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Monday, July 28 2014 @ 04:15 AM EDT

Hanging Out With Humpback Whales and Dolphins In The Bay of Panama

Travel & TourismBy DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - Last Saturday my wife Rossana, daughter Sarah and I went on an all day trip with Whale Watching Panama. Sarah loves anything to do with the water and boats, and we never got a chance to go to Dolphin Bay in Bocas del Toro when we were up there a couple of weeks ago, so it sounded like fun. Thousands of humpback wales migrate up to the warm waters surrounding the Las Perlas Archipelago in the Gulf of Panama every year to breed and give birth. This trip from Antarctica to Panama is the longest migration by any mammal on earth - approximately 8,300 kilometers. The biggest draw seems to the water temperature, they like it at about 28 degrees Celsius (or 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit), and calves born in warmer waters seem to grow faster and larger, and have a greater chance of breeding themselves. Anyway, you get the idea. Humpback whales really like Contadora. They start showing up in July of every year, and they will stay through the end of October, with stragglers hanging around through November or December.

Dolphins First - Lots And Lots Of Dolphins: On the way out to Isla Contadora encountered a huge group of dolphins - about 300 or so. And that's no exaggeration. They were everywhere, and we were the only boat around. The dolphins would come up to our boat and play with our bow wave or tail wake. Some of the younger immature dolphins were jumping and slapping their tails, and I had lots of chances to get both video and photos. Sarah was thrilled. At one point the dolphins were swimming right next to the bow and Sarah had her head hung over the side. As the dolphins would come up for air they would blast some water up into her face - and she laughed with glee saying "he spit on me" - loving every minute of it. We drove around in circles for about a half an hour or so until we actually got tired of looking at dolphins, so continued on our way to Contadora to look for whales.

This was the one photo I was able to get of a "breaching" baby whale. He was just learning how to do it, and playing. You can see the snow white flipper on his left side. This guy is only about two to three weeks old. Newborn calves are roughly the length of their mother's head. At birth, calves measure 20 feet (6.1 m) and weigh about 1.8 tons. The mother, by comparison, is about 50 feet long (15 m).

The Elusive Deep Diver: Our first spotting was with a long whale. Our guide Beny spotted a tail off in the distance, which means a whale was about to dive deep, to feed. We went over there and waited around for about 15 minutes, hoping he would surface. After awhile we gave up and started back towards Contadora, and as we were leaving the "deep diver" surfaced. Took a breath of air, and then dove again. So we saw this guy twice, but only at a distance, and he was busy...

As you can see in this drawing, humpback whales have the characteristic "bump" on the center of their heads and forward of their eyes, then the dorsal fin is located on their backs where the "hump" is located. In the video you will see first the bump, then the hump, then the dorsal fin as they come up for air.

Newborn Alone On The Surface: As we were heading towards Contadora, we spotted a relatively small calf on the surface. According to Beny a baby that small was only a couple of weeks old. It was resting calmly on the surface, and we spotted him before he saw us. So we very slowly and gently eased our way over, not wanting to scare him. And we were all thinking the same thing - "where's mama?" After a few minutes as we got closer, eventually the little guy became aware of our presence and he probably called for mama. Within 30 seconds there she was on the surface. She positioned herself between us and her baby, naturally protective as all mothers are. We eased away and so did they, nice and calm all around. They would come up to the surface to breathe about every two minutes or so, and we were able to get some nice photos and video of this encounter. The guys at Whale Watching Panama do it the right way. They follow Panamanian rules, laws, regulations, and guidelines which you might be surprised to learn, actually exist. They are the only (and best) (and serious) Whale Watching outfit in Panama. However, there are knuckleheads out there...

Dropping Snorkelers On Mama And Calf: Off in the distance we saw four local pangas in a tight group. Beny said those guys might be on a group of young males who like to "put on a show" by jumping out of the water and making huge splashes with their backs, so we headed over that way to see. But unfortunately it was another mother paired with her newborn calf. The boat drivers had been hired by tourists from Contadora (on a Saturday afternoon) and they were actually waiting until the whales would come up to breathe, then they would quickly motor very close to the whales, and the tourists would jump over the side wearing face masks and snorkels. They wanted to swim up close with the whales. Of course, this is illegal. It stresses out the whales. It's not a good thing. So, we grabbed some photos and video. I made sure to get enough details of the boats and their drivers. I also caught the GPS coordinates off of our boat's navigation gear. Once I get the photos and video from the rest of the people who were on the boat with us, I will be making a formal complaint with the Autoridad de los Recursos Acuáticos de Panamá (ARAP) (Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama). They are the ones who are supposed to regulate and enforce the conduct of this activity, and they are not doing their jobs. The rules and regulations are in place, but what is that worth if no one is enforcing those rules? Anyway, moving on...

Time For Lunch: We went over to Contadora for lunch at a restaurant. Then we had about 30 minutes to swim on the beach and from the boat, before we headed back towards Panama City. All in all, it was a great trip. If you see eight humpback whales and about 300 dolphins on a trip like this, then it can only be categorized as a success. Right now is the "peak" of the migration season. Anne Gordon tells me that on some trips they have seen as many as 20 whales or more, in a single day. In short, they are all over the place, doing what they do. Lot's of fun, educational, well done, safe and sound, highly recommended.

Copyright 2012 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.

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Hanging Out With Humpback Whales and Dolphins In The Bay of Panama | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Hanging Out With Humpback Whales and Dolphins In The Bay of Panama
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, September 11 2012 @ 02:35 PM EDT

i'm pretty sure these are the same whales that travel up as far as newfoundland to feed. the busiest season up there is june/july to frolic and feed in the last of the iceberg season then they meander down here for the fall to mate mostly. they are beautiful animals. i believe they initially breed in the whale sanctuary somewhere near the dominican republic. this is mostly my understanding of the atlantic humpback

Hanging Out With Humpback Whales and Dolphins In The Bay of Panama
Authored by: Don Winner on Wednesday, September 12 2012 @ 09:04 AM EDT

Not likely, unless they are going through the Panama Canal. Contadora is in the Pacific ocean, as is the Bay of Panama. Newfoundland and the Caribbean is on the other side.

Don