Look a humpback whale in its softball-sized eye and something clicks inside you.
I found that out recently, but world record-setting free diver and environmentalist Tanya Streeter learned it a long time ago. She saw my posts from the Silver Bank off the coast of the Dominican Republic recently, and we decided we needed to get together to catch up.
(Read my article in the Austin American-Statesman about Streeter’s work to create a documentary about the science and health impact of plastic pollution here.)
Streeter, who free dove competitively from the late 1990s to 2006, reaching depths of up to 525 feet without air tanks or scuba gear, is now focused on raising her two children – Tilly, 10, and Charlie, 3.
The kids, apparently, are taking after mom. When I got to Streeter’s house, she showed me Tilly’s latest school project – a humpback whale molded from clay that will hang in a display box painted the exact color of the ocean.
Streeter, it turns out, went out on the same boat I just spent a week on back in 2005, while filming a short documentary about swimming with the whales for the BBC. We both agreed: Whales are incredible. They’re beautiful, strong, intelligent, curious and gentle, and put on amazing acrobatic shows, all the while knowing their exact body position in the water.
They’re also the perfect way to spread the story of conservation and habitat protection. People are drawn to the school bus-sized creatures, and science shows that whales, which migrate to the Silver Bank from the North Atlantic in the winter to give birth and raise their calves, can teach us about the status of the seas.
“Whales are barometers of ocean health,” she says. “They hold so much awe for people – so in a way whales are our storytellers.”
Streeter supports tight regulations surrounding human interaction with whales. Just three boats are licensed each season to carry passengers to the Silver Bank to see the humpbacks. Scuba diving isn’t allowed; humans can float in the water in small groups but are not permitted to chase the whales. They must wait for the whales to approach them.
That’s different, for example, then the situation off of Isla Mujeres, where tourists flock each summer to swim with whale sharks. While that experience is also regulated, when I went three years ago it was chaotic, too, with people jumping in the water and swimming after the huge creatures.
Look for my complete story about my humpback experience soon.