Whale-watching season in the DR starts 14 January and continues through 15 March. Sometimes the season extends itself through the end of March. Ken De
Pree, DR1’s whale expert, reports on the arrival of the humpback whales and whale-watching season.
Thousands of humpback whales from the North Atlantic migrate to the waters of the Dominican Republic each winter to mate and give birth. Their most popular winter rendezvous is Silver Bank, the 3,000-square-kilometer reef system approximately 70 miles north east of Puerto Plata. But from there many circulate to other popular areas like humans do at singles bars! One of these gathering places is Samana Bay. More than 1,500 humpbacks visit the bay, with as many as 300 present at any given time during mating season.
The World Wildlife Fund considers Samana Bay one of the best places in the world to watch whales. It offers something for everyone—the outer bay is where you might find aggressive males competing for the favors of willing females, and the sheltered inner bay is one of the most important humpback nurseries in the world.
Mid-January to the end of March is the usual whale-watching season in Samana Bay; however, the excursions continue as long as enough whales remain. The rest of the year, the whales feed in the cold, fish-rich waters of the North Atlantic between Massachusetts Bay and Iceland and Greenland. Summer whale-watching excursions are offered in those areas, but there is no better time than the winter mating season when the male humpbacks, eager to impress the females, are most animated, and when newborn calves can be seen swimming alongside their mothers.
Humpback whales have been wintering near Samana for centuries. Cave drawings made by the aboriginal inhabitants of Los Haitises National Park long before Columbus arrived depict the spouting whales. And Columbus saw them too, as the log of his travels along the north coast in 1493 makes clear.
About Humpback Whales
Humpbacks are air-breathing mammals belonging to the group known as “great whales”. Adults measure 40-50 ft/12-15 m and weigh 30-40 tons. Babies measure 10-15 ft/3-4.5 m and weigh 1.5-2 tons. When born they have little blubber (fat) to protect them from the cold water awaiting them in the north but grow quickly on the rich milk provided by their mother. Each day they drink 50 gallons of milk that is 50-60% fat and gain 100 pounds, much of which is blubber. By comparison, the milk of a human mother is 2% fat.
Adult humpbacks are black or dark gray with white patches on the flippers, the belly, and the underside of the tail. At first glance all look alike, but there are differences. The black and white pigmentation on the underside of the tail flukes is the most common means of distinguishing one from another. No two have the same markings, enabling whale scientists to identify humpbacks in the same way humans are by their fingerprints. Permanent scars, dorsal fin shape and other unique markings also help distinguish one from another.
No whale species is more active than the humpback, causing Herman Melville in Moby Dick to call them “the most lighthearted and gamesome of all the whales.” And the breeding season is when they are the most animated. Among the behaviors that delight whale watchers are:
Breaching: Whale builds momentum swimming underwater, then launches itself into the air, exposing some or all of its body before crashing back onto the water’s surface.
Flippering: Whale rolls on its side or back, raises one or both flippers, then slaps it/them against the surface.
Rolling: Horizontal on the surface, the whale rolls between 45 and 60 degrees, perhaps slapping the water with its flippers.
Surface Active Group: Two to 20 rowdy males compete aggressively to mate with a fertile female. They may breach, slam heads and bodies, and even draw blood.
The humpback whale is also known for its haunting melody, a variety of chirps, yups, grunts and eooooos that form a “song”. Jacques Cousteau called them the “Carusos of the deep.” Whales can hear the songs for up to 20 miles; humans can eavesdrop with an underwater listening device called a hydrophone.
Whale-watching excursions in Samana Bay
Whale-watching excursions can be booked from most hotels in Samana or at the city dock area. The boat trip and government fees to enter the whale sanctuary are included in the price and a meal.
The excursion can also be booked through a number of tour companies with offices located in all tourist areas.
Traveling to Samana on your own isn’t difficult. One option is to rent a car and drive to Samana from Puerto Plata on the north coast, about a four hour drive. Or, if you’re coming from the south coast (Santo Domingo), take advantage of the new toll road that will put you in Samana in about two hours. The alternative, non toll road from Santo Domingo to San Francisco de Macoris, Nagua and Sanchez, Samana takes about four hours. Another option is to drive to Sabana de la Mar and take a ferry across the bay to Samana. Both routes take approximately four hours. The route to Sabana de la Mar may take longer than 2.5 hours because of current road conditions. The excursion can also be booked from hotels in Sabana de la Mar, such as the Cano Hondo.
Bus travel to Samana is another good alternative and much less expensive. From the south coast, Caribe Tours and Metro offer daily bus service from Santo Domingo to Samana. From the north coast, Caribe Tours has service from Puerto Plata and Sosua. The buses of both companies are large, modern and air-conditioned.
Charter flights to Samana can also be arranged from any airport and can fly into El Catey, Arroyo Barril (best for Samana City) or Portillo (best for Las Terrenas).
Once in Samana, there are many boats to choose from, ranging from 23’ yolas (local fishing boats with no protection from weather or waves; single gasoline outboard motor), to fast launches (largely uncovered; inboard diesel engine or twin outboard motors) to large, twin-diesel engine vessels capable of handling 50-80 passengers (bathroom; protection from weather).
No matter how calm the inner bay looks from the dock, the outer bay—where the whales usually are—is often rough during the winter months. So choice of boat is very important. Considerations include boat construction, protection from the weather and wind-blown spray, and height above sea level for visibility at the distances required by whale-watching regulations. The three companies listed below are the recommended choices, based on boat size, type of engines, services provided, and adherence to the whale-watching regulations:
Victoria Marine/Whale Samana: Victoria II, 50-80 passengers; always a whale expert on board, usually Kim Beddall, founder of whale watching in Samana Bay; excursions of 3-4 hours. (809) 538-2494.
Transporte Maritimo Minadiel: Several vessels, all 50-80 passengers; occasionally a whale expert on board; excursions of 3-4 hours. (809) 538-2556.
Moto Marina: Fast launches; excursions of 2 hours; rarely a whale expert on board. (809) 538-2302.
Samana Bay is a marine sanctuary by decree of the Dominican government. Whale watching tours must, by law, protect the whales within this sanctuary. Among the rules are: limits on the number of vessels that can observe a whale at the same time; the minimum distance that must be maintained between vessels and whales (unless a curious whale approaches the boat); speed of travel through the whale area; and the length of time a vessel may spend watching an individual whale. Additionally, no vessel may permit passengers to swim with the whales. Because captains sometimes violate the regulations, thinking their clients will be happier getting a closer look at the whales, passengers are asked to insist that the regulations be adhered to. The regulations are important and the support of everyone is needed to not only protect the whales, but to ensure their return to Samana Bay in future years.
What else is going on in Samana?
As explained above, it is possible to make a day trip to see the whales if staying at another Dominican destination. But it is always best to overnight in Samana and stay on to enjoy one or two other attractions of this province.
Lodging is available in Samana at a variety of hotels of varying sizes and degrees of luxury. You’ll find hotels in the city of Samana, Las Galeras Beach, Las Terrenas, Portillo, Playa Popy, Cozon and Playa Bonita on the north coast of the peninsula. Note that this is a big peninsula. Samana is about half an hour from Las Galeras (Playa Rincon) while Las Terrenas is about half an hour from Samana and an hour's drive from Las Galeras. Cozon, Playa Bonita, Portillo and Las Terrenas are within a 20-minute range. Restaurants are also readily available.
To get a feel for Samana, see the DR1 Samana travel page.
While in Samana, a visit to the CEBSE whale-watching museum is well worth the time. On display are the skeleton of a humpback whale, films, recordings of whale songs, and many exhibits. Entrance is only RD$10.00 per person. Hours are daily from 9-11 am and 2-5 pm.
Additionally, consider booking an excursion to Los Haitises National Park for the second day of your visit. It’s a popular day trip. Indians inhabited the caves in this park long before the arrival of Columbus. As mentioned earlier, drawings on the cave walls in Los Haitises are testimony that the whales have been wintering here for centuries. Trips can be arranged through the same Samana companies offering whale watching.
For more information on the Samana whales
Ken De Pree is the author of “Whales of Samana,” available in English, German, French and Spanish. The booklet has 22 pages and more than 30 photos nearly all taken in the Bay of Samana. To purchase the booklet, email email@example.com
For further information on travel in Samana, Samana Bay, and whale watching in the bay, see:
Ken De Pree is also available to answer questions on whales in Samana on the travel forum of DR1 at Forums.