Whale Watching in Samana, Dominican Republic
World Class Whale-Watching
Bunny has done some whale watching before in Iceland and Newfoundland. Both were thrilling occasions but also damn cold excursions. On the Icelandic expedition, Bunny had to wear the kind of fishermen overalls used in Arctic conditions, even though it was July. Brrr.
While Bunny was planning her 10-week stay in the Dominican Republic, she was very excited to learn that her visit would coincide with the country’s whale season. Finally, a chance to see these magnificent creatures in pleasant conditions!
Dominican Republic: A Surprising Whale Magnet
Every winter, thousands of humpback whales migrate south to reach the warm waters of the Dominican Republic. They come from all over the North Atlantic, including the seas of Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland and New England.
Most of these whales are returning as they were originally born in the waters of the Dominican Republic. They come back to their old hood every winter to mate and give birth to new calves.
Where to Go
The whales’ favourite place in the Dominican Republic is Samana Bay in the north-east of the country. Humpback whales have been wintering in Samana Bay for centuries. Whales are depicted in aboriginal cave drawings found around Samana and even Christopher Columbus is reported to have seen whales in the area.
Today, whale watching tour boats leave directly from the provincial capital of Santa Barbara de Samana. Operators are generally responsible thanks in part to Samana Bay officially being declared a Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1986.
When to Go
Whale watching tours are organised every year from mid-January to mid-March (or later). If you are fortunate enough, you can also spot whales outside these time periods.
Bunny considered herself extremely lucky when she and Mr. Bunny spotted the (supposedly) first whales arriving in Samana Bay just after Christmas. The Bunnies were staying in Las Galeras at the time and spotted the whales directly from their guest house. The whales were far away but their spouts, and even breaches, were clearly visible and a source of great joy to the Bunnies.
This encounter was not enough to satisfy Bunny’s hunger for these gentle giants, however, so the Bunnies booked a proper whale watching tour from Samana the following month.
Which Tour Company to Choose
A number of tour operators offer whale watching trips in the Dominican Republic. As with all wildlife encounters, Bunny strongly recommends choosing a reputable agency. To be able to fully enjoy the experience, you will want to know that you are with responsible and professional guides that respect and protect wildlife as their first priority.
With this in mind, there is no better option than Whale Samana in the Dominican Republic. The company is owned and operated by Kim Beddall, a Canadian marine mammal specialist, and the pioneer of commercial whale watching in Samana.
Whale Samana promotes responsible whale watching as a sustainable alternative to whaling. Kim personally joins most expeditions and you will always have a marine mammal specialist onboard to enhance your whale watching experience.
A typical whale watching tour lasts between 3-4 hours, depending on the sightings, and costs 59 USD per person.
Whale Samana’s office is located just steps away from the Samana boat dock in Santa Barbara de Samana. They do not provide transportation to their offices as part of the whale watching tour. If you are staying somewhere other than Santa Barbara de Samana, you will have to organise your transportation independently. Whale Samana will be happy to recommend a reliable taxi service for you to use.
What to Expect on the Day
Bunny recommends booking your whale watching tour online in advance rather than in person on-site. This way, you can be sure to have a spot on the boat, which is particularly important if you arrive from outside of Samana.
When you book your tour on the Whale Samana website, a small deposit will need to be charged right away. You then pay the balance (in cash only) at their office on the day of your tour. In addition, you will have to pay a marine sanctuary admission fee (5 USD per person) at a small green kiosk on the Samana dock before your tour.
Navigating the busy dock area can be a bit of an annoyance but you can relax once you are seated in your boat and ready for the tour.
Whale Samana uses Pura Mia, a 55-foot purpose-built whale watching vessel for their tours. It has two stories and capacity for 65 persons.
Before boarding, staff will offer you a pair of free anti-sea sickness bands which work, apparently, by pressing to a special pressure point on your inner wrist. Bunny donned a pair but cannot really say whether they made a difference. You return the bands at the end of the tour. Motion sickness pills were also on offer for those who preferred a more chemically-based remedy.
When boarding, you are free to choose your seat and there is plenty of space to move around. The lower deck is shaded, so Bunny based herself there for the trip, while frequently shuffling elsewhere around the vessel like a headless chicken trying to capture the whales on her camera.
Whale Samana offers complimentary drinking water and soft drinks throughout the journey. Cookies are also handed out occasionally. Mr. Bunny was most appreciative of this perk. There are also marine toilets onboard.
Whale Watching Rules
The Dominican government enforces strict whale protection laws and guidelines in the Samana Bay Marine Mammal Sanctuary. This is to ensure the safety and protection of the precious visiting humpback whales.
No more than one large boat and two small boats may observe any group of whales at the same time. There are also limitations on how close to the whales the boats can go, how long they can stay and what speed they can travel.
From Bunny’s observations, these rules and regulations were duly followed. The captain of Pura Mia was very respectful of the whales, but also knew how to position the vessel so passengers could take the best possible photos without sunlight shining directly into their cameras. Bunny was very impressed.
Humpback whales are inspiring creatures. They typically grow to be 12-15 metres long and weigh somewhere between 30-40 tons. They are air-breathing mammals that can swim underwater for up to 40 minutes between breathes but they more typically surface about every 5 minutes. They are easily spotted at sea from their distinctive spouts, when they blow out (exhale) warm moist air and seawater before coming back to the surface to inhale again.
It did not take long for Bunny’s first whale sighting on the trip. In fact, there was never more than 10 minutes between different sightings during the entire tour. Samana Bay was practically full of whales although though Bunny went early in the season (late January).
Many of the whales were curious about the vessel and did rounds inspecting it. Bunny was thrilled to be so close to these magnificent beings. At one point, she could have almost touched the whales if she leaned over the railing. But it is important to note that this was because the whales themselves wanted to get close, not because they were chased by the vessel.
The size and grace of these astounding animals really impressed Bunny. Mr. Bunny, for his part, was aghast to learn that the whales don’t eat anything during their 3-month sojourn in Samana. There is simply nothing for them to eat there.
The whales come to the warm waters of Samana purely to mate and give birth to their calves. While in Samana, the calves drink about 50 gallons of their mother’s rich milk a day in order to gain sufficient blubber to migrate north with their mothers when the time comes.
As for mating, Bunny and the other passengers of Pura Mia were lucky to spend a long time following a love triangle between one female and two male humpback whales vying for her affection. It was fascinating to watch, although Bunny was not quite sure which suitor prevailed in the end, if either.
Bunny particularly appreciated Kim Beddall’s running commentary on the whales’ behaviour during the trip. It was much more than just observing the whales, you actually learned a lot about them too. For example, Kim helpfully explained that humpback whales are the most active of all whale species. Their characteristic behaviours include breaching, tail slashing, fin slapping, spy hopping and sleeping postures. All in all, it is an impressive display of aquatic acrobatics.
Although none of the whales were kind enough to do a full breach for Bunny on her tour, she was more than happy at the end of the 4-hour tour. It was such a pleasant and easy way to see some of the world’s most magnificent creatures in the wild.
Quite a few people got sea sick on Bunny’s trip although the sea wasn’t even particularly choppy. Be prepared for this if you are easily affected and try to have a light breakfast. Also think twice before bringing kids along. There were a few small children on Bunny’s trip, all of them either sick, bored or glued to their electronic devices even with whales on offer close-up… Sad.
Where to Stay
For staying in Samana, Bunny recommends Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa. This is a great value all-inclusive resort iust outside Santa Barbara de Samana. The resort has an hourly shuttle service to town but you are also within walking distance from the Samana boat dock. The walk is also safe.
Grand Bahia Principe Cayacoa has good facilities, very friendly service and good food. It is also impeccably clean. If you are lucky and book a sea view room, you might even spot a whale from your own balcony.
If you’d like something fancier, Luxury Bahia Principe Cayo Levantado is even closer to the action. This tiny paradise island right in Samana Bay is a popular day trip destination. Bahia Principe is the only hotel on the island and if you are blessed enough to stay there, you can enjoy the amazing beach and have whale watching literally on your doorstep. As a bonus, you will not have to transfer to Santa Barbara de Samana for the whale tour, Whale Samana can pick you up directly from the hotel pier.
If you really love your whales and have a thick wallet, whale watching in Silver Bank - a submerged bank in the Atlantic Ocean just north of the Dominican Republic - might be for you. One-week long boat expeditions in Silver Bank offer plenty of opportunities to observe humpback whales and experience something incredible: “passive in-water whale encounters” where you actually get to swim and snorkel close to the whales in the wild!
Bunny is crazy about wildlife and never misses an opportunity to witness some of nature’s finest moments during her travels. Whale watching in the Dominican Republic is one of those occasions.
If you are in the country during the whale watching season, seeing humpback whales in the wild should be high up on your list of priorities. It is an exhilarating (half a) day, you’ll be supporting sustainable efforts to protect the whale population and the tour is easy and affordable. You should totally do it, Bunny says.