FOR THE PAST FEW WEEKS, Barbadians have been staring out to sea. However, it’s not boats that have caught their attention, but the antics of one of Mother Nature’s biggest marine creatures frolicking in the island’s waters. Humpback whales have been making spectacles of themselves and have left Barbadians oohing and ahhing on beaches, in boats and behind binoculars. Photographer Mark Harris was one of those who was fortunate not only to see them as they swam around, but to witness the amazing spectacle of them breaching at Drill Hall and, to top if off, get it on camera. “It was a Wednesday, and I was looking to shoot some surfing,” Harris recalled. “And then I saw them jump just off the Savannah Hotel. And then they just stayed and played for about 15 minutes. They were huge and pretty close to shore.” His reaction? “Wow! And then it was focus and shoot! I felt happy to see them,” he added. Since then, the photographer has been able to watch them as they played at Parlour and Cattlewash on the east coast and at Silver Sands, Christ Church. His photographs have been greeted with amazement. Many commented at the sight of the 50-foot long creatures breaching so near to the island. Others have expressed disbelief at how close they were to shore. As recently as last week Saturday, the marine creatures were spotted as they lazily swam past Drill Hall beach again. Word of their arrival spread as quickly as the latest gossip with people relaying positions to each other via cellphone. And even though they barely broke the surface of the water, the sight of the creatures, which can weigh as much as 79 000 pounds, was enough to command the undivided attention of those on the beach. In the last three weeks, there have also been reports that some boat owners have had close encounters with them, with one captain reporting that his boat was bumped. Marine biologist André Miller, who is also a diver, has himself been getting up close and personal with the whales. He and other divers are among the fortunate few who have been able to sit among the whales, on the Barbados Blue boat, as they frolicked in the water. “They have come right up to the boat. We love it,” he enthused. He revealed the pod of three or four whales is made up of at least two females and a calf and the biggest is about 50 feet long. Meanwhile, Professor of Conservation Ecology at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI), Julia Horrocks, said the sightings around the island have been relayed to the Eastern Caribbean Cetacean Network through UWI. “The underside of the tail fluke varies from white to black,” she explained. “Each humpback whale’s tail fluke is different and can be used to identify individuals. Tail fluke photographs are matched to international tail fluke databases as a means of tracking movements.” She said estimates suggested there were about 11 000 humpbacks in the western North Atlantic population. They spend most of the year in the rich feeding grounds from the Gulf of Maine to Iceland. Many then migrate to spend the winter months – December to April – in the warmer waters of the Caribbean, not feeding but living off their blubber. It is here that breeding and calving occur and escort males, competing to breed, can often be seen following females, while mothers are frequently seen with calves.