Snorkeling with the gentlest of giants

Humpback Whale underwater portrait

Not my whale…just a lovely stock shot that closely captures the image in my mind.

I’ve never been a big fan of snorkels.

When I’m diving, I find it’s a bit of a nuisance to have it hanging off my mask. I do own one, but it’s flexible enough to tuck into the pocket of my BCD, ready to haul out for a surface swim if needed, but otherwise, I’m happy to forget it’s there.

I was once warned that a snorkel can quickly become a straw and — no surprise here — I’ve had that happen just about every time I’ve used one. There’s nothing like an unexpected mouthful of seawater to get you sputtering.

But there are times when I can get past all that. And the chance to snorkel with humpbacks is definitely one of them.

We headed out with Ocean Quest in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland last summer to do this, but unfortunately didn’t get to see our large finned friends while we were in the water. Early on we’d come across a group of humpbacks feeding at a capelin buffet, but we left them alone to eat in peace. We also had a young humpback put on a playful show of breaches for us off the side of our boat, but waves and proximity to the rocky shore kept us from getting in for a swim with him.

So, once the humpbacks made their way back to the Rock this year, albeit later than usual, we headed out again.


Is it just me or is there a wee orca resemblance happening here?

Snorkeling in the North Atlantic is not for the faint of heart. The water is cold and it can be rough. There are swells, there are waves. On this tour, you sit on the side of a zodiac and hold onto a rope to keep you in place as you drop over wave crests and have the bejesus bounced out of you  while the wind whips by. Our guide called it the ‘Newfie roller coaster’ and I happen to think it’s worth the price of admission alone. We hooted and hollered our way across the waves, though a few ‘come-from-aways’ (CFAs) on board didn’t quite share our enthusiasm for it.
At all.

One fine bump sent my sister arse over tea kettle over the side. She was fins up, but managed to hang on to the rope and get a good facewashing in the process. Anyone else, we’d had to have swung around and headed back a ways to pluck them out of the water. But Stimpy’s hard core.


It kinda looked like this…

It wasn’t long before we saw the distinct humpback spouts off the bow in the distance. These babies can spray up to 13 ft. in the air, so if you scan the horizon, they’re not hard to spot.

Once we got up close to our first whale, the CFAs were a bit discombobulated and in a bit of a whiny snarl trying to find their gear and get it on. They took so long the whale was gone by the time they were ready to go.

We headed off again and soon enough a spout led us to another humpback. This one appeared in the mood to play, so over the side we went.

Now as I mentioned, the water is cold. But as long as you’ve got a wetsuit on, it’s not bad at all, except for that first trickle that makes its way into your suit at the top of the zipper and creeps down your back. Once that’s over, you’re off to the races.

Face down and snorkel up, I started to swim in the whale’s direction.

I’ve always found it a bit disconcerting to look down into open water with no line or bottom to help gauge a frame of reference. That’s obviously not an issue in tropical waters when you have 100 feet of visibility before you. However, anyone who’s given themselves over to the North Atlantic knows all too well that’s not what we’re dealing with here. You have no idea how deep the water is, what might be below or any sense of what’s what other than an endless wall of blue-green.

Just how much ocean do some people need?

All the same, floating on the surface is a quiet and calm place to be.

That is when your fellow snorkelers aren’t swimming into you and pawing across your back. Just how much ocean do some people need?

We soon realized this whale wanted nothing to do with us and had dove, so we headed back to the bateau.

Dear readers, I’m not going to lie, getting back in the boat is hands down the hardest part of this adventure. You’ll be tired from kicking and swimming against the swells, so pulling yourself up over the side of a zodiac, which isn’t easy at the best of times, becomes even more of a challenge.

Let’s just say, it ain’t pretty.

But thanks to my smart ass dad, who asked our guide (thanks, Matt!) to snap a pic of me trying to get back in, we have this little gem.


And this one.


No kids, that’s not a beached humpback on the boat.

Just a stellar example of a graceful exit.

That spectacle behind us, we soon caught a glimpse of the distinct back of another humpie cutting through the surface of the water. Unlike me, they are the picture of grace, glistening as they go.

Once the captain said the word, we plunged back into the water.

Over the side again

As one of the first in, I was out ahead, swimming in the whale’s direction. At first I saw nothing beyond the blanket of blue. But as I swam on, I noticed the water’s hue start to lighten and turn turquoise in front of me. A moment later, the end of the whale’s white pectoral fin came into view. I couldn’t believe it. There she was. It took a moment to register what I was seeing and I was in utter awe to be floating next to this incredible creature. I started talking to her through my snorkel. I couldn’t help but tell her how beautiful she was.

She was facing away from me and appeared to be about to swim away, so I gave my fins a few flutters to move in her direction. A second later, she all but turned on a dime and soon we were facing each other. Hovering about 8 ft. in front of me, and about the same distance down (it’s hard to gauge) — she didn’t stir. Nor did I. There was no one else around. I couldn’t believe I had this whale all to myself.

Without a movement on her part, she started to rise up slowly towards the surface. For a moment I thought I was about to have a humpback head under my belly, and I considered trying to move myself back out of her way. But having seen her agility and knowing how self-aware humpbacks are, I stayed put. This gentle giant was only going to get as close as she wanted to.

Stillest of moments

As effortlessly as she rose, she turned, the movement majestic. Her head now to my left and her body perpendicular to mine, I could see every inch of her peaceful presence — the bumpy tubercles on her head, each long groove running along her throat, her wing-like fins, her small dorsal and the many notches on her fluke. It is a picture that will forever be frozen in my mind.

We stayed there for some time with curious eyes, until one slow, effortless stroke of her tail took her back into the blue. Without a sound, it wrapped around her; it was as if she’d never been there.

It was the most serene and surreal moment of my life. I’ve heard others say that once you look into the eyes of a whale, you’re forever changed.

I can’t imagine how you’d come away from it any other way.



The zipper goes in front, right?


5 replies
  1. Angela
    Angela says:

    This is an amazing post, Holly! The last three sentences gave me goosebumps as I read them. What an incredible experience for you!

  2. Peter lake
    Peter lake says:

    I was in the water right behind Holly and saw it all as she described it. Quite an experience and will be doing it again next summer.


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