To say this was a great day would be an extreme understatement. Many times since the middle of January 18, 2011 we have said, "that was the BEST EXCURSION EVER!" To express the magnitude of the experience we had in Banderas Bay would require volumes of text that would likely still fall short.
To be so close to the surface of the water with these absolute giants peacefully and gracefully gliding through the waves near us stopped the heart and breath of everyone on our little Zodiac tour craft, including the tour guide, Nicky, a young, enthusiastic scientist who not only guides you through the day long experience but also pauses from time to time to record her observations during more than five years of research.
To begin the port experience, the Disney Wonder docked in the small harbor at Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco in Mexico early with an ashore time of approximately 7:30 am. Our excursion met early since it was a scheduled five hour experience. Through the day, two other ships docked in the small harbor making it feel much more cramped, but there was still enough room for the small Zodiac craft to load and move around. In fact, the small dock, just large enough for two of the semi-inflatable craft was mere yards from the forward gangway for the Disney Wonder that day. (Across the grassy lawn of the terminal and a busy highway was another Wal-Mart... they sure knew how to make Americans feel at home, eh?)
The Zodiac craft (operated by Vallarta Adventures) we boarded had seats for 24 or 25 passengers accompanied by a guide and a pilot. Our tour was nearly full but there was still plenty of space to have an unforgettable time. There were two craft in our fleet, both armed with two 200 horse power outboard motors to get to the best place for whale watching in record time. At first, it appeared that riding these craft would be a spine jarring torture, but they glided over the waves with relative ease.
The day we went, the sun shone strong in the cool air, but hats and long sleeves were needed most of the day. The breeze combined with the speed of the boats could build up a slight chill that we barely noticed amid all the excitement of the day. Of the 50 or so people in our group, Jennifer and I were two of only a handful that did not bring sweat shirts or wind breakers, but with the required life jackets we were just fine when all was said and done.
The Photography Equipment
For photos, I was armed with my Canon EOS 20D, a Tameron 28-75mm lens that went unused for most of the day but was very helpful when needed and a Canon 100-400mm zoom lens with Image Stabilization that absolutely earned it's keep! Not being a professional photographer with only limited training that includes time with award winning National Geographic photographers, it took a while to get the right settings for great shots.
As in the past, experimenting with a lot of settings early with frequent checks for quality resulted in the right setup soon enough for my own National Geographic moments. I ended up on the aperture priority (Av) setting at a F/13-18 and an ISO-800 to ensure a shutter speed between 1/500 and 1/2000. I also played with ai focus and other settings but ended up manually focusing the lens most of the day. It required a bit more concentration on my part but as you can see the results were top notch for my skills.
Finally, I had 5 gigabytes of memory and used most of it. End results; over 1000 photos with hundreds of good shots and dozens of great shots. Choosing which ones to put on this page was tough. If you watch the slideshow at the top of the page you will be able to see more images than shown in the text here.
We started the day with our guide, Nicky, telling us about her impressive history with whales literally around the globe. She was in her fifth or sixth season studying the unique tail markings of each whale and preparing to start her doctorate this same year. Her knowledge was nothing short of impressive and proved to be invaluable to the overall experience. Nicky was employed by Vallarta Adventures.
The Mother and Calf
For our first close up sighting, she hoped to see a new born calf that was mere days old and we were not disappointed. Just outside the harbor and a few minutes ride out, we found the mother and her newborn frolicking in the gentle waters, easily in view of the beach hotels of Puerto Vallarta. They were accompanied by a bull that was vying for the mother’s attention for another procreative experience.
The whales spotted in Mexico's largest natural bay, Banderas Bay are the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). They grow up to 40-50 feet (12-16 meters) in length and weigh approximately 79,000 pounds (36,000 kilograms). In the summer, these behemoths feed off the shores of Alaska then many migrate to these waters for three months of frolicking in competitive procreation.
Nicky explained that females can become pregnant every season they come to the warm water which tends to exhaust them with births of calves at 20 feet and two tons. Many times the females will choose not to make the migratory track in favor of a ‘year off’ the whole 11 ½ month pregnancy process and recuperate their strength and have a break from the fighting of the bulls in Mexico.
Amazingly, these whales only feed in the northern waters, building up their reserves of fat. During the several months in the south they are known not to feed at all, living off the resources stored during the summer months. This includes not only the male bulls fighting for female interaction, but also the females who come to give birth AND feed their young for up to six months! It brings new meaning to ‘eating for two’ when you consider that she can go for the whole six month nursing period with no feeding or intake of any new nourishing resources.
The calf we watched for over half an hour provided countless photo opportunities as it breached the water pushing its head up into the air, opening and closing its mouth. It also floated on its back waving pectoral fins high in the air. Some of the movement we observed had not been seen even by our experienced tour guide/scientist with many seasons of history with these mammals.
As we watched the interaction of this young calf, Vallarta Adventures sent a small plane to fly out nearly 15 miles around Las Marietas, a collection of rocky islands at the north edge of the bay opening. (See the map at the Vallarta Adventures web site by clicking here. Click on the map for a great .pdf of the area.)
The Fighting of the Bulls
Soon, the pilot of our Zodiac got the official word and we were off to an area near Las Marietas. In just over half an hour, we were floating near a growing pod of fighting bulls competing for a female. It started with two or three males and grew to as many as eight or ten during the next hour and a half. Full breech of a whale with the front end of his body above the water is an action that occurs during feeding so shots of the heads were rare here in the south. We primarily saw the males chasing the female with several spouts at a time as they tangled, bit and pushed each other around just below the surface of the water.
Despite most of the action being in the water, our first sighting was nothing short of breathtaking. A large bull arched his back just a short distance from our Zodiac displaying in detail the scratches and nicks in his back and dorsal fin from years of fighting. He was far enough to be ‘legal’ for the laws governing such events, but he was so enormous everyone had to stop for a moment to take it all in.
One fear that was laid to rest early on by our guide was the concern over a whale taking out one of the boats. She was clear on the fact that whales have never jumped on a boat that had the motor running. The sound waves from our twin Yamaha 200 hp four stroke outboard motors offer enough notice for them to keep their distance. Even with that in mind two dozen hearts skipped a beat when three large males appeared nearby headed straight for us.
Though whales can hold their breath for much longer, they surfaced for our benefit every five to fifteen minutes. Each time we saw the group there would be several large spouts of air and water shot above the water 10 to 20 feet. These spouts marked the place where the whales expel lungs full of air and take their next breath. Sometimes this happened one at a time, but as the competition grew we would see three to eight spouts in the same few minutes clustered together.
Throughout the 90 minute conflict we watched the occasional looser swim off in search of another possible event similar to this one.
The Big Four
Nicky, our guide referred frequently to the big four things to see on a tour like this. Vallarta Adventures guarantee whale sightings but they cannot guarantee the whole set. Additional to the whales, we also spotted dolphin, a sea turtle (I did not get that shot) and an incredible experience with a manta ray that was 15 to 18 feet across. Normally, when the tour boat approaches the floating ray it disappears below the surface to be seen no more. For some reason this one stuck around for several minutes despite being only a few feet from the Zodiac.
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