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by Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

What would be a perfect ending to our week of surf, sand and sun with eighteen family members in Puerto Vallarta? The "eighteen" is no exaggeration - my husband Rick and I rounded up our five sons and their families for a Mexican Christmas. With ages ranging from our youngest grandchild at 7 to "me" at 68, we puzzle over a grand finale to suit all.

Our Royal Decameron Resort's Christmas Eve feast of seafood medleys, exquisite risottos, beef medallions, fine wine and decadent tiramisu leaves us feeling rotund as Santa. It's time to pass out our bright red mini-stockings containing vouchers for a close encounter of an exceptional kind - a private charter to see mighty humpback whales in their briny home and to snorkel the reefs of Marieta Islands. Cheers drown out the Mariachi band!

Stuffed into vans on the designated day, we are transported to the dock and board a boat with both motor and sail, and a canopied-centre for reprieves from Old Sol. Our expert guide Kimi has us in stitches with his humorous quips, while our focused captain steers out into the vastness of cobalt blue, and deckhands rig the sails. Before long playful dolphins skim alongside, leaping in pairs or disappearing under our boat and bopping up on the opposite side. "There are Bottle-Necked and Spotted Dolphins. "See the difference," Kimi quizzes.

An hour out we see a half-dozen whale watching rigs in the distance, but our captain, who Kimi swears "has a sixth sense" veers to the right of this ring of boats. We wait and watch as Kimi fills us in on some humpback behavior. "After their long annual migration starting near Alaska, the whales arrive in Banderas Bay in late fall to mate and give birth to calves."

A gigantic dark form suddenly passes under the sea's surface about four-boat-lengths away….then another! Further out a startling "whoosh" and all eyes are glued to a humpback rising and expelling air and water from its blowhole with fire-hose intensity. Its gleaming black eye the size of a dinner plate checks us out. The mighty body swells upward showing off its school-bus size, then rounds down head first ending with a thunderous slap with its tail. Squeals of glee from our 7, 8 and 9 year-old grandchildren express the thrill we all feel.

"This one's a male as his tail is jagged from fights with other males for female attention," says Kimi. "Breaching is thought to be linked to mating rituals, while other biologists claim it's simply for joy - hmmm, is that not the same thing?" he grins. Our mood is in the stratosphere as this 40-ton acrobat fades into the waves.

It is on then to the Marieta Islands where sizable waves thrash the grey volcanic rock. Cormorants fill the rocky ledges. Magnificent Frigates with 2m wingspans surf the air waves; these aerial pirates are ready to swoop at great speed to snatch the prey out of the mouth of other species. "Over there…see the Blue-footed Boobies," shouts Kimi, "They are only found in two places in the world - the Galapagos and these islands along the Pacific coastline."

The small motorboat being towed behind our vessel is brought portside, bobbing haphazardly as we board in our snorkel gear. Kimi doles out instructions as our boat putters towards an island with a sizable arch, which we will snorkel through to a hidden beach. My breath catches as I slip into the sea, but within moments I'm oblivious to the cold in this world of dazzling coral and schools of neon fishes.

Back on board we swap notes on our exhilarating experience. Nine-year-old Leif, who had splurged on a disposable underwater camera, is anxious to view his 24 shots. It's interesting to hear his Papa explain the concept of film to our digital-age grandson.

The deckhands march up the galley steps with trays heaping with tangy rice salad, ham and cheddar stacked crusty rolls, mango juice for the small fry and margaritas for us older folk.

Cozied up with the mellow sun on our faces I feel a wee bit envious of the humpbacks that have another few months here before migrating north, while we are all northbound tomorrow, some to the frigid Canadian prairies, and others, including Rick and myself to British Columbia's winter rains.

Memories of our Mexican Family Christmas are many, with the "highlight vote" going to the humpbacks, as being together to see these gentle giants in the grand aquarium of Banderas Bay was an unrivalled once-in-a-lifetime event.

Where to stay:
Royal Decameron Resort: 20 min from Puerto Vallarta International Airport, 620 air-con rooms, private balcony/ ocean or garden view, 5 pools, 8 restaurants, bars, spa, gym.

Whale-watching Excursions:
JD Tours books "Pegaso Chartering" with dual motor/sail boats.

More Information:
Once near extinction, humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) numbers have increased due to the 1996 international commercial whaling ban. Humpbacks are one of the most studied marine mammals; still little is known about them.

PHOTOS by Rick Butler except when otherwise accredited.

1. A whale of a tail
2. Dolphin buddies
3. Kimi readies us snorkelers
4. Grandson Leif captures Papa Photo Credit: Leif Moen
5. Breaching whale - Photo Credit: JD Tours

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