Ultimate Whale-Watching Guide to Costa Rica
Of all the unforgettable and adrenalin-pumping adventures Costa Rica offers, none are as awe-inspiring as watching breeching humpback whales. These gentle giants of the sea, which are remarkably acrobatic given their ginormous size, are some of the most majestic mammals on earth. They can live up to 100 years and measure an astonishing 53 feet in length! They feed on krill (a small, shrimp-like crustacean) and can consume up to 1.5 tons of food every single day. Enjoying the privilege of admiring them on migration is a bucket-list activity like no other. Many who have had the chance to experience a whale sighting often describe it as a life changing event. We couldn’t agree more.
Contemplating a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to Costa Rica for this very reason? There’s no better time than RIGHT NOW! Whale watching season is here and from late July to early November you’ll have the best chances of seeing whales in migration. Follow our guide to the why, where and how, and get ready for the adventure trip of a lifetime.
Oh…and don’t forget to pack a wide angled lens for your camera!
Why Costa Rica is Best
There are roughly 25 different species of whales and dolphins who migrate off the Pacific Coast every year and the humpback whale, in particular, is found here almost 8 months of the year. This makes Costa Rica home of the longest-running whale watching season in the world. Plus, you get to experience all its tropical gorgeousness, jungles and beaches, none of which is found in Antarctica. Win-win!
What Makes Humpbacks So Revered
The humpback is considered the ‘holy-grail’ of wildlife viewing, as even though many species of whales are deep-sea dwellers and difficult to spot on the sea’s surface, the humpback is never shy on coming forward. Or, in this case, on putting on a formidable spectacle for amazed spectators. Moreover, they are curious by nature and will often close in on a boat to have a better look-see. Their propensity for gymnastic, and innate extroverted nature, make them the most delightfully entertaining whales to observe.
Best Places to Visit
Although humpbacks can be spotted all along the Pacific coastline at certain times of year, there are some places which they seem to prefer. The Osa Peninsula is the number one spot for whale-watching as the warm waters off its stunning coastline is where humpbacks tend to spend most of their time. A great number of day-trip excursions depart from Drake Bay however you can book trips from any of the nearby towns as they will include transport to the pier. Aside humpbacks, you can also see pilot whales and several different species of playful dolphins.
Further north is the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. This is one of Costa Rica’s youngest nature reserves yet has swiftly made a name for itself as one of the best spots in the country spot for whale watching. On a whale and dolphin watching trip, you’ll see a myriad of other beautiful wildlife, including turtles and pelicans diving for fish in the sea. This NP is found about 180kms (111 miles) south west of the capital, San Jose, and trips can be booked through one of the many reputable agencies in Uvita, Bahai Ballena.
- Many may think it worthwhile to book a private trip for themselves and their family only, but do keep in mind that the more eyes on board, the best your chance of seeing everything that’s out there. But too many people aboard can certainly make it a bit too rowdy, so aim to join a group of between 12 and 14 people, plus crew.
- Make sure you do some thorough research and book with a reputable tour operator which offers what you, specifically, need. Is transport included? What about food & drinks? Will you pay more for a side trip elsewhere in which you have no interest? Is there a naturalist guide on board? Do they speak English as well as Spanish? Is the agency ecologically minded? A whale-watching trip can be an expensive excursion (especially if traveling with a family) so make sure you know all there is to know about your intended tour agent.
- Book in advance if you can (at least by a couple of days) as great trips tend to book out fast.
- Consider packing motion sickness medication, especially if it will be your first time out on a boat. Excitement can make one forget to keep hydrated out at sea, so pack (and drink) plenty of water.
- That wide angle lens? Yep, you’ll need it. Many visitors make the mistake of only packing enormous zooms for good-quality distance shot, but fact is you are likely to need a wide angle lens as you will get much closer to these colossal creatures than you’d ever dreamed.
- Humpback whales are certainly not an uncommon sight in other areas of Costa Rica, like the northern Guanacaste coast, Nicoya Peninsula or off the shores of the Manuel Antonio National Park. However, chances of close and long-lasting encounters are not nearly as numerous there so if the main priority in your Costa Rica adventure trip is to spot whales, plenty of whales, then do go to the effort of reaching the best spots. This is a small, compact country with great roads and good infrastructure. Covering ground, even just in a single day, is both easy and rewarding.
- Whichever tour agency you choose to go with, do make sure they abide by the strict laws which govern whale and dolphin watching excursions. This includes no jumping off the boat to have a swim with either creature. Only scientific researchers are allowed to do that! A tour agency is not needed however if you choose to stay with Costa Rica Rios and order one of the several packages they offer.
- Don’t underestimate the amount of photos you will take so pack enough memory cards and charged batteries as you can carry!