Panama: whale watcher’s paradise
by Robert E. Baker (posted on The Panama Perspective)
We recently saw several of the largest creatures of the deep — the majestic humpback whales who annually migrate between their feeding and breeding homes from as far away as the ice-capped shores of Alaska to the tropical waters of Panama and South America.
They are known to breed in the warm clear waters near Coiba Island Marine Park, about 12 miles off the Pacific shores of Panama’s west coast. These enormous humpback whales can reach a mature size of about 50 to 55 feet for females and 45 to 50 feet for males. At full size they can be 10 to 12 feet wide and they normally weigh 40 to 50 tons each, sometimes more. Through the years I have been fortunate enough to witness a dozen whale sightings, usually at a distance of several hundred yards but never close enough to really feel and sense the majesty of these mighty creatures. That was soon to change.
On the weekend of July 9, 2005 six of us were on the Pacific Ocean fishing and diving from a 20 foot Mako outboard boat several miles off the coast of Contadora Island, approximately 45 miles from Panama City when we saw one of the most awesome sights any of us could ever imagine. It was an experience we will never forget. Off in the distance, perhaps 500 yards away we saw the spout of what appeared to be a large whale breaching and shooting up a mist of white spray marking his location. Then we saw it again. We quickly pulled in our lines and motored over to where he was, only to discover that there were three of them cruising along seemingly without a care in the world. We quietly approached and were soon within 10 feet of these beautiful and magnificent giants of the sea. Then we got closer. The two closest humpbacks had long bulky heads with bumpy protuberances and a massive grayish body that gleamed with water as they quietly rose out of the ocean, arching their huge backs and silently gliding their large tails back down into the deep, almost as if they were performing a practiced water ballet. It was an awesome sight that soon had each of us mesmerized by the spectacular show. We got closer and were within 2-3 feet of two enormous whales as they gracefully glided by. Then, about 20 yards off our starboard side one of the humpbacks leaped completely out of the sea and splashed back down sending sprays of white foamy water high into the air. At that point we all put on life jackets and continued to followed these gentle mammals as they continued on their journey at about 4 knots. It was a crystal clear day with a hot tropical sun and we could not believe our good fortune. At times the humpbacks were so close to the boat that we came within one foot of touching them as they cruised by.
The humpbacks continued to perform as we slowly followed alongside. For the next hour we stayed with them and watched in humbled awe as they glided under our boat and next to us like massive submarines quietly rising out of the water and gently going back down with their 4-5 foot long dorsal fins almost touching the boat’s hull. At other times after they dove and disappeared, we would be turning our heads this way and that looking for them when suddenly they would re-appear and blow a mist of water 20 feet high into the air with a loud bursting sound that made us jump with fear and startled excitement. It was a spectacular display and pure joy to watch. We were excited and nervous at the same time. Sometimes they would swim on one side, raising their 10 to 15 foot long flippers high into the air and slapping them back down against the ocean surface. The flippers were dark on the topside and white underneath and they all had ridges along the sides as well as barnacles. When they turned and twisted as they dove down, the bright sun would reflect off the white underside of their flippers and the shimmering blue and green shades of ocean would almost tempt us to dive in after them.
When they came out of the water close to us you could see the small round bumps on the front of their dark gray heads and the black marble glazed eye, the large mouth and below it the lined throat grooves that act as a large accordion that expands their throat as they take in thousands of gallons of water while feeding. Sometimes the whales would sing and we would sing back to them, trying to imitate their song and hoping we were forming a surrealistic bond of sorts. Then, as if to thrill us yet once more, about 30 yards away the largest of the three which was about 50-55 feet long as measured against our boat, suddenly leaped out of the water and did a complete pirouette in the air before smashing back down with a huge splash that sent water flying in all directions. We all yelled with enthusiasm and applauded this exhibition of aquatic grandeur which we were honored to witness. Our cameras were clicking as fast as we could focus. Then, the three of them cruised along together, each surfacing at the same time and each rolling into the next dive together as if they were precision acrobats performing at Sea World.
We went fishing three consecutive days and on each of those three days we were lucky enough to see the above described whale show, all within 5-10 miles of the previous sighting. On each occasion we altered our plans, pulled in the fishing lines and slowly cruised among the whales for almost an hour. On each occasion there were three whales. Twice we thought they were the same three whales but on the third visit we were certain they were different due to different scratches and markings on their backs. The tropical waters of Panama are known as a breeding ground for humpback whales and it seems as if there are more of these graceful giants than in previous years. That’s good news for Panama.