A few days ago we were standing on a new building site in Senderos in the afternoon, and we were treated to the sight of a pod of humpback whales spouting just off the tip of Playa Grande.
They were a little far off to grab an image from our phone cameras, which might have been a blessing in disguise because we ended up simply stopping to watch as the pod (probably three or four individuals) made its way around the point and out of sight.
This time of year is one of the peaks for when you can see humpback whales in Guanacaste (and all along the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, like this brilliant sighting of mother, father, and calf at Playa Prieta just north of Potrero Bay).
This is because between December — April, then August — October, humpbacks are migrating through the area as they travel back and forth between warm Pacific waters to breed and raise calves, then off to the waters off of Antarctica where they do most of their feeding.
So since it’s the season for these massive, beautiful sea creatures, we’re taking a closer look at humpback whales as well as some of the other whales that you can find around Guanacaste.
Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are one of the largest whale species in the world, capable of reaching up to 50 ft long and weighing up to 60,000lbs.
They’re also known for several distinct behaviors that make them immediately recognizable, including their tendency to swim very close to or at the surface, their spectacular leaps from the water (breaching), and their complex songs, which can be heard for miles.
Humpback whales can be found in every ocean around the world, and tend to migrate up to 16,000 miles every year, but can be commonly found in the tropical waters around Costa Rica as they travel and gather to mate and raise their calves (baby whales).
Where (And How) You Might See Them
Humpback whales can travel solo (in the case of males), in pairs (usually a mother and her calf), and can occasionally travel in larger pods (with the occasional ‘supergroup’).
When cruising close to shore (usually to feed), they tend to swim very close to or right at the surface, where they can be seen by their distinctive spouts and unmistakable humped-back outlines every time they break the surface.
Though humpbacks tend to be best knowing for their spectacular breaches, in which they can launch themselves entirely out of the water, this behavior is not a particularly common occurrence. In fact, most times you’ll see a humpback whale in this area, they won’t breach.
Instead, they tend to move slowly and steadily across the water, sometimes at a speed of a kayak or even a human swimmer.
As a result, when whales are spotted in nearby bays, you’ll often see a rush towards stand-up paddle boards, masks and snorkels, or kayaks, as eager watchers rush out to try to spot these massive creatures up close.
As a word of caution: humpback whales tend to be relatively unbothered by humans swimming next to them and have even been knowing to swim next to and interact with divers and snorkelers.
However, we still recommend staying a safe distance away from these massive creatures whether in the water or on a boat. Whether on accident or on purpose (in the case of adults protecting a calf or their territory), can still do a lot of damage with their 30-ton frames.
And the same can be said in the reverse, for motorboats and other powered watercraft. Though humpback whale numbers have increased significantly since their near-extinction almost a half-century ago, these whales are still heavily protected. So let’s work to protect them!
Humpback Stories from Around the Coast
“I remember, I was just getting ready to set out for a morning paddle when I heard a big commotion on the beach. A ton of people were pointing out in the water, and then I saw that big spout.
Next thing I knew I was paddling as hard as I could out there and man, the mom must have been five or six times the size of my paddleboard. The baby was a little smaller, though that’s definitely a funny way to describe something bigger than a car, and they were just cruising.
I must have been able to get around fifty feet away, and for probably five minutes we cruised along the coast, just me and the whales.” — Jason
“It’s funny, sometimes you don’t even see the whales, but you can hear them out there. Not from the shore, they’re not that loud, but I remember one time we were out surfing Playa Grande on a hot day, and I dove down underwater just to get a quick little refresh.
And if you got just deep enough, maybe about six feet under or so, you could hear them singing out there. Man, it’s beautiful when you hear it, but also definitely little bit spooky.” — Ariel
“It’s crazy man, I remember we were getting ready for a big snorkel and dive trip. We’re motoring out to the site, when all of a sudden the head dive master tells the captain to cut the engine and tells everyone to grab a snorkel and hop in the water!
I jumped in (so quick that I actually forgot a few team members behind), and we saw these two huge whales just swimming by. They were a little faster than us, and they didn’t come close like you see sometimes in the movies, but man, if you want to feel like the world is a crazy place, do that.” — Jahiro
From Bottlenoses to Blue Whales
More than 34 species of whales have been identified in the Pacific and Caribbean waters around Costa Rica, though many are more frequently spotted than others.
Most common on the Pacific side are Spinner Dolphins and Bottlenose Dolphins (Bottlenoses are also the most common sighting on the Caribbean side).
These fast-moving members of the whale family are well-known for their curiosity around watercraft, their tendency to catch a ride in the wake of boats, and in the case of spinners, their spectacular acrobatic leaps from the water.
The Pacific Coastal waters around Costa Rica also offer more rare opportunities to see Orcas, Rough-toothed Dolphins, False Killer Whales, and Bryde’s Whales, along with one true titan of the ocean — the blue whale.
The Kingdom of Blue Whales
Costa Rica is known to some as the “kingdom of blue whales”, due to the fact that these whales — the largest animal to have ever existed on planet Earth — can be found off its coast.
You’ll most likely never see a blue whale from the shore, as these enormous whales tend to dwell much farther out in the deep ocean.
However, Costa Rica is home to a special oceanographic phenomenon called the “Thermal Dome”. Located even further west than the Isla del Coco, currents upwell from the deep ocean to create an incredibly nutrient-dense patch of ocean about 70 to 90 feet below the surface.
This leads to massive clouds of plankton, and in turn, attracts visiting blue whales, who emerge from the deep ocean to feed.
A true, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
A World That’s Still a Bit Primal
We love Costa Rica, and we chose to build our community here in Tamarindo because we’re so in touch with nature.
Las Baulas National Park is just across the estuary. Dozens more are within a short drive. We’re surrounded by rivers and tropical forests and oceans full of life, and thanks to Costa Rica’s dedication to protecting its natural and aquatic territories, that natural beauty is here to stay.
That’s important to us. Because sometimes we all need to take a little walk in the woods, or dive into the water and see what we can find.
If you do want to go whale watching or explore the natural world around us, you can reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can point you to ecologically responsible environmental tours that help protect the same natural world you’re setting out to see.