Swimming with Whales and Cruising Above the Arctic Circle
One of my greatest adventures has been snorkeling with humpback whales in Newfoundland, Canada, one of the few places in the world where visitors have the opportunity to swim with these Leviathans. Humpbacks lack any fear around boats, so the chances of spotting them are good. I chose Ocean Quest Adventures the best company for this adventure, because they practically guarantee whale spotting.
‘Jump now!’ said Rick Stanley, Captain and owner of Ocean Quest Adventures as five of us, outfitted with wet suits, snorkels, mask and fins jumped into Newfoundland’s cold water and looked around for whales. After just moments, two came racing towards us like freight trains. I was sure I was about to be killed, but they dove beneath my legs. One of them flipped over right beneath me, so close I could see the white striations on the belly. And then they breeched and were gone. It’s an experience I will never forget.
I recently learned that Silversea Cruises, an ultra-luxury line with spacious all-suite accommodations, has just introduced two bucket-list experiences: snorkeling with whale sharks in the warm waters of Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua, and cruising to the Northeast Passage on a route above the Arctic Circle. I’ve been to the Arctic, though not to the Northeast Passage, and I saw little to no wildlife while I was there. I’m also curious if swimming with whale sharks is as good as my Ocean Quest humpback experience, so I contacted Conrad Combrink, Silversea’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Development Expeditions and Experiences and asked some questions.
What is the behavior of a whale shark when they see a human?
The whale sharks are unfazed by our presence; they’re placid and somewhat playful. We have utmost respect for wildlife and would not allow guests to enter the water if it disrupted the animals. We maintain a deep respect for our planet.
Is it dangerous?
No, we wouldn’t do anything which could be considered as dangerous, both for the protection of our guests and the wildlife we encounter.
Does a guide accompany the snorkelers?
In the case of Donsol in the Philippines, yes. We follow the region’s strict regulations and protocol by the local rangers, and work with them together. In the case of Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia, each Zodiac has at least one Expedition Team member for guests’ safety. Guests are given clear instructions, and, at certain times, several Expedition Team members are in the water with guests. A rescue Zodiac is always on standby for any snorkeler who needs help.
How many snorkelers get to go at one time? Usually, it’s six per local boat. In Cenderawasih Bay, up to 10 guests can swim at any one time.
What’s it like seeing a whale shark?
This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, truly magnificent. The gigantic bodies of those creatures seem to glide peacefully and majestically through the water.
What happens if the whale shark approaches the snorkeler?
The snorkeler should stay calm and nothing will happen. In case the snorkeler doesn’t stay calm, the whale shark will swim away. We generally advise guests to keep a distance of three meters (almost 10 feet) although the whale shark is harmless anyway.
Do you ever see whale sharks with their offspring?
Personally, no. But I hope to one day!
How many whale sharks can one expect to see at one time?
It depends on the season and luck. Of course, we cannot guarantee sightings. Those aboard Silver Discoverer saw about 10 animals on their voyage in May this year. Some say that Cenderawasih Bay has the largest number of whale sharks, but these are distributed over a large area.
What are the chances of seeing whale sharks?
At the right time of the year and in the correct areas, the chances are reasonably high, though we cannot guarantee seeing them. The animals might be in the area but not necessarily where we search for them. These are wild animals and we are visiting their natural habitat; we can only create the conditions for these types of moments to occur, but we cannot ensure they will happen.
How many dives does a guest make?
Guests are usually able to make one snorkel & swim stop, but we try to optimize this time. In Cenderawasih Bay, guests were each given three chances to swim with the whale sharks. At the second location we visited, everyone who entered the water had excellent views of the animals. This experience, like almost all of Silversea Expeditions’ excursions, does not cost anything extra.
And what about Northeast Passage in the Arctic? Do you get out in Zodiacs?
We take guests out in the Zodiacs as much as possible, but this is always dependent on the weather and sea conditions. Safety comes first. Zodiacs enable us to travel deeper in each destination, allowing us to access shallow and otherwise inaccessible waters.
When I went to do the Arctic Marathon on a cruise a few years ago, I saw no wildlife. Do guests see wildlife on your cruise?
This far north, the wildlife is spectacular: polar bears, walruses, seals and seabirds.
What makes this a stand-out adventure?
Most people never have a chance to cruise to the Arctic Circle. It’s a place where the ocean freezes and the sight of the sea ice extends to the horizon. It’s very hard to describe, but it’s a kind of ‘polar dessert on the ocean.’ It’s truly humbling.