Whale watching in Panama

A whale near one of the Pearl islands.

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Whale watching in Panama

Whale watching in Panama. Whales are amazing, magical creatures and very popular. If you are a Discovery Channel or National Geographic fan, you must have seen a dozen or so documentaries about them. No matter how familiar you are with them on screen, nothing will prepare you for your first sighting a few hundred meters away from you. Majestic, magnificent and really big. But I am getting ahead of myself.

My marine adventure began early Saturday morning. After walking my disgruntled shar-pei, Titus, at 5:30 a.m. (you can almost see him thinking,” What time do you call this?”) and drinking a cup of coffee, we braved the traffic from Capira to town and after passing three traffic accidents, just managed to catch the boat, the “Taboga Express Ferry”, which departs at 8:15 a.m. from the Balboa Yacht Club, on the Amador Causeway, every other Saturday during the whale watching season which finishes at the end of September.

Whale watching in Panama

Whale watching in Panama: A whale near Contadora Island. Photo by Joshua Hall.

Anne Gordon de Barrigón, the proprietor of Whale Watching Panama, and Joshua Hall were our guides for this hunt which took us through Las Perlas archipelago looking for the shy and sometimes elusive humpback whales. They gave us information about whales and dolphins in general and asked us to scan the waters looking for these marine mammals. The Isthmus appears to be a very popular destination not only with tourists, but also with cetaceans. Around 40 different species come to Panamanian waters every year, attracted by the temperature of the Pacific ocean.

After less than 15 minutes and directly in front of the Costa del Este area, we saw our first humpback whale, blowing what looked to me like a cloud of steam. My fellow passengers rushed to the front of the boat, like paparazzi trying to snap pictures of a movie star. Their efforts were rewarded. We saw a huge fin and the back of one of these giants.

Nothing else happened for around ten minutes then suddenly a girl started to scream, “Dolphins! Dolphins!” and from nowhere a pot of spotted dolphins appeared, playing with the waves made by our boat. On the horizon we could see ships queuing to cross the Canal.

We left Panama City behind and went further into the archipelago, towards Contadora, which became famous after Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, took refuge on that island during the 80s. Before midday, we were lucky enough to sight three more whales and around a dozen bottlenose dolphins, playing and swimming around the boat.

A boat taking whale watchers to Contadora.

A boat taking whale watchers to Contadora.

The boat arrived at Contadora about midday and a small craft took us right up to the beach. There is no jetty on this island. After a delicious lunch at one of the local restaurants we had two hours to explore the tiny island, which has four good, sandy beaches, with tranquil, clear waters, where you can actually see the bottom. Too soon it was time to go back to the boat and keep looking for whales.

In a short while we saw a drama unfold before our eyes. Two male whales were fighting for the attention of a lone female, who was not very happy with her suitors. They were jumping, thrashing and swimming fast around her. However, like a typical woman, she was not impressed and moved on. Anne put a speaker in the water and the air was filled with the haunting and melancholic song of a whale. Apparently, all whales in Panama sing the same song and change it every year. They were out of sight for a few minutes then suddenly they appeared again, powerful and beautiful, making me realize we are just small piece in the evolution scale.

By 4:00 p.m. it was time to return to the city. Everybody was excited after seeing so many whales in such a short period of time. One of my fellow passengers, a young man from Ukraine and his girlfriend said that this was the best experience he had ever had. One to scratch from the bucket list.

A day of whale watching with Whale Watching Panama costs $150 for adults and $85 for children 5-12, kids under 5 go free. Price includes transport and lunch with a drink in Contadora. For more information visit www.whalewatchingpanama.com

Beware! Whale watching is addictive and you will not be able to wait to do it again, but with two whale watching seasons, who is complaining.

By Marijulia Pujol Lloyd

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