DOMINICA SPERM WHALE EXPEDITION 2016
Officially known as the Commonwealth of Dominica, this small island is located between Guadeloupe and Martinique, midway through the chain of Lesser Antilles islands that separate the Caribbean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. With volcanoes, waterfalls, rainforests, hundreds of rivers, and endemic flora and fauna, it's no surprise that this 300 square mile island has earned the nickname "Nature Island". And, that isn't even taking the marine life into account! Diving on the west coast is among the best in the Caribbean. Macro and wide angle photography subjects can be found on every dive, but Dominica's true uniqueness starts being apparent as soon as you venture offshore...
Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) may have been portrayed as vicious human killers in Moby Dick, but in reality they're more like shy puppies the size of a bus. Well, they're also the largest and loudest predator on earth (up to 70 feet long, 60 tons, and 230 dB!), have the largest brain in the animal kingdom, have 2 lb teeth, and can dive over 7000 feet deep. Don't worry though, they feed primarily on squid, and have no recorded human fatalities.
The ocean floor along Dominica's west coast drops steeply to several thousand feet very close to shore, providing a calm and sheltered area for a large group of resident sperm whales to feed, mate, and socialize. Year round, they can be spotted very close to shore, cruising up and down the island's coast.
This unique sperm whale habitat has generated much attention for the island, with the result, that whale watching is now one of Dominica's most iconic activities. That is, whale watching from a boat, from a safe distance away, with a few dozen other oglers, for a short period of time. As underwater photographers, I'm sure you'll agree that this doesn't sound very appealing. So, why not just jump in the water to see them better? Well, because such in-water encounters are strictly regulated in order to ensure the welfare of the whales, which are now considered national treasures. Over the past few years, Dominica's government has been issuing a few carefully-controlled number of in-water permits to select individuals - researchers, reputable underwater expedition leaders, documentary film crews and, for the past 4 years --- me.
With an in-water marine mammal permit, up to 3 permit members can be in the water simultaneously with any animals that we find along the coast. Dolphins? False-killer whales? Beaked whales? They're all fair game (we saw all of these, and more in March 2014). For 8 hours a day, I've chartered the Arwenne (recently destroyed by Tropical Storm Erika, and replaced with an unnamed boat), which is captained by Dominica's whale-tour pioneer, Jerry Daway, and guided by Images Dominica's Arun "Izzy" Madisetti. If we don't find whales one day? We can take a leisurely cruise along the coastal villages, stop at some shallow reefs to snorkel, or visit some FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) for interesting photo opportunities. The boat is ours, and we can do what we want with it, within reason.
I have 2 permits available, each of which can be submitted with a maximum of 8 names (including me). However, having 8 people on the boat is too many, in my opinion, so I'm trying to keep the number of guests on the boat down to I've broken each permit into 3 blocks each, which allows the total number on the boat to never exceed 5-6 (excluding crew). This gives each guest more in-water time with the animals and keeps the boat clutter-free.
Permit 1: April 13-22 (10 days)
Block 1: April 13-17, 5 days = $2950
Block 2: April 18-22, 5 days= $2950
Block 3: April 13-22, 10 days = $5950
Permit 2: April 25-30 (6 days)
Block 1: April 25-30, 6 days = $3200
Payments and Cancellations
All prices are in USD, and subject to change without notice. A deposit of 40% of the total trip cost is required to reserve your spot, and full payment is due January 1, 2016. Cancellations made before January 1, 2016 will be refunded in full. Cancellations after January 1, 2016 will only be refunded if the spots can be sold.
I'll be leading both permits. This will be my 4th year in a row in the water with these whales, bringing my cumulative on-water tally to almost 500 hours. Arun "Izzy" Madisetti (our guide) and Jerry Daway (our captain) are both seasoned veteran whale-spotters, who will make sure that if there are whales around, that we'll be hot on their tails. If you need any help with your camera/housing, want to learn some helpful editing tips for whale images, or want to go into town after we get back, I can help!
- Permit fees
- Captain/guide fees
- 8 hrs/day on the water (weather permitting)
- Alcoholic beverages (if you're nice, I might buy you a beer)
- Gratuities for hotel/boat staff
- Additional expenses (snacks, souvenirs, etc.)
Flights: You'll need to fly in to Melville Hall Airport (DOM) before the first day of the block that you're in, and fly out the day after the last day of your block. There are a number of ways of getting to Dominica, but no one flies there direct from North America. You'll need to get to one of the main hubs, then take an inter-island flight for the final leg. Hubs include Antigua (ANU), Barbados (BGI), St. Maarten (SXM), Puerto Rico (SJU), Guadeloupe (PTP), and Martinique (FDF). Here's a link to a PDF which contains information about most of the available flights to these hubs from major airport in North America:
For more information, visit here or contact me directly, and I'll help you figure out a flight plan.
Visas: As long as you are staying in Dominica for less than 21 days, and have a return ticket to satisfy customs officers, you won't need a visa to enter Dominica. However, please take a look at the following Dominica government website which contains much more information: DOMINICA VISA INFO
Lodging: We recommend Castle Comfort Lodge as home base (that's where I'll be staying, and where the boat will be picking us up each morning). I've known them almost my entire life, and have never stayed anywhere else. Of all of the choices, they've got the best kitchen staff, bartenders, management, and dive staff, in my opinion. There are, however, other lodging options available, depending on availability. Evergreen Hotel and Anchorage are on either side of Castle Comfort, and offer similar quality rooms. If you want a more luxurious hotel, then Fort Young Hotel is where you might want to stay. It's just a couple of minutes down the road from Castle Comfort. Let me know if you need any help deciding, or have any questions!
Whichever block you decide to join, the same schedule applies:
Day 0 - Arrive in Dominica. We'll have a driver waiting for you at the airport to take you to your hotel. Enjoy the mountainous ride across the island, then unpack, set up your camera gear, and get some rest, because we're starting bright and early in the morning!
Day 1-5, 1-6, or 1-10 - Our boat leaves the Castle Comfort dock between 7:00-7:30am. We can meet for breakfast, or you're welcome to eat solo. After spending 8 hours on the water tracking whales (or whatever else we decide to do!), we'll come back to the dock - typically between 3:00 and 4:00pm, depending on whale activity and the consensus of the group. Dinner at Castle Comfort is excellent, but if you want to venture into the city for a wider variety of options, it's a short walk, or even shorter taxi/bus ride away. Get lots of sleep - you will be exhausted!
Day 6, 7, or 11 - Pack up, and get ready for the airport. I'll arrange the necessary transportation. Make sure that you say goodbye to your new whale friends... they'll be waiting for you next year!
Since you're going through the trouble of getting to Dominica (you'll notice there are very few tourists, for this reason!), I strongly suggest extending your stay at least a few days before/after your whale block to do some diving, hiking, or general sightseeing. For the past few years, after each whale permit concludes, a subset of the group has always done the Boiling Lake hike (see photo above). It's not easy, but the journey is well worth the punishment! Google it!
Sperm whales are big, but the ocean is bigger. I can't guarantee that we'll see anything, but I can tell you about my experience for the last 3 years on these permits. I've spent 55 days on the water looking for whales so far, and I've only had 10 days without any sign of whales. Those are pretty good stats so far, and are somewhat typical. Of the 45 days that we've had whale sightings, another 16 of those days had limited in-water interaction with whales. On 25 of the remaining days we've had great success tracking with a number of whales, spending the majority of each day doing drops into the water, and having some curious juveniles moderately interact with us. Finally, on the remaining 4 days that haven't yet been accounted for, we've encountered socializing sperm whales. This is the holy grail of sperm whale encounters, and is what we are looking for every day, with fingers crossed and lucky swim shorts on.
When 2 or more whales are socializing, they generally don't care about human presence (as long as you swim carefully!), so the whales become gigantic blank canvasses, which you can swim around and photograph however you'd like. They slowly bob up and down, rubbing dead skin off each other, inspecting us, and doing whatever else that sperm whales do, oblivious to us. IT IS INCREDIBLE. Cliché phrases like "life-changing" and "awe-inspiring" come to mind, but they don't do it justice. This type of encounter is fairly unlikely though --- my record so far is 4 out of 55 days (or 1/14, or 7%). It really just becomes a numbers game - the more days you can be on the water looking (and listening with our hydrophone), the better your chances of finding a social group. Or, you could see nothing at all. That's the way nature works!
Here are a few items that I recommended you bring:
- Fins. Long free diving fins are not recommended, since we'll be getting in and out of the water frequently, and they tend to make more splashing noises that could scare the whales. But, bring them if you want!
- 3mm wet suit and/or dive skin (water temp is usually around 80F)
- Underwater video/camera (NO strobes, unless you'll be doing some diving around the island separate from the whale encounters)
- Light windbreaker
- Long sleeved shirts
- Rain poncho
- Hiking shoes/boots (if hiking)
(Some images from the last 2 trips - click to enlarge)
- NO SMOKING ON THE BOAT!
- This trip is free-diving only - bubbles disturb the whales!
- I can't guarantee any sightings... but it is VERY unlikely that we will see nothing.
- This trip is geared strongly toward underwater photography/videography.
- Getting in and out of the boat, and keeping up with sperm whales can be very strenuous at times, so physical fitness is very important. On days that the whales don't want to stick around, you'll only be able to get shots if you are kicking alongside them, which can very quickly become exhausting. If you have existing heart problems, or are in otherwise poor physical health, then you probably should not be participating in this trip.
- Sperm whales are huge, and unpredictable, and we'll be swimming in the middle of the ocean over several thousands of feet of water. You need to be comfortable in the water, and accept the inherent risks involved with such an activity.