Posted by: adventuressetravels | December 2, 2011

Extreme Whale Watching in Colombia

 It was drizzling when the little boat pulled away from shore.  Sure, a more positive person would have labeled the thin film of precipitation misting, but I am not a fan of rain.  The sullen grey sky mirrored my own feelings on the day.  I’d taken busses, boats, and braved the wilderness of Colombia’s Pacific Coast and now it was raining?   There wasn’t the least hint of blue on the horizon not the slightest promise of the weather changing either.  Did whales even like rain?

According to the skipper of our little vessel it didn’t matter.  We would see whales.  With a deep breath I forcefully yanked myself out of my gloomy mood: I was in an amazing country on an adventure.  As our tiny little boat pulled away from the huge cement dock I looked out into the distance at the lush jungle-covered islands, knife-sharp grey cliffs with verdant foliage spilling over the edge.  Even chilly and damp this untouched wilderness was truly marvelous.

Colombia is the only country in South America that has coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  The Atlantic coast is popular, tourist-friendly, and filled with historical sites, ruins, and glorious walled cities.  The Pacific Coast, on the other hand is a little more off the beaten path.   With the majority of this coast is comprised of jungles and national parks there is only one highway running to the coast which ends at Buenaventura, this coast’s only port city.  To get to the indigenous settlements and small villages further into the jungle one must either brave the untamed jungle or take one of the lanchas, or motor boats that ferry residents along the road-less coast.

We motored north towards Bahía Málaga, the nearest haunt for the whales.   Each July hundreds of humpback whales come to give birth and raise their calves in the warm waters off Colombia’s Pacific coast, leaving again in October.  The males take a more laid-back role in the whole affair and use these four months to court, and frolic in the bathtub-warm ocean currents.

We moved slowly in the water scanning the flat surface for the elusive shapes.  15 minutes passed, 20, and still nothing.  Black sand beaches, stunning cliffs clothed in jungle foliage, forested islands, but still no whales.  As much as I loved the untouched natural beauty of the Pacific coast, I wanted to see whales!

Gradually the drizzle subsided; the sun even bullied its way through the dense cloud cover and made room for a few patches of blue sky.  And with the sun the whales came out to play.

I turned my head just in time to see a fountain of droplets burst from the water. With an explosive “pffusht,” the outline of an enormous back rose out of the murky depths.  Moments later a smaller form, this one only the size of a large cow, emerged from the water.  Letting out a softer “pffusht,” it took its place beside its mother.  The calf was getting a breathing lesson!  The whales basked on the surface for a few minutes before disappearing back into the ocean depths.  Rather than wait around for these two to make another appearance we motored on.

With this pair’s appearance our luck turned.  The ocean seemed to be filled with whales floating near the surface, soaking up the sun and teaching their babies to breathe.  But couldn’t we get any closer, I asked the skipper?

Hardly were the words out of my mouth when everyone on the boat took a collective gasp.  Not 20 feet from the boat an enormous head emerged from the waves, blowing out a breath of air, followed by her immense hump back arching out of the water.  By its side a smaller form mimicked its mother’s actions.  As soon as they had appeared they ducked beneath the deep blue surface.  But their performance was far from over.

Suddenly the calf flung itself out of the water sideways, like a baseball player diving for a ball, only to flop back down with an enormous splash.  Hard on its flippers, like some tremendous dancer its mother erupted from the waves.  Her form flew up and up and up turning, spinning, pirouetting until even the tip of her tail was out of the water.  And the gravity took its hold and pulled our athlete down to crash back into the water.  It boggled the mind how much inertia she had needed to build up to vault her 50 ton mass so far out of the water.

Moments later the calf was back in the air, this time with a more vertical trajectory and a little twist.  He was clearly imitating his mother.  But it wasn’t quite a perfect 10, and mother whale vaulted herself out of the water to demonstrate some of the finer points of jumping.  On and on the lesson went, for that was clearly what it was and all of the spectators in the little boat sat on the edge of our seats, hearts racing, entranced by this extraordinary water ballet.

“Now that is why we can’t get closer,” the skipper told me laughingly when the performance was over.  Here, even the bravest whale watching excursions keep their distance lest a 40 ton whale reduce the boats to matchwood.

Apparently these airs above the waves are reasonably common in this area.  But never the less, I felt honored to have had the opportunity to witness this spectacular display.  By the time we pulled up to the cement steps leading up to the towering dock I had almost caught my breath.  This hadn’t just been whale watching… it felt like extreme whale watching. 

Walking along the dock towards the little collection of make-shift houses barely big enough to be called a village I couldn’t fight the grin off of my face.  Juanchaco and Colombia’s Pacific coast may be off the beaten path but it is well worth the journey.

Bahia Mar Lanchas

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