I’ve fantasized about it for decades, what it might be like to feel the touch of the magnificent humpback whales I love so much. Twenty three years after falling in love with them while meeting a humpback for the first time in Stellwagen Bank off Cape Cod, and twelve years after I began swimming with them in Silver Bank off the Dominican Republic in 1999, it happened. A whale touched me–actually a number of times.
It was a humpback calf we called Hope. In the words of my whale sister friend, Dr. Joan Beattie, Hope is “a wonderful personality–delightful, a rascal, assertive, beautiful, curious, full of energy, funny, gracious, gentle, joyful, playful, bouncy, bubbly, effervescent, irrepressible, lovable, loving, saucy, and smart.” She certainly was! Her behavior with us was like nothing any of us had ever seen before, including those of us who’ve spent many weeks swimming with the humpbacks over many years and captains who’ve spent hundreds of weeks swimming with them.
With her mother nearby, closely observing and supervising, yet so obviously allowing her child to interact with us, Hope gave us the experiences of a lifetime. We were with her for an entire day early in our week, and then an additional afternoon on our last day. She was tireless in her desire to be close to us. One didn’t have to be an animal communicator to be crystal clear about how much this whale loved being with us and near us.
We were a group of about four to nine humans in the water at a given time, linking arms at the elbow so we would stay in a nice tight line together. This etiquette allowed the mother whale, especially, to know where we were at all times. We stayed together in this group line, not free diving, and not swimming in divergent directions around the whales. We simply floated on the surface, together, and allowed the whales to come to us whenever and as closely as they wished. Our behavior with the whales is what is called a Passive-in-Water Whale Encounter, developed by Tom Conlin of Aquatic Adventures. These guidelines are part of the Silver Bank Regulations for the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic. Each of the three whale swim dive boat operators in Silver Bank and their guests must abide by these guidelines to maintain their permits.
When baby Hope rested, which did not seem to be for long periods, we would see her tucked under her mother’s body on the bottom of the ocean floor, at times a mere thirty feet below us. Sometimes, Hope would settle at a perpendicular angle to her mother and we could see her little rostrum (head) sticking out on one side of her mother’s rostrum and her little fluke sticking out from the other side. I know it’s hard to imagine a whale looking small, but in this position she looked quite small under her huge, fifty foot long mother, and well, just adorable beyond words. When she needed to surface to breathe, she would twirl up from beneath her mother, moving with a grace and beauty to rival any human ballerina. It was absolutely mesmerizing to simply watch her move up to the surface to breathe. Then she would swim directly to us, bright eyed and so very obviously happy and determined to be with us. Sometimes, she would swim on her side with her belly facing us. She also swam in circles going behind us then coming around in front of us, repeating this pattern over and over and over again. At times she came so close all I could see were a few lines of her ventral pleats. It took my breath away.
She told me that she desperately wanted to touch us and for us to touch her. I told her that for reasons of safety for us and respect for her and all the whales, we were strictly forbidden to reach out and touch her. I also told her that we would, however, welcome any touch from her, but that she needed to be very gentle. She didn’t need to hear that twice! She began to approach us on her side with both pectoral fins facing us, and to deliberately touch the tips of her pectoral fin underneath our hands. The first time she did this I thought I’d faint from the bliss of it. By the third time she did it she had slowed down a bit and my fingers and the palms of my hands could feel her skin for those few precious seconds that she brushed her pecs underneath my hands. Oh! She was so soft and smooth and lovely! I was in heaven. We were all in heaven (see others’ comments at the end).
On our last afternoon together as I told this precious mother and calf that we needed to leave soon because the light was fading, Hope’s mother (who was named Grace) slowly rose up from the bottom in her full fifty foot beauty and glory, coming up directly in front of us, a mere two feet from our line of human bodies. She stopped and slowly rolled over, showing us her heart and belly, moving and lifting her gorgeous, white, fifteen foot long pectoral fins in graceful perfection, careful not to allow either of them to harm us. With only her ventral pleats in my vision, so very close, I heard her say to all of us, “Thank you. Thank you for all the love you gave to my child.” We thanked her, and afterwards just sobbed and sobbed from the exquisite intimacy of it.
Hope was terribly disappointed that we had to go. She didn’t like it at all that we needed to return to our large dive boat. As our two tenders (small boats) were preparing to leave, one of the guests in our group, Ruth Martin, sent out a message to Hope, humbly asking her if she might come just one more time to the boat so we could see here up close at the surface before leaving. In answer to that prayerful request to come close, she did! She deliberately swam to each tender, slowly swimming a full circle around each a few times, raising her beautiful, perfect little whale head out of the water at times for us to see. There were yelps of joy and plentiful tears of gratitude from all of us.
So I have been touched by a whale, and it was truly heaven on earth to me. And yet, as much as this was a dream come true, it was the way Hope and Grace touched my heart that reached my soul most deeply. Physical touch with those we love can be so rewarding, so intimate. I often yearn for it with those I love. But as I reminisce about these glorious hours with Hope and Grace, I am reminded of the paradox that though physical touch is a deeply enjoyable expression of love, it is not love itself. However blissful touch may be, it is just one possible expression of love, not love itself.
Love itself flows from one heart to another, one soul to another. Love is the highest vibration of energy and consciousness we can experience, and it may or may not be expressed with physical touch. That high vibration of love, that soul deep love, remains between all of us who were privileged to be with Hope and Grace. That love goes on far beyond the moments of touch and the hours and days of being together physically. As I write this, they migrate up the east coast of North America to their feeding grounds and we have each flown back to our homes on land over many continents, the love continues in both directions. The love never ends. And neither does the gratitude for the wonder and miracle of their touch to our bodies and our hearts.
Thank you Hope. Thank you Grace. We love you! May you and all the whales in the sea be safe, happy, fulfilled and at peace. You will live always in our hearts.
Note about their names: Originally, the crew members referred to her as Piggy, then Miss Piggy. However, one of the animal communicators in our group, Jeannine Lafon, from France, heard from this whale that she preferred to be called Hope. Her mother was named by Rider Siphron, originally calling her Amazing Grace. Later, the mother told me that “it is not humble to be called amazing. Please just refer to me as Grace.” And so, they became known as Hope and Grace.
Photo Use Appreciation:
Thank you Eva Johnson for allowing me to share your gorgeous professional photographs! And for giggling with me in the water! Well, you were giggling and I was sobbing most of the time!
Thank you Amanda and Mario of the Aggressor Fleet for your photography and for the CD of your beautiful photos. Top photo is from this CD.
A few comments from people on this March 2011 trip about their time with Hope and Grace:
“My left arm was out as I was on the end of the line. As she came by her pec went underneath my hand and seemed to purposely brush the underside of my hand, allowing me to feel her soft skin. The feeling went right straight to my heart from my fingertips. I just cried. This baby whale touched me! I felt like I was the only one in the water, it was such a powerful connection feeling her pec brushing the palm of my hand. I just welled up and it happened again and again.”
~ Marti Pattishall, Redondo Beach, California
“I loved being in the water with Hope and Grace. Hope was so playful and loving that she came super close to us repeatedly. I mean repeatedly. The fact that Grace allowed us to swim with her and her daughter for an entire day is amazing beyond words. And for someone who loves physical touch as much as I do, I’m surprised to hear myself say this, but it’s really their incredible energy of love that touched me so deeply. That was everything in the experience.
Hope did touch me on the leg and it was exhilarating but only because I felt so much love for them and from them. When I think back on that time in the water with them, I think on the moment when Grace came up from the bottom, on her way to the surface. She just stayed with us, holding us in her gaze, sending love and accepting our love. I felt suspended in this eternal moment and then she arched back slowly, gracefully, showing her beautiful pleated belly, before swimming away.
I think of Hope’s excitement and rise in energy as she circled us again and again, or as she came to say goodbye to everyone in the boats, or when she was so exhausted she came to the surface with her eyes closed. Those moments felt so much greater than the actual physical touch on my leg. Not to say the physical touch wasn’t amazing. It was. The two are so linked, love and touch. I love them and I miss swimming with them. The touch really doesn’t hold a candle to the love you feel with the whales but because love and touch are so linked, once you feel that deep love for the whales, it’s easy to fantasize about the touch. ”
~ Rider Siphron, Los Angeles, California
“When they get close to you, the whale adults know very well how to avoid touching you. One day, we were right above a mother who came up to breathe and, as I was watching her coming up, I really thought she would hit us. Nothing of that kind happened of course. At the last minute, she slightly diverted her original climbing path and the tip of her tail went just a few inches from us. Being still a baby, Hope did not have that skill yet. The first time I saw her in the water, I admired her playful look and her eye looking at us with curiosity. I was at the end of the cluster of people and would have been very easily able to touch her. While I was resisting doing so, I realized that, as she was approaching, Hope may hit me. I tried to move back but I did not go far enough and was touched on the head by the tip of her fluke. Even if the encounter was an unexpected one, I was delighted she had touched me.”
~ Jeannine Lafon, Paris, France
“This was my second Silver Bank whale trip, and the more memorable of the two because of Miss Piggy/Hope and her mother, Grace. On Thursday afternoon (March 24, 2011) when we met up again with Hope, I was in line with the other swimmers, with Eva to my right. Eva was on the end. The first time that Hope circled our line, she misjudged her turn and both Eva and I felt her fluke touch the tops of our heads. It wasn’t hard enough to hurt either of us, and I enjoyed the fact that she came close enough to us to touch us. We both laughed about it! I was moved by how evident it was that Hope loved frolicking around us, and sensed the same from us. However, I was most deeply touched when Hope slowly and deliberately swam around our small boats, turning over and looking up at us, as if to say goodbye in her own way. And the way her mother swam up close to our boats and showed us her heart and underside in gratitude brought me to tears! This was such a wonderful week with Hope and Grace, and I cherish the entire experience.”
~ Shirley Ortega, Pacifica, CA