Whale Watching

January 27th, 2011
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Whales converge on Panama from the north and the south to mate and breed

Whale Watching in Panama

Now you can tell everyone you had a whale of a time in Panama, literally, if you go on a whale watching tour off the Pacific or Caribbean coasts of the isthmus. Panama’s location on the globe gives us a unique advantage where whales are concerned because our warm waters attract Humpback whales from the Southern Hemisphere from June to October and from the Northern Hemisphere between December and February.

The massive creatures, weighing about the same as a bus, come from their feeding grounds as far north as the icy shores of Alaska to breed and frolic in the tropics. The Southern Hemisphere whale populations arrive here after migrating 5,000 miles from Antarctica.

It seems that recently, awareness has dawned on tour operators and fishermen that whale watching is good business. The Perlas Islands, where local fishermen will take you out to see them, is a favourite playground for the Humpbacks. Even taking a boat from Panama City and cruising around Taboga Island at the mouth of the Canal can yield satisfactory sightings.

Whale Watching in Panama

The Azuero Peninsula is another favourite location off Pedasí or around the Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge where Orcas may be seen in February and March. Further west is the Coiba National Park and the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park. September and October are reckoned to be good months in these waters for Humpbacks and also Sperm Whales. Other toothed whales may be seen including Beaked Whales and the Short-finned Pilot Whale.

On the Caribbean side, Bocas del Toro is the place for Dolphins. Dolphin Bay (Laguna Boccatorito) is named for an abundance of Bottlenose dolphins. June and July are the best month for this species here and also in nearby Bastimentos National Marine Park. Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and Tucuxi Dolphins also stop awhile in their travels around the coast.

MarViva foundation wants people to be more aware of marine resources


MarViva Foundation, a regional non-profit organization has, as one of its missions, to make the people of Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica more aware and caring of marine resources around their coasts. Panama has 43 Protected Marine Areas. Gabriela Etchelecu, the executive director, told “Focus” that the foundation was backing governments in their commitment to significantly increase these areas according to the International Biodiversity Convention to which Panama was a signatory.

It seems that due to the protection of the Humpback whales in these breeding areas there are more of these graceful giants than in previous years. This is great news for Panama, and for the conservation of Humpback whales internationally.

There is nothing more remarkable than seeing and hearing, for the first time, a full-grown whale surface from the ocean nearby, or to experience dolphins swimming in the bow wave of your boat.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) of Panama and environmental authorities in Panama are committed to conserve the Humpback whale and their habitat in the Las Perlas archipelago.

Teaching the techniques of whale watching

The Panama International Maritime University is also aboard the whale watching bandwagon. Fifteen students recently earned a diploma in “Biology, Conservation and Sustainable use of Cetaceans”. It trained participants in the “taxonomy, ecology, management, conservation and whale watching techniques”., showing the economic potential of whale watching in local communities. A 16 hour workshop in whale watching was conducted on the ocean in Pedasí.

The course was dictated by Miguel Iniguez, chairman of the Cethus Foundation of Argentine and the Alternate Commissioner for Argentina to the International Whaling Commission. He has tutored Pedasí fishermen since 2007 on the subject and is working on new projects with the Environmental Authority (ANAM), Mar Viva, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the National Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama.

The Panamanian government recently decided to declare the Perlas Archipelago part of a marine corridor and whale sanctuary. The Perlas Islands in the Gulf of Panama is, one of two archipelagos in the Tropical Eastern Pacific. The other is the Galapagos. The Las Perlas Marine Special Management Zone, created under Panama’s Law 18 in May 2007, is the most recent addition to a major regional marine conservation corridor extending from Costa Rica to Ecuador. The 1,688-km2 management zone includes 250 mostly uninhabited rock islands and islets.

Panama ratified its position in defence of the preservation of whales at the 61st meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) held in Madeira, Portugal last year. In 2005 Panama voted in favor of the moratorium on whaling, after several years of aligning with Japan in refusing it.

Attending the commission was the Aquatic Resources Authority of Panama (ARAP) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Orlando Bernal, head of the planning department of ARAP, told “Focus” that one of the great achievements of the meeting was approval by the Conservation Committee to develelop a work plan on the “management of whale watching”.

Many whale species are perilously close to extinction because, in spite of the killing ban by the International Whale Commission, Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to kill thousands of whales annually. Before the ban whales were almost hunted to extinction.

Local whale conservation organization, Fundación Yubarta, carried out an evaluation of whale life in the Las Perlas archipelago in Panama. In an area of 760 sq. km. 68 whales were observed during 23 hours of navigation, 32 of which were monitored over a 12-hour period. Of special importance was the sighting of females with young and the detection of songs. This indicates clearly that Las Perlas is a breeding ground for the Humpback whales.

Whale watching in the Perlas Islands

Whale watching tours of one to five days in the Perlas Islands are offered by Anne Gordon de Barrigon. There are over 30 species of cetaceans that can be found in Panama waters, including the occasional Orca whales, Manta Rays, Sea Turtles, and even the very large and gentle Whale Shark.

Anne grew up boating in the San Juan Islands in the Pacific NW of the USA, and remembers seeing Orca whales passing by as she did her homework on the beach near her childhood home in Olympia, Washington state. Anne is a biology major, with a minor in animal behavior, and has worked as a zoo keeper at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, and trained wild animals to present in school assemblies teaching wildlife appreciation and respect. She also trained animals for the TV and film industry for over 20 years. For responsible whale watching guidelines visit: http://www.WhaleWatchingPanama.com

While on these trips guests stay at the charming B & B, Contadora Island Inn, which is within walking distance of all amenities on the island Tel:(507) 6660-2499 http://www.contadoraislandinn.com

Interesting information about Humpback whales

The Humpback whale is the fifth largest of the great whales: an adult usually ranges between 12 and 16 meters (40 to 50 ft) long. Females are usually larger than the males. They weigh approximately 30 to 50 tons. Humpback whales are well known for breaching (leaping out of the water), their two unusually long fins and their complex whale song. The song of the male has a unique characteristic. It stays the same for a whole season during the breeding and birthing season, but the following season they compose a new one.

They were named Humpback because of the motion they make as they arch their backs in preparation for a dive. They breathe air at the surface of the water through their two blowholes located near the top of their heads. When they exhale upon surfacing they spray the water out of the blowholes at 200 mph which vaporizes and can rise between 3 – 4 meters (10 – 13 feet) in the air. They can live up to 45 – 50 years. There are three separate populations of Humpbacks, those living in the North Pacific Ocean, those in the North Atlantic Ocean, and those roving the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere.

What they eat:

Humpback whales are winter seasonal feeders, eating krill, plankton and small fish. They are only in their winter feeding grounds for four months of the year so they live off their blubber for the rest of the year. Humpbacks are of the family of Baleen Whales which, instead of teeth have 270-400 baleen plates which hang from the top jaw. They feed by taking big gulps of water and filtering shrimp-like krill and small fish between these plates. Humpbacks can consume nearly one ton of food each day.


Due to commercial whaling operations Humpback whales would be extinct if hunting them had not been banned in 1963. Plastics in the ocean have become a big threat as these creatures often inadvertently ingest plastic, and die a slow death. Natural predators include killer whales which prey on the young humpback calves.

Conservation status:

It is estimated that there are approximately 10,000 to 15,000 Humpback whales world-wide. Humpback whales are classified as an endangered species specifically protected under the Wildlife Conservation, and Marine Mammal Protection Acts.


Humpbacks travel in large, loose groups known as pods. They can dive for up to 30 minutes, but usually surface after 15 minutes. They can dive to a depth of 500-700 feet (150-210 meters). When in a playful mood, humpbacks may put on spectacular displays of breaching, rolling, ‘spyhopping’ (poking their head out of the water for up to 30 seconds to take a look around), ‘lobtailing’ (sticking their tail out of the water into the air, swinging it around, and then slapping it on the water’s surface) with a sound like a gunshot

Breeding and caring for their young:

During the breeding season, the Humpback males are known for singing the longest and most complex songs in the animal kingdom. Only males have been recorded singing, and only in warm water where they breed. After a 12 month pregnancy, calves are born five meters (16 feet) long and weighing approximately one ton. They drink around 240 liters (63 gallons) of milk per day. Nursing ends at about 11 months, when the calf can be up to nine meters (29 feet) long. There is a strong and lasting bond between mother and calves. A calf is born to a female every one to three years. Because females do not become sexually mature until ten years of age and give birth to a single calf after a year long pregnancy, populations grow slowly.

Whales are the largest animals on earth and although they seem to be pretty smart and aware, they do not seem to be vindictive. Even after many years of people hunting and killing them, it is extremely rare that they attack or defend themselves against whalers. In fact, like dolphins, whales have been known to actually help lost ships and guide them to safety.

Websites on whales

  • International Foundation for Animal Welfare: ifaw.org
  • Mardecetaceos.net
  • International Whaling Commision: iwcoffice.org
  • Mar Viva Foundation: marviva.net – especially go to this website to hear the lovely whale songs.
  • Kristin Rasmussen, whale researcher for Chiriquí: iwcoffice.org/_documents/sci_com/SC60docs/SC-60-SH12.pdf
  • Report on Whaling: ifaw.org/Publications/Program_Publications/Whales/asset_upload_file841_55365.pdf

Whale Watching in Panama


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