Several great humpback whale encounters in the island’s proximity have sparked great interest on Saba and in the marine liferesearch community, writes The Daily Herald. For the past couple of weeks, people have been posting photos on social media of these gentle giants passing close to shore. While conducting mooring maintenance work at less than three kilometres distance from Fort Bay harbour on February 11, marine park rangers of Saba Bank Management Unit and a Wageningen University student intern were treated to an unforgettable close encounter with these great whales.
A video recording released by Saba Conservation Foundation (SCF) shows staff members Dozlyn Pouchie, Rodney Swanepoel, Rachel Thijssen, Jimmy van Rijn and Dutch biology student Twan Stoffers swimming close to the undisturbed whales. Stoffers and his project supervisor Martin de Graaf extended an interview on their work and the special experience. De Graaf is project leader of the fisheries-management project being conducted in the protected maritime exclusive economic zone of Saba, St. Eustatius and Bonaire. He works for Institute of Marine Resources and Ecosystem Studies (IMARES) under the funding of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The work conducted in Saba waters and at Saba Banks involves surveying fish population via video monitoring. Several Wageningen University biology students intern in the programme, including Stoffers, who gained some popularity for having lucky “close encounters” with six hammerhead sharks just before this latest whale encounter.
Luck may have something to do with hard work. Stoffers is wrapping up a survey of the least-frequented areas of Saba Banks. The intensive video-monitoring days at sea imply predawn to late night work schedules, which the interns combine with information obtained from fishermen. For the past year, they have been collecting fishermen’s accounts of locating and tracking the frequency of encounters with whales and dolphins. They have split up the monitoring in 12 quadrants for fishermen to locate their encounters. The information obtained is a “cheap yet efficient means to build up relatively reliable data,” said De Graaf. Data of positively identified species remains scarce, but this data collected from fishermen is a foundation for later qualitative work.
For the past five months, Stoffers has been conducting research for his Master’s thesis on fish populations. He studies variations in fish diversity and density in different Saba Banks’ habitats and fish populations. He will be returning to Wageningen this week, thrilled to have had such a rare experience in the last days of his stay. De Graaf assures that such encounters close to shore are highly improbable. The sighting was in the proximity of Saba’s main dive site, one of the underwater pinnacles aptly named “Third Encounter.” Stoffers said at first they “saw two blows, followed by two dorsal fins and two flukes” in the proximity of another pinnacle called Mt. Michel. They noticed the whales resurfacing within 20 minutes in the same spot and went there and tied up to the mooring. “I spotted a large white silhouette right underneath the boat and we came to the conclusion that this must be the pectoral fin of one of the whales,” said Stoffers. “Slowly and nervously, I let myself into the water and immediately saw two big Humpback whales resting beneath me. I was so excited, but tried to stay calm not to scare them away. They stayed for 20 minutes before they went to take a breath and disappeared into the big blue Caribbean Sea.” Saba Bank Park Officer Jimmy van Rijn filmed part of the encounter and some of the footage is available online.