Costa Rica is One of the Best Places in the World to Spot Humpback Whales
Costa Rican waters are home to dozens of marine mammal species and spotted, or bottle nose dolphins commonly escort small craft on any offshore excursion. If you take fishing or snorkeling trips you’ll most likely spot the smaller cetaceans but if you want to see the star of the show you should make sure you travel when they’re “wintering” in the warm tropical waters and take specialized humpback whale watching tour. (see tips below on when and where to whale watch in Costa Rica)
Costa Rica has the enviable distinction of more months with humpbacks in residence than anywhere else in the world.
The thousand or so whales that spend their summers off the coast of California and the northwestern United States head south in December to warmer waters off of the Pacific coast of Central America. At the same time these snowbirds are fleeing the North American winter their cousins 8,000 kilometers to the south are enjoying the southern hemisphere summer – slashing through clouds of plankton and krill near Antarctica opening their immense mouths to strain the food out of the water with 300 or more baleen plates.
When winter comes to the south in June the Antarctic whales have built their blubber reserves in preparation for the longest migration in the animal kingdom and head north along the coasts of Chile and Ecuador to the tropical waters of Central America that their cousins from the north vacated a few weeks earlier.
Each group arrives in Costa Rica at the beginning of their respective winter and stays until spring comes to their home. Females who mated twelve months earlier give birth to a single calf who grows to at least 8 meters (26 feet) feeding on rich milk over the first year. The adults don’t feed and nursing females can loose up to a third of their body weight. The prevailing theories about why humpbacks migrate to the tropics are that the warmth allows the calves to grow more quickly, or that the waters are safer because of lower numbers of predators like orcas.
Whatever the motivation for wintering in the tropics it means you can watch Humpback whales in Costa Rica nearly year round because the seasons are reversed in the two hemispheres and both populations head to the tropics when it gets cold at home.
Dolphins are Year Round
The primary focus of most tourists are the majestic whales but as seen in the video below dolphins can be pretty exciting too.
There are a number of species in Costa Rican waters year round including Spotted Dolphin (Stenella attenuata), Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus – flipper is a bottlenose!), Spinner Dolphin (Stenella longirostris), Rough-Toothed Dolphin (Steno bredanensis), Common Dolphin (Delphinus delphis). There are a couple of breeding seasons in July through October and December through March.
The very best time and place is August through October along the Southern Pacific Coast from about Jacó or Manuel Antonio to the warm waters around the Osa Peninsula but as detailed below there are lots of possibilities.
The table shows the best times and places to add a humpback whale watching expedition to your Costa Rica vacation. Of course the whales are wild and there is never any guarantee that you’ll see them, but your captain and guides will be in constant contact by radio with other boats all using gps and knowledge of the recent movements of the animals in the area.
Because they spend so much time above the surface spy hopping, fin slapping, breaching and fluke flipping Humpback whales are by far the most popular subjects for whale watching tours in Costa Rica. Spy hopping is self-explanatory. The whales are popping above the surface to take a look around.
Scientists believe that the other behaviors may be forms of communication because of the incredible sound volumes produced when whale flesh meets water. Others state confidently that the whales leap clear of the water because they are trying to rid themselves of parasites like sea lice and irritating freeloaders like barnacles.
When you see these giants burst completely free of the water it’s hard to believe it can be the result of anything but sheer exuberance and joy.
From December to April there are humpbacks in residence on both coasts. While the California humpbacks move down the Central American coastline singly or in groups of two to four the majority of the Pacific whales are headed across the open ocean to Hawaii from their feeding grounds in Canadian and Alaskan waters.
Even though the whales along the Pacific Coast represent only a few percent of the world population they’re relatively easy to spot because they congregate close to shore. Pacific Humpbacks swim in pods of about a dozen in the known calving areas along the outer shore of the Osa Peninsula and in the protected waters of Marino Ballena National Park near Uvita.
More recently data has accumulated that there are also breeding groups that frequent the Golfo Dulce inside the Osa Peninsula and possibly even the Papagayo Bay in Guanacaste.
Most whale watching tours depart Drake or Carate on the seaward shores of the Osa peninsula or from the central Pacific coast along the beaches of Ballena Park near Uvita. The best dates are from December through April for the California Humpbacks and starting again in July when the Antarctic whales arrive to stay until about November.
Starting in about 2010 fishermen and divers headed to the Bat islands have reported more whales off the northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste but it’s not clear whether they are wintering there or just passing through to the known nurseries farther south. When their habits are better described and viewing more reliable, whale watching tours will follow quickly.
Whale spotting is done from small outboard motor skiffs or larger inboard fishing boats. Tour prices range from around $50 per person for a bare bones half-day trip to $100 or $150 per person for an all day guided excursion that might include a stop at Caño Island to snorkel or Corcovado park to hike and eat lunch on the beach. It is illegal for anyone but scientific researchers to swim with whales or dolphins in protected Costa Rican waters. Reliable tour operators understand and respect this law and visitors should too.
Humpbacks definitely steal the show on any whale watching trip but keep your camera ready because Costa Rican waters are home to Orcas, Pseudo Orcas, Sei, Beaked, Brydes and Pilot whales and while you’re out you could also encounter their smaller cousins the Risso’s, Common, Spinner and Roughtooth dolphins.
Large numbers of whales from the north Atlantic and St. Lawrence Seaway also take up residence on the east coast of Costa Rica.
In fact there are more whales in the Caribbean sea during the northern migration but they are spread over a huge area from the outer islands to the Gulf of Mexico. Probably because of the shape of the ocean floor they don’t commonly approach Costa Rica closely and are much harder to spot reliably.
It’s also quite difficult to launch small boats though the rough surf of most of the norther Caribbean coast and there are many fewer tourists in the region. Whale watching tours have yet to catch on but fishermen in the gulf sometimes see the behemoths surfacing.