Panama Whale Watching Season

Ballenas jorobadas llegan a la costa del Pacífico de Panamá.

This post is also available in: Spanish

On-the-Water by Ilene Little

Panama Whale Watching Season is here. Approximately 2,000 humpback whales are expected to start showing up in the waters off the Pacific Coast of Panama from July. They come from the Southern Hemisphere to breed and give birth.

You will see them near Isla Iguana, Pedasí, Isla Coiba, Boca Chica, and most often in Las Perlas, where the shallow waters are preferred by whales for giving birth.

Humpback whales are some of the world’s most precious species. Thousands of people, locals as well as from all over the world, come to Panama to watch whales between July and September every year.

Fun fact: Except for the nursing babies, humpback whales do not eat for the entire three months that they are in Panama.

The whale cycle-of-life behavior lends drama to every sighting. For that reason, we have some facts and helpful tips; “game rules” biologists and whale watching experts suggest.

  1. Be aware of how a whale is responding to the speed and manner of your approach,” says Anne Gordon de Barrigon, “try to empathize with the animal’s situation. Barrigon is the biologist founder and owner of Whalewatchingpanama.com. For example, a female whale with a baby will react to a boat zooming right up to them the same way you might react to a car bearing down on you and your child. The whale will swim away.
  2. You should never approach a whale or a dolphin from directly behind or in front at a straight 180° angle or even directly to the side at a 90° angle. You always angle in, usually approaching from behind, moving closer to the whale.
  3. The official distance to keep between you and a whale upon your initial approach is 200 meters, at which time you run parallel to the whale, matching its speed. This allows the whale to recognize you are not a threat and choose whether or not to come closer to you.”

If you try several times to engage a whale and each time it changes direction to avoid you, stay away. The whale should always have the option to go somewhere else.

Specific whale behavior should also dictate your approach. For example, you are likely to encounter a bachelor group or a rowdy group of male whales actively pursuing a female.

It’s a very spectacular show, with a lot of surface activity. They push and shove one another, jump and flap their tails,” said de Barrigon, “their movements become very unpredictable. If whales start to come toward you, stop the boat and let the whales pass by.”

Panama Whale Watching Season

Panama Whale Watching Season: humpback whales arriving on the Pacific Coast of Panama.

“Whales will not hit a boat, but two years ago, near Isla Saboga and Isla Chitre, I saw a small boat hit a whale, because the whales were changing directions fast and, rather than stopping the boat, the driver inadvertently drove right into the path of the action,” said Dr Barrigon.

“The whale lifted the front of the boat, and then it came back down. Nobody got hurt; nobody fell out of the boat. The boat didn’t tip over, and the boat prop did not hit the whale,” she explained.

Another situation often encountered is female whales with their babies. Barrigon cautioned that “we are not supposed to stay with moms and their calves for more than twenty minutes according to the law. It is also illegal in Panama to jump in the water to swim with the whales.”

A situation less likely to be encountered is a whale in distress. “At least once a year a whale will get caught in some type of netting from fishing boats or a rope from crab traps or a buoy,” said de Barrigon. “It is often lethal.”

If you see a whale that is in obvious distress, please call SENAN (Servicio Nacional Aeronaval) 211-6013 “or call me,” said de Barrigon, “507 6758-7600.”

A special Whale Watching Panama charter of the Taboga Express Ferry is scheduled to run out to Las Perlas from Panama City two Saturdays each month from the Balboa Yacht Club.

This is a whale watching boat for larger groups of people with shade, bathrooms, 360° visibility, a hydrophone and two biologists and expert whale watching guides broadcasting educational and interesting facts through the boat’s sound system. For more information, contact@whalewatchingpanama.com.

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