Humpback Whales of the Dominican Republic

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One of the most beautiful tour in Dominican Republic is the Visit to the Sanctuary of Humpback Whales in Samana, Dominican Republic. Samana’s whales are well known. Each year 3 to 5 thousand humpback whales return to Bahia de Samana and adjacent waters to give birth and mate for the following year. From January until March, frolicsome males can be observed vying for the attentions of demure females. Sky-rocketing, standing on their tails (and heads, too!), flippering, tailing; all sorts of antics may be observed under carefully controlled conditions aboard excursion boats staffed by knowledgeable personnel.

Excursions leave from Samana Harbor and several other points along the north shore of the bay. Samana’s whales are truly an international treasure and are fully protected by the Dominican government.

Thousands of humpback whales migrate to Samana Bay every year for the breeding season, which runs from January through March. Their journey is a long and slow trek spanning from the polar regions of the North Atlantic to the warm and clear waters of the Caribbean. Regrettably, over the centuries, whale hunters have decimated the population of these magnificent creatures to the point of near extinction. But, thanks to the efforts of organizations such as the International Whaling Commission (IWC), humpback whales along with other species, have received world protection since 1966. However, there is still a long way to go for full recovery. The world population of humpbacks has reached approximately 40,000 or about 30-35% of its original levels.

Humpbacks can be easily observed, either at their feeding or breeding grounds. Whale watching has become an increasingly popular worldwide activity, and the Dominican Republic is fortunate to have one of the largest and best humpback breeding sanctuaries in the world.

The Dominican government enforces strict whale protection laws and guidelines to ensure the safety and conservation of these wonderful animals. Whale watching can be a thrilling experience for anyone interested in nature and the preservation of our natural resources.

We must continue to respect and protect these incredibly gentle giants so we can enjoy them for a long time to come. The following photos are images of what one would see on a typical whale-watching tour in Samana Bay, Dominican Republic.

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Sidemount Cave Diving in the Dominican Republic

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As dawn breaks over Bayahibe — a once sleepy fishing village turned bustling dive hot spot in southeast Dominican Republic — the usual suspects begin to stir along the dirt road outside my apartment. Roosters warm up their vocal cords across the street. Dogs flop down in patches of early light. From my balcony, I spot a rising dust cloud from my ride as Uwe Rath rolls up, truck bed loaded with cave-diving gear.

Our plan is a full-penetration dive into the first leg of Chicho Cave, a crystal-clear freshwater cenote that lies beneath the arid scrub brush of the DR’s Parque Nacional del Este (National Park of the East). Most divers know about the cenotes of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, but few realize that similar systems can be found elsewhere in the Caribbean. That goes double for the Dominican Republic, where above-ground cave systems boast a wealth of native, pre-colonial Taino cave paintings and artifacts, and the underwater rivers that connect them remain largely untouched and unexplored.

Rath is one of only two cave instructor-trainers in the country, and a local cave-diving pioneer who has been an integral member of initial expeditions to explore and name the caves that comprise the Dominican Republic’s underwater-river network. A past expedition turned up a skull and bones from a previously unknown species of ancient mammal, which is now being studied by the Museum of the Dominican Man in Santo Domingo.

Rath is also a gregarious German who has spent more than two decades in the DR, owning and operating dive shops in every corner of the country. His latest operation, Ocean Diving, is a custom dive center that has its storefront in the exclusive Casa de Campo resort, about 14 miles from Bayahibe. But don’t worry if, like me and most divers, you can’t afford Casa de Campo’s presidential digs — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all have vacationed here — Rath also makes house calls to meet divers who are down for a personalized, off-the-beaten-track experience.

Bottom line: If you’re an advanced or technical diver looking for an out-of-the-ordinary underwater adventure in the Dominican Republic, Rath is the fixer who can make it happen.

Sidemount on St. George

Before we go underground, we plan to make our first dives together in open ocean, so Rath commandeers a local dive boat, and we head out of Bayahibe’s bustling loading dock to the DR’s signature wreck dive, the St. George.

We’re diving sidemount, a technical BCD system that has clips to carry tanks under our arms rather than on our backs. The benefts are many, the main one being redundancy — every diver has two tanks, each with its own regulator. It also helps us keep a fat swimming position in the water, ideal for penetrating wrecks and caves where we need to avoid kicking up sediment on the bottom. Carrying the tanks protected under our arms helps reduce snags, and makes us more flexible in tight interior spaces.

Less than 10 minutes from the loading ramp at the heart of Bayahibe — now buzzing with activity as boats vie to board gaggles of European divers, snorkelers and sun seekers — our boat idles into position, mooring over the wreck.

We clip our tanks under our arms as we make our final checks and slip into the water. As I sink beneath the swim step, angling for the down line, I see the tower of the St. George rising proudly from the sandy seafloor about 140 feet below, amid swarms of jack fish that seem like they’re raining upward in slow motion.

The nearly 250-foot steel freighter was sunk as an artificial reef in 1999; today it remains intact and upright, with a profusion of fish and corals. Nearing the sandy bottom, we fare out with our arms forward and glide into the ship’s superstructure with methodical frog kicks, exploring deep beneath the deck of the cargo holds, along the exterior walkways, and through the wheelhouse.

We finalize our afternoon plans over pizza on the Bayahibe waterfront before loading into Rath’s truck and heading inland. Much of the area surrounding Bayahibe — on land and in the water — is the protected National Park of the East. This includes offshore dive favorites at Saona and Catalina islands, as well as the inland Padre Nuestro area, a hot, arid jungle of scrub brush atop karst limestone, which is where we’re headed.

scd1214_01_0Into Chicho Cave

We pull of the main road at a gate that opens onto a steeply inclined, rutted dirt track. As we bounce our way up the road, men materialize from the forest and approach the truck. Rath gestures for them to hop in back — once we arrive at the dive site, I understand why.

We park in a clearing at a trailhead that winds steeply down rough steps hewn from logs and rocks. The men who joined us jump into action, making quick work of carrying our tanks, weights and gear bags down the rugged path. The final steps of the trail lead down slick rock into the gaping maw of the cave. From the surface, the electric blue of the water illuminated by the overhead sun beckons like a siren, singing songs of exploration and adventure.

After hiking under the hot Caribbean sun in a 5 mm wetsuit, I relish the cool rush against my skin as I dunk into the cenote and don my gear. As we descend into the freshwater basin beneath us, we turn our dive lights toward the darkness.

The beam of my light picks up the telltale glint of a bright-white cave line, and I see the ghostly string disappear through a hole in the wall: our entrance to Chicho Cave. We make a final check, then frog-kick inside, hovering just above the guide line that leads the way to the end of the passage.

Inside the tunnel, the water is deceptively clear, playing tricks with my mind. My bubbles are the only sign that I haven’t already come up for air. We wind an undulating path around incredible rock formations. Fat stalagmites sit like half-melted candles, while sections of the ceiling bristle like pincushions, blanketed by spiny stalactites. After 25 minutes, the tunnel angles upward and soon opens into a wide room. I watch Rath above me and see his head disappear as he surfaces into an air chamber above us.

I follow him to the surface, where he explains it’s safe to remove my regulator — though dark, the room is connected to the outside world, and thus there’s fresh air for us to breathe. I flash my light on the ceiling above, watching the beam bounce over rock in the humid air. I can’t help but feel privileged to be here. Rath and others may have only just started exploring the Dominican Republic’s cave systems, but if those caves that remain to be found look anything like this one, they won’t remain secret for long.

What It Takes

Cave diving requires special training, equipment and experience. Uwe Scuba uses sidemount gear for cave diving; a sidemount-certification class can provide you with all the necessary skills and equipment. Any open-water diver who is at least 15 years old can take a PADI Sidemount Diver course; you can apply the dives to an Advanced certification. You should also have a Cave Diver cert, or you can join an Intro to Cave course to learn to properly use guidelines, line markers, dive lights and redundant-air supplies. Prerequisites for Intro to Cave are a Cavern Diver certification and a minimum of
 25 logged dives.

Need to Know

Operator: Ocean Diving (oceandivingsd.com) is one of a select few operators that can arrange proper technical dives into DR’s cave systems, as well as teach PADI Tec Rec programs for Sidemount, Intro to Cave and Cave Diver courses.

When to go: Bayahibe and nearby Punta Cana are year-round dive destinations, with warm, protected water. As with most Caribbean destinations, winter is the high season; late summer is the low season.

Dive conditions: Ocean conditions stay calm year-round in Bayahibe, with water temps ranging from high 70s to mid-80s and visibility from 60 to 120 feet. In the freshwater caves, the water always stays 
in the mid-70s, with a visibility of 150 feet.

Price tag: A single guided cave dive costs $110; two dives in different caves run $170. If you don’t have cave-diving experience, Uwe Scuba offers classes. PADI’s TecRec Sidemount course costs $420; a TDI Intro to Cave certification costs $590.

Dominican Republic Dive Travel Guide

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Dominican Republic

North American divers choosing to spend a scuba diving vacation in the Dominican Republic will find more than 50,000 hotel rooms, making it the third most developed tourist destination in the Caribbean. Between 1.5 and 2 million tourists visit each year to lounge on the island’s beautiful beaches, play tennis, swat golf balls, and generally live the good life in some sweet all-inclusive resorts that are among the Caribbean’s best travel values.

Location:

And that’s part of the problem. Because the big resorts are so focused on the complete vacation picture, diving is often seen as just another activity to squeeze in between lunch and afternoon playtime.

Complicating things even more: Some of the most developed general tourism areas don’t have the best diving. Take Punta Cana, for example. It’s the island’s most popular region for general tourism, but it’s situated on the exposed eastern tip of the island, and swept by Atlantic currents and the occasionally torturous seas of the Mona Passage. Divers who visit Punta Cana when the winter winds are blowing may find days where it is too rough to dive at all, and if they do get out to the reef, they’ll typically find marginal visibility and minimal fish life.

Prevailing winds typically blow from north and west, leaving the southeast portion of the island in a consistent lee. The calmest waters are generally found in Bayahibe (La Romana), Juan Dolio and Boca Chica. Choose your destination within the DR carefully, and you can enjoy a relaxing vacation with some easy diving and plenty of nondiving activities to boot.

Boca Chica

Located just outside the capital city of Santo Domingo, Boca Chica is one of the traditional vacation getaways for Dominicans. The region offers beaches, shops, restaurants and bars within easy walking distance of the resort hotels. The area also offers the easiest access to the wrecks in the La Caleta Underwater National Park and La Sirena Cave.

Juan Dolio

There are a variety of excellent all-inclusive resorts in the Juan Dolio region, located about 30 minutes east of the Santo Domingo Airport. Depending on rain and current conditions, a nearby river can diminish water clarity on some of the sites.

Bayahibe

The area most likely to emerge as a favorite among North American divers, the Bayahibe area features clear, tranquil Caribbean seas and wide, powdery white beaches. The dive portfolio includes shallow nearshore reefs, two offshore islands and a shipwreck. Divers may also see an occasional manatee here.

Punta Cana

The exposed eastern tip of the island has beautiful golf courses, beautiful scenery and is a haven for windsurfers — so the diving is predictably rough, especially in winter.

Samana Peninsula

During the whale-watching season, several Caribbean liveaboards relocate to Samana to offer whale expeditions to the Silver Banks. Day boats from this region also go in search of humpback whales in the confines of Samana Bay. Dive operators offer a blend of advanced, deep-water dives and shallow, secluded snorkeling.

Playa Dorada/Sosua

Just outside the town of Puerto Plata is Playa Dorada, an oceanside complex of resorts complete with a central shopping plaza and golf course. This is also an excellent staging area for day trips to the interior for whitewater rafting, horseback riding, rappeling down a mountainside, paragliding or simply relaxing with a bottle of cerveza beside a scenic waterfall.

Much of the diving off Puerto Plata is staged from the protected waters of Sosua Bay (divers are bused to the boat each morning), although when the conditions are right, the boats may also depart the Playa Dorada beach.

Dominican Republic Travel Savvy

Getting There/Getting Around

Depending on which airport you fly into, the Dominican Republic is just a two- or three-hour flight from East Coast gateways. Connections are also available via San Juan, Puerto Rico, and numerous European gateways.

The Dive Report

Water Conditions

The water temperature ranges from a low of 77 to a high in the mid-80s. The Caribbean Sea, especially off Boca Chica and Bayahibe, is generally significantly calmer than the conditions found in the Atlantic off the northeast shore, and consequently better visibility is the norm. Rivers are a significant factor affecting water clarity for some regions, but the dive operators typically visit sites least affected by runoff. Along the Caribbean leeward coast, expect 60- to 100-foot visibility, while the Atlantic sites can typically offer 50 to 90 feet of visibility.

Destination Snapshot: The Dominican Republic

Geography: The DR occupies roughly half of the island of Hispaniola, sharing a central border with Haiti. This is a country of geographic extremes. The highest mountain in the Caribbean is located in the DR (Pico Duarte at over 10,382 feet), yet just over 100 miles to the southwest is Lake Enriquillo, a saltwater crocodile habitat 144 feet below sea level. The island is washed by the Atlantic Ocean along the northern shore, and by the Caribbean Sea to the south.

As another example of the geographic contrasts in the DR, the northern coast seems to receive more precipitation October through May, while the south gets most of its rain May through October, although in general it rains more in the north than in the south.

Climate: Temperatures range from the mid-80s to low 90s in summer and from the mid-70s to mid-80s in winter. Some evenings in winter are cool enough for a sweater, particularly when dining outside.

Dive In: Dominican Republic

Documents: For U.S. citizens, a valid passport is required.

Language: The official language is Spanish, but English is widely spoken in the resorts and tourist areas. The dive staff is very likely to be multilingual thanks to the heavy European visitation the DR enjoys.

Electricity: 110 volts/60 cycles, just like the U.S.

Telephone: The DR area code is 809.

Time: Atlantic Standard Time, one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The island does not observe daylight saving time.

Health: No immunizations are required to travel to the DR. Tap water is not safe to drink, but most hotels will provide bottled water in your room.

Just in case: There are recompression chambers in Santo Domingo and Puerto Plata.