrilled after years of whale spotting as any of us newbies are.
At lunch we pass around phones and cameras to look at photos and videos we captured during our action-packed morning and get ready for round two. Our second outing that afternoon gives us our first opportunity to slip on our snorkelling kit and slide as quietly as possible into the water. Conlin has spotted a mother and calf; Lorenzo Martinez, Conlin’s sidekick, is already in the water and pointing the way. We kick a few times and soon we’re floating over mother and child.
When they are resting, Conlin had explained, females can hold their breath for 20 to 25 minutes. Calves are not quite in control of their buoyancy, and so they tend to shelter underneath their mother’s body or her pectoral fin until they need to come up for air. I can see the whales below me, their white fins touching. I can’t quite tell how deep they are, but it can’t be much more than four metres below me, and, floating there, I lose my sense of time. It’s only when I see the mother move her fluke that I remember where I am and feel a slight pang of fear. But more than anything, I am filled with wonder.
I’m still in a dreamy mood a couple of hours later, back on Tiara. Before sunset, the crew invites us to stretch out on an inflatable mattress below the tent to toast the golden hour with champagne flecked with gold. As the sun drops, we wait, eyes fixed on the horizon, until we see the brief green flash that marks its last hurrah. A leaping whale in the distance gets us all on our feet.
We have several amazing encounters over the course of two days. On a few occasions, I choose to stay on Escort because Conlin promises it is just as interesting to observe whales from the boat. And I am handsomely rewarded as a whale repeatedly surfaces near the bow. It pokes up its head, covered with barnacles, and I feel as if it is watching and listening to me. Moments later, after Conlin points to a large circle of unrippled water – a fluke print – another whale slips right beneath our hull. She is at least three times as long as Escort.
“Why are they doing this?” I ask. Conlin says no one really understands the whales’ behaviour: “Your guess is as good as any.” I choose to believe they are trying to connect. They know we’re here, and they want to find out about us as much as we want to find out about them.
We are all quite mellow for our last evening aboard Tiara. As we get ready for a farewell cocktail, we spot more humpbacks. Sometimes they are close enough we can hear them breathe. It’s another glorious sunset, followed by an amazing dinner. Aquatic Adventures’ boats, which had been anchored in the distance for two days, have gone, and now it’s just us, Tiara, the endless ocean, the starry sky and the whales. The rest of the world, it seems, has ceased to exist.
This feature is taken from the October 2020 issue of BOAT International. Tiara was sold in February 2021. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.