Author savors a continuing education course with the Humpback whales.
Gayle Lawrence, RDH
The month of March offered us a celestial treat. Two full moons appeared in the same month; the second one is called a blue moon. During the week of March 27-April 3, I had one of those "once in a blue moon experiences!" I was surrounded by Humpback whales! I`ll borrow a phrase from Dr. Marsha Green, founder of the Ocean Mammal Institute. "Women By Whalelight" is a perfect description of me and the other ladies who were with me for this soul-transforming experience.
We flew into Puerta Plata in the Dominican Republic. The weather was wonderful upon arrival - warm island breezes and bright sunlight. Pedro met us at the airport and drove us to the dock, where we boarded the boat that would be our home for the next six days. The dive boat was comfortable - no frills, but perfectly fine. Small cabins, bunk beds, and shared showers and heads (bathroom) for the 20 passengers and six crew members. They were a very warm and congenial group of people, and all of us were consumed with the wonder and mystique of Humpback whales.
We spent a few hours exploring Puerta Plata. My dental hygiene homing device was obviously activated. One of the first buildings I spotted was a Clinica Dental, complete with a happy tooth sporting a toothbrush! Geez, they`re everywhere!
We left port early the next morning for a four-hour ride that took us 90 miles out into open water. The area is called the Silver Bank, the winter birthing and mating grounds for the Atlantic Humpback whales. The area encompasses a 65-mile radius that is full of whales. Our adventure begins, five days of sharing above water and in-water encounters with one of the largest and most magnificent mammals on the planet - the Humpback whale.
During our first day out, we had multiple in-water encounters with the whales. Mothers with their calves are the most receptive and curious; usually, they are escorted by a "very large" male.
When I first entered the water, I was astounded when I gazed through my snorkel mask and below me was a full adult Humpback, just floating underneath me, 15-foot pectoral fins fully outstretched. She was beautiful. I felt like I was in another dimension. The rays from the sun were filtering down through the water and glistening like a halo around the whale. Then, to my surprise and delight, her baby (calf) appeared from underneath her. He had obviously been nursing, hidden from sight. As he rolled over on his back, he and I looked directly at each other. It was magical and left me dumbfounded! We gazed at each other for a moment and then he rolled over onto his mother`s back. They began to surface for a breath of air as they moved out in front of me.
As if that wasn`t enough of a first time experience, from underneath me and to my right, I then saw her male escort moving toward her. He was absolutely enormous. Humpbacks average between 40 to 50 feet and weigh from 75,000 to 100,000 pounds. The sight literally took my breath away. The three of them swam off together, leaving me floating on the surface of the water like a hypnotized piece of seaweed! Finally, I came out of the trance and swam back to the boat. I was lost in the rapture of the experience for quite some time. We were all babbling excitedly; yet all of us felt it to be a sacred encounter. We had many similar experiences that left me feeling in awe of these gentle, beautiful, and extremely graceful creatures.
Some whales are very curious, especially the calves. They would come and swim beside the boat, roll over on their sides, lift their heads out of the water, and really look us over. They were as curious about us as we were about them. The above-water action was pretty awesome too. A lot of breaching, tail slapping (we saw one whale slap 41 times in a row), pec (fin) slapping, and spy hopping (lifting their heads out of the water to look at us). Watching the mothers teach their calves these necessary whale behaviors in such a loving and caring way was very touching and heart-warming.
The males are the ones who sing their famous songs, and you could hear them very loudly and clearly under the water. The Humpback whale songs are so magical and otherworldly that they were sent out on Voyager spacecraft as samples of sounds from earth. Of course, my theory is that whales and extraterrestrials are so evolved that they would naturally understand one another! On several occasions, we even heard them from the boat when they were in their very low pitch part of the song. It was amazing and seemed to touch an ancient memory somewhere deep inside of me.
It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After swimming with a Humpback whale, I will never be the same. I had visualized and saw in my mind my most ideal encounters with the whales; they obviously heard my thoughts and responded as I had respectfully asked them too, offering me a priceless gift of interaction with them. In the office, when I know I have one of those testy patients coming in, I take a moment and visualize the ideal encounter I wish to have with them. Amazingly enough, it usually works! It seems to defuse some of the negativity of past encounters with certain individuals.
The Silver Bank area in the Dominican Republic is the only place in the world where you can legally be in the whale sanctuary and enter the water with them. Their gentleness and willingness to interact spoke deeply to my soul. When you have looked into the eye of a whale, you know you have been acknowledged and pondered by a very intelligent, aware being. Through the eye of a Humpback whale, I felt myself connected to all that is ... that feeling of being at one with the universe. That sense of connection has given me a deeper commitment to feel connected with my patients, to relate to them in a more heart-centered way.
You are probably thinking this was just an amazing adventure - far from it! The Humpbacks turned out to be very powerful teachers and offered me many insights that I have brought back to my work as a hygienist. I always embark on a journey open to what I can learn about myself and how that can support my day-to-day experiences. This trip was filled with simple truths, and the whales guided me to this awareness.
The first lightning bolt was throwing any ego, attitude of self-importance, or feeling superior right out the window! Being in the water with a creature of this size and power humbles you. I immediately recognized my vulnerability. One flick of their tail would have been equivalent to a fly and fly swatter, if they had wanted to hurt me. If I was going to snorkel with them for five days, I had to be in a trusting relationship and embrace them as my friends. It was obvious how aware the whales were of my presence in the water. I felt nothing but gentleness and acceptance from them. On several occasions, I was very close and the whale tucked her pectoral fin against her side to avoid any possibility of hitting me. She made it a point to make me feel safe.
As a hygienist, patients often come into my world feeling distrustful. Do I act superior? Do I intimidate them with my seeming power over their experience? When one is ready to let go of the ego, connection can be made quite easily. A new patient in our office, who arrives feeling unsure and frightened, might see me as I first saw a Humpback whale, powerful and overwhelming. I need to be cognizant of this and present my gentle, welcoming attitude so I don`t frighten them away.
As a whale dives deep, he first takes a full breath, then his tail flukes come completely out of the water. It is a magnificent sight to watch them disappear beneath the surface. This leaves behind a very large, almost perfectly round spot on the surface of the water that looks like a mirror, completely smooth and motionless. They call it the "calm spot," and it stays on the water for quite a long time. This made a strong impression on me. I thought about a hectic day at the office - too many patients, distractions, behind schedule, equipment not working. That`s the time to focus, take a full breath, dive deep, and find my own inner "calm spot," and then stay there for a very long time.
I was also very moved by the whales being so willing to interact with us, to take a risk. Man has hunted and slaughtered them mercilessly, almost to the point of extinction. Surely they still carry the memory of this persecution? What a lesson in forgiveness they offered. Despite their size, they are quite timid and frighten easily. But they allowed us to swim very close and offered no resistance, and this feeling of forgiveness engulfed me. How often have I been unwilling to forgive patients for not doing better with home care, missing their three-month recare appointment, showing up late, not buying the electric toothbrush that I recommended, or not following through with perio surgery? Could I have a heart as forgiving as a Humpback whale and get beyond my judgments? To get beyond my own agenda and see them in a fresh light?
Our last day out was not looking good, since a front had moved in. Skies were overcast, complete with a intermittent rain and wind that made the water fairly rough. Our captain told us we were probably not going to have any interactions with the whales in this kind of weather, when they tend to stay deep. I was feeling disappointed and discouraged, but initially willing to accept this verdict that my time with the whales was over. Would I give up this easily, feeling that I had no control?
I sent out a silent message to the whales and, sure enough, a mother and her calf showed up. I was elated, but, since I was the last one to get into the water, I thought she had already swam away. I looked through my mask, though, and there she was - swimming straight at me. I then hoped she stopped. She swung out to my right and, as she approached from the side, she looked directly into my eyes.
Without a doubt, I know I heard her say to me, "Never be willing to accept what on the surface may look like a negative situation; decide what you want and create your own reality." I got exactly what I had wanted, despite someone telling me it probably wasn`t going to happen.
How often do we give up on patients because it seems hopeless or when their initial response is "no?" Never buy into outward appearances; expect a miracle as an everyday occurrence!
Not only was this an incredible adventure, but I also came home with more inner wisdom that will help me to become a better hygienist. I would say this was probably the greatest continuing education class I have ever taken - really unique instructors, great presentation (I was never bored!), valuable knowledge that will enhance my work, an excellent class location, and superb visuals. I am going to take this class again next year!
Gayle Lawrence, RDH, practices as a clinical hygienist in Ashland, Ohio. She has also launched Journeys of Discovery - Unique Travel for Unique Hygienists. If you would like to swim with Humpback whales, wild dolphins, explore Peru, Egypt, Greece, or Africa, contact her at (419) 281-2887 or e-mail her at [email protected].