Swimming with Moby Dick

I separate the Caribbean countries into two different categories-large and small countries. I tend to prefer visiting the smaller less busy countries and Dominica meets the definition of one of these types of countries. It is idyllic, relaxed and an eco-tourism paradise. Dominica doesn’t have the white sand beaches of its neighbors, but it more than makes up for this with its wealth of natural beauty. The lack of beaches keeps the mega resorts and masses of cruise ship tourists away. It has the most pristine rainforest of any Caribbean country and has geothermal activity, bubbling lakes, and incredible waterfalls. The most amazing natural attraction of Dominica that I came for however is the Sperm Whales. Dominica is one of the leading Sperm Whale watching destinations in the world because of the resident whales that live off of its shores all year long. Dominica is special because you have a great chance of seeing these majestic animals from above or below the water. My goal was to see them below the water. So as part of a multi-Caribbean country trip, my wife and I set off to Dominica.

Map of Dominica

I first discovered the Sperm Whales of Dominica 10 years ago in a Nat Geo magazine. I was mesmerized by the story of a local man who adopted an injured baby Sperm Whale. The Sperm Whale lost its mother and developed a relationship with the man earning the man the nickname the Sperm Whale whisperer. As a result of this relationship, the man was able to take incredible underwater photos of him swimming alongside the giant whale. The notoriety led this man to starting a business in Dominica leading professional photographers on snorkeling trips with Sperm Whales. I reached out on numerous occasions to dive operators and government contacts in Dominica to organize such a trip and I discovered the cost to obtain one of the few permits and to organize the trip was beyond reasonable. I basically gave up on the idea until years later when I decided to plan a trip to Dominica. I decided to try and reach out to the Sperm Whale whisperer, and I discovered his name via some online sleuthing and found his contact information. Surprisingly, he agreed to take my wife and I out on a boat-Boston Whaler to snorkel with the whales.  He was quick to mention that we might not find any whales, but we would try.

About Sperm Whales in Dominica

Dominica is the only country with resident Sperm Whales. This is because there is a deep underwater canyon near the shore that drops down to 8000 feet where their main food source, the giant squid is abundant. Even know the dark depths of the ocean where the giant squid live is pitch dark, the Sperm Whale is adapted hunting in the dark. The whales can hold their breath for 20 or longer, enough time for them to dive down to the bottom of the canyon and hunt giant squid with echo location. The whales hunt the squid by first killing them by battering them with their giant heads and then eating them with their teeth. The squid are a formidable enemy however and can grow up to 60-70 feet long and weigh a ton and they can defend themselves with sharp claws on their tentacles and beaks. In Dominica, it is easy to spot battle scars on the whales inflicted upon them from hunting giant suid.  Sperm whales are really the only predator of giant squid, and this is because the whales are so huge, being the largest toothed predator in the world, growing up to 60 feet long, and 50 tons. These fearsome predators were almost hunted to extinction for the oil in their heads. Despite having every reason to dislike us and easily being able to squash us like a pesky nat in the water, Sperm Whales are surprisingly gentle in nature and swam very close to us to give us a curious glance.

View of Roseau 

Our Boat

How I Organized the Trip

Organizing the trip was a difficult process. My contact was not very responsive, and we didn’t have concrete plans on where to meet and on exactly what kind of boat we would have until the day before the trip. My wife and I had trouble locating him in the busy streets of Roseau, but we eventually found the obscure dock where his friend’s boat was located. One of my biggest worries was obtaining a permit because I had read from numerous sources that it would cost thousands and be difficult to obtain so when my contact informed me, he had a permit for us, I didn’t actually believe him, but I figured in the remote chance we are stopped by the authorities, I at least had this text from him to defend ourselves.

Paula ready for snorkeling

Paula and I had the boat to ourselves. Other than the guide, there was only the captain and his 10 year old son. For food and drink we had a cooler with water, lots of Rum punch and a few sandwiches. 

Captains son

Swimming with Giants

We traveled almost 30 miles from the coast along the westward side of Dominica. There were no signs of whales for the first few hours. We scanned the water looking for waterspouts, or flukes. The captain had a good high vantage point from up top of the boat. Our guide used a hydrophone to listen for whale clicks, the whale’s mode of communication and navigation underwater. He heard some and estimated that the whales were a few miles further west. The thought occurred to me that our guide might be bullshitting us but before I could finish that thought, the captain yelled, “whales ahead, get ready” Paula and I frantically put on our snorkels, and flippers as I prepared the go-Pro.  Paula had a wet suit and I only a rash guard. Before I could even see where the whale was, we jumped into the water. I put my head under water and saw that we were directly in front of what looked like a giant submarine coming directly towards us. I wasn’t sure if I should be excited or scared. I kept Paula behind me and close but there was little I could do in the water if the whale decided to charge us. The whale as it approached us from 30 feet away dove down below us with an effortless flick of its tail into the air and it disappeared below us into the dark depts of the ocean. It was a sobering thought to remember that below us was approx. 8,000 feet of dark ocean and all of the creatures with it including giant squid, the reason the whales live in this area and their main food source. 

Mother with baby Sperm Whale

The captain exclaimed we were lucky to see a whale and have a good sighting. He explained that he was recently on a multi-day trip with some guests and saw no whales. I would have been happy with one sighting, but our luck wasn’t over yet. For the next few hours, we came across whale after whale, and we were jumping in to swim so often that we were becoming exhausted. Our guide would snorkel alongside us and helped me look after Paula who wasn’t comfortable swimming, and he would also read the behavior of the whales to help keep us out of harm’s way. The captain’s son would also swim alongside us, and he was just as excited as us since this was his first-time swimming with whales. Despite this, he was fearless. On one occasion he swam right up to a large mother whale with a baby and touched the mother whale. 

Paula snorkeling in the deep ocean

Snorkeling in the deep blue ocean with nothing but thousands of feet of water and huge sea monsters below you-giant squid-not to mention tiger sharks lurking about, definitely leaves you feeling vulnerable, especially since we were so far out from shore. To add to this anxiety, when we jumped into the water our boat would back off to avoid scaring the whales so we would be hundreds of yards away from the boat at times. We had ocean swimming fins which allowed us to swim with some speed and I had a go Pro stick which was fully extended, which I planned to use for protection in the event we encountered a shark. Our guide did admit that he had spotted tiger sharks on occasion while snorkeling with whales. 

Me in the water with a Sperm Whale

We had many amazing whale encounters. The best one was when we jumped into the water to discover we were in between 2 sets of whales. It was an incredible experience to have two adolescent male whales on one side of us and a mother and baby on the other side. In that moment as these giant beasts passed us within 20 feet on both sides, it was very humbling to know that we were completely at their mercy.

Paula in the water with a Sperm Whale

Mother whale diving 

The group in the water with whales

We swam with so many whales during the 8 hours that we were at sea that it became exhausting. The whales would surface for 20 minutes and dive down for 30 minutes only to resurface a few miles away. There were multiple groups in the area and our guide seemed to know them all by name. There were no other snorkeling boats and almost no other marine traffic out this far from shore. The whales were fascinating to watch both beneath and above the water. On one occasion a whale spewed a cloud of dark water into the ocean. Our guide identified it as excrement and in the cloud, I observed small pieces of giant squid claws and beak floating at the ocean’s surface.

Mother and baby

Me in the water with a Sperm Whale

On the way back to shore, our guide commented on the amount of good fortune we had with the whales. It was early July, and we were clearly outside of the typical whale season, which is in winter and early Spring. The one whale we didn’t see was a big bull male. These whales are solitary and only come to the coastal area of Dominica during mating season in the Spring in search of females for mating and they seldomly stick around for long.

Emerald Pool

After swimming with whales all day, we decided to visit the Emerald Pool, one of the islands most famous waterfalls. Given that it was July-off peak season for tourists and there were no cruise ships, I figured we would have the waterfalls at the Emerald Pool to ourselves. What I really wanted to see there was the rainforest ecosystem of the island’s interior mountains. The jungle and mountains didn’t disappoint. We saw some pretty colorful chameleons and unique plants, but we didn’t have the waterfall to ourselves as expected. At least, it wasn’t cruise ship tourists but instead all locals enjoying their Sunday barbecuing and swimming in the falls while blasting music from a portable stereo. My recommendation is to skip this waterfall and visit one of the lesser-known ones, and there are many where you are likely to have the waterfall to yourself. 

Emerald Pool with Locals Swimming

Our Treehouse Accommodation in Toucari Town

I chose Toucari to base our stay in Dominica, a small undeveloped town on a secluded bay in the northwest of Dominica with no resorts, tucked away in jungle clad mountains. I booked a little cabin in the hills surrounded by rainforest that was raised on stilts to give the appearance of being in the trees. Finding the cabin in the hills on the rutty dirt tracks in our little rental car with zero clearance was challenging especially since we arrived at night. The cabin had excellent views over the bay and forest around us from our porch and our bed. Dominica is safe and there is non-existent crime, so we opened all the windows at night and went to sleep to the chorus of rain and jungle sounds.  If the mosquitos weren’t so bad, this would have been paradise.

Toucari is a nice town with mainly locals and no tourists. There are some small beach bars that serve food, and the beach is an easy place to hire a local fisherman to take you snorkeling around the champagne bubbles formed by geothermal activity emitting gas bubbles from the earth. We snorkeled for 1/2 a day from a fishing boat and swam with the bubbles, saw amazing fountain corals, a shallow shipwreck from the 1700’s and traveled up to the point, where the rough waters of the open ocean from the Atlantic meets the placid Caribbean waters.

View from our room

Our porch

View of Toucari from our boat

Shipwreck from the 1700’s that we snorkeled. There wasn’t much left of it but you could definitely see the outline of the ship that is mostly overgrown by the marine animals now

Sunsets Are Incredible in Dominica

Exploring Dominica in Our Rental Car

On our last full day in Dominica, we explored the north of the island. I had grand plans to circle the entire island, but the roads are small, in some areas pretty rugged, and hilly and the going is very slow. I quickly realized that it is better to choose a section of the island and focus on exploring that area. It was fun to try exploring mountain tracks and to purposedly get lost. But getting stuck was no fun. 

Mountain roads many on really bad dirt tracks

We visited Cabrits Fort, a British colonial era fort, with beautiful jungles and views over the ocean. The fort built in the 1700’s saw a lot of fighting between the French and British. It was hot when we were visiting Cabrit’s but we still hiked the entire loop to ruined British buildings-Officers Quarters, prison, sea cliff with incredible views and then through the rainforest finishing at the main fortress. This is an attraction that should not to be missed.

Paula in front of the Old British officers’ Quarters

British Cannons Directed to the Approach path of an Enemy Navy

Paula in Front of the Abandoned British Prison Building

We loved the Syndicate Falls. Despite the strange name, the falls were beautiful and secluded. It was raining when we visited so we spent a lot of time hiding under a palm tree because at this high elevation on the island, the rain is cold. Getting to the falls was half the fun. The drive took us up a steep narrow path through the mountains and rainforests. After asking some locals and a few trial by error attempts via our GPS, we found a suitable place down a bad muddy road to park our car and hike the mile or so down into the slippery canyon and finally to the falls. We soaked in the freezing falls while watching the endangered Dominican green parrots, only found on the island of Dominica, as they noisily flew above squawking. 

Paula at Syndicate Falls

Paula at Syndicate Falls

Ghecko we met on the trail

What I Would Do Next Visit

If I am lucky enough to return to Dominica, I will definitely do more hiking in the mountains and visit during the dry season in winter. Some places I would like to see next time are the following:                                                                                                                       

  • Boiling Lake-This all-day hike in the rain forested mountains is to a geothermal boiling lake, one of the largest in the world, and is known to be one of the most challenging hikes on the island. Paula and I planned to do this hike but it was raining too hard making the conditions dangerous.
  • Carib Indian Reserve: Another place I wanted to visit was the reserve for the Carib Indians, the indigenous people the Caribbean is named after. Staying in a Carib homestay would provide great insight into the culture and history.
  • Sea Turtle Nesting Beaches and Waterfalls of the Southeast: The southeastern section of the island isn’t as commonly visited and has some great waterfalls that are guaranteed to be remote and then there is a community guarded beach where thousands of sea turtles come to lay their eggs every year.
  • Too many places of interest to list

5 + 7 =

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