In The Company of Whales

In The Company of Whales

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We love exploring by foot the small lush island of Contadora with its many steep shady streets among the forest, some ending in the backyard of a house or on a beach, others leading us unexpectedly to the same place we started from. On one such walk, we meet a young couple with groceries and we stop them to ask where they bought the food from. The guy explains how to get to a small grocery store where they sell a few basic products and I detect a particular accent.

Pearl Islands, Panama

Pearl Islands, Panama

– You speak Russian?- I ask them in Russian and they are super surprised and glad to meet people who speak Russian on a small island in Panama.

Later, we meet Natasha and Alex from Moscow again on our beach, one thing leads to another, we become a sort of instant friends, and invite them to check out our boat. On vacation in Panama for a few days, the two Russians are passionate travelers visiting every part of the world every time they have time off work. After stopping for a bit on Fata Morgana, they invite us to join them on a whale-watching expedition.

Whale Watching tour with our Russian friends

Whale Watching tour with our Russian friends

A world of islands, the Pearl Archipelago where the biggest pearl on earth, “La Pelegrina” was found, is one of few places in the world, where thousands of humpback whales arrive each summer. From July to October, the large island group is home to somewhere between 900 and 2,000 humpback whales who travel over 6,000 miles from the cold waters of the Arctic and the Antarctic where they feed to the shallow warm waters of Costa Rica and the Gulf of Panama where they give birth and nurse their babies. Their journey along the coast of South and North America and across the equator is the greatest migration of any mammal on Earth.

Pearl Islands

Pearl Islands

We start from Contadora late in the afternoon in a small fishing boat furnished with benches for the tourists. It is just our family and the Russians. Our guide is a local guy who knows where to find the whales and how to approach them. We go around a few uninhabited islands, but for the longest hour, there is no sign of the gentle giants. It is getting late, the small boat is almost out of fuel, and we are worried that we will not find them at all.

Ivo and our whale watching guide

Ivo and our whale watching guide

Just when we give up and are ready to head back disappointed, we see a tiny black island sticking out of the sea shooting a golden fountain of mist in the air with the sun setting behind it. Next to it- another fountain, and another, and another! A small heard of whales on the western horizon is slowly heading towards us. It looks like they found us, and not we them. Our anxiety and disappointment are quickly replaced by excitement and utter happiness. Everyone except our guide and Ivo are taking pictures while the humpbacks are filling their lungs with air with slow majestic motions.

Humpback whales, Panama

Humpback whales, Panama

They dive. We hold our air. We stare at the sea. We wait. There they come out again, even closer this time, and the cameras are clicking away. Ivo is our lookout spotting the whales, pointing and yelling in Russian every time they surface for air: “Streliay (Shoot)! For Mother Russia!” or “Za Stalinu! Za Rodinu (In the name of Stalin and Patria!) and other such glorious military commands and cheers, while we are clicking like mad in the direction of the water spouts, like happy snipers.

A display of the tail was always a joyous moment.

A display of the tail was always a joyous moment.

A mother with her calf is so close to us now. She breaches high with a glorious slow motion display of might and elegance, her white fins spread like the wings of a butterfly, her mighty 15-meter long 36,000-kilogram body slicing the water with an unbelievable splash. We are all smiling with awe, our eyes full of love and gratitude. It is a moment we will never forget for the rest of our lives.

Humpback whale breaching, Pearl Islands, Panama

Humpback whale breaching, Pearl Islands, Panama

After this, we see whales every day. They come in the anchorage, near the beach, and so close to the boat that we hear their unhurried deep PUFFFFF and run on deck to look at them passing. Sometimes we jump in the kayak and start paddling towards them to take a closer look. It is unbelievably exciting and a little scary to chase an enormous mighty animal with a tiny kayak. What if mama whale doesn’t see us and jump out of the water landing on top of us? Or simply overturns the kayak without effort with a small slap of her giant tail? But we know this is not going to happen. We trust them completely. Humpback whales may be big and powerful animals, but they rarely attack people, kayaks or boats. They are the gentle giants of the sea.

Humpback whales

Humpback whales

The night of the lunar eclipse, the sky is deep and cloudless, the air is warm, there is no wind and the sea is sleeping. The eclipse announced for 8:00 p.m. starts promptly on time. We prepare popcorn for the show, and we watch the bright white moonrise followed by the slow ominous miracle of the moon-eating dragon. We observe the most perfect lunar eclipse surrounded by fragrant shadows of tropical islands in the company of humpback whales.

Lunar eclipse 2015

Lunar eclipse 2015

Humpback Whales Facts

  • The humpback whale is one of the largest rorqual species. Adults range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). The largest humpback on record, according to whaling records, was the female killed in the Caribbean; she was 27 meters (89 ft) long with a weight of 90 metric tons (99 short tons)

  • The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobbly head.

  • An acrobatic animal known for breaching and slapping the water with its tail and pectorals.

  • Males produce a complex long, loud song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating. Each song consists of several sounds in a low register, varying in amplitude and frequency. Humpbacks may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Cetaceans have no vocal cords, so whales generate their songs by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities. Whales within a large area sing the same song.

  • Found in oceans and seas around the world, humpback whales typically migrate up to 25,000 kilometers (16,000 mi) each year.

  • Humpbacks feed only for a few months per year, in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or subtropical waters to breed and give birth in the winter. During breeding, humpbacks fast and live off their fat reserves.

  • Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net feeding. A group of whales swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The shrinking ring of bubbles encircles the school and confines it in an ever-smaller cylinder. This ring can begin at up to 30 meters (98 ft) in diameter and involve the cooperation of a dozen animals. Some whales blow the bubbles, some dive deeper to drive fish toward the surface, and others herd prey into the net by vocalizing. The whales then suddenly swim upward through the “net”, mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.

  • Females typically breed every two or three years. The gestation period is 11.5 months.

  • Newborn calves are roughly the length of their mother’s head. At birth, calves measure 6 meters (20 ft) at 2 short tons (1.8 t). They nurse for approximately six months. Humpback milk is 50% fat and pink in color.

  • Like other large whales, the humpback was and is a target for the whaling industry. Once hunted to the brink of extinction, its population fell by an estimated 90% before a moratorium was introduced in 1966.

  • While stocks have since partially recovered, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, and noise pollution continue to impact the 80,000 humpbacks worldwide.

  • In Japan, not only humpback, minkes, sperm, and many other smaller Odontoceti, but also including critically endangered species such as North Pacific right, western gray, and northern fin have been targets of illegal captures utilizing harpoons for dolphin hunts or intentionally drive whales into nets. Humpback’s meat can also be found on markets even today, and there had been a case in which it was scientifically revealed that humpbacks of unknown quantities with other species were illegally hunted in EEZ of anti-whaling nations such as off Mexico or South Africa, and so on.

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*Related stories from the blog:  Children of The Moon and The Whale Who Came to Say Hi.

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Sailing to The Pearl Islands

Sailing to The Pearl Islands

The Pearl Islands

The Pearl Islands

About 30 nautical miles south of Panama City, the Gulf of Panama is dotted by over 200 small and big mostly uninhabited islands and islets of exceptional beauty, named Islas de las Perlas (The Pearl Islands). It is our favorite destination on the Pacific Ocean side of Panama and a place no cruiser sailing through these parts of the world should miss.

At Anchor near Contadora

At Anchor near Contadora

The Pearl Islands emerged from the ocean over 60 million years ago. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, they were home of the Cuevas and Cocle indigenous cultures. In 1513, their “discoverer” Vasco Nunez de Balboa named the islands Pearl Islands, after the Indians greeted him with baskets full of large pearls. This friendly gesture from the part of the local population was met with violence and only two years after the arrival of the Spaniards the locals were brutally and completely wiped out. After killing everyone, the conquistadores realized that there is no one left to harvest the pearls which were so abundant in the waters of the archipelago. So they imported slaves from Africa to do the dirty job; slaves whose descendants make the majority of the inhabited island’s permanent population today.

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After one unsuccessful attempt to sail to Las Perlas from our anchorage at La Playita (the wind died and we spent four hours drifting with the current, covering just one mile in the wrong direction, and decided to turn back …) we start again one slightly windier September morning. It’s rainy season in Panama which also means not much wind until November.

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Big Ships anchorage and Panama City in the distance. Water in the gulf is covered with floating plastic garbage from the ships.

The wind dies down again just as we are crossing the big ship anchorage outside the Canal Zone and we find ourselves drifting with strong current and almost no wind among containerships, some waiting at anchor, others maneuvering, and we almost get run over by a giant metal boat (or rather, we run over the giant boat), because Ivo will not turn on the engines even in a situation like this, and with the spinnaker up our options for turning are limited…

Sailing on a collision course

Sailing on a collision course

Very slowly, we are out of the danger zone so crowded with cargo ships and so polluted with plastic garbage floating on the surface of the sea, it’s appalling.

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The next couple of hours- still no wind and our progress is ridiculous 1 to 1.5 kts…

Ivo- one horse power, 0.5 kts speed...

This is Ivo- “motor-sailing”- puling the boat with one horse power, 0.5 kts speed…

In the afternoon, the wind finally picks up and we sail fast now, with 6 knots. Yet, we have lost precious time for the first 5 hours, and we cannot make it before sunset.

Mira

Mira

The charts of The Pearl Islands are notoriously inaccurate and the entire archipelago is a rough area to navigate, especially at night, with lots of reefs and dangerous rocks in the shallows near the islands. Luckily, we have the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus (fourth edition). It is an essential cruising guide for Panama, San Blas, Bocas del Torro and Las Perlas, which a good cruising friend gave us awhile back in exchange for a few of our old AGM batteries. This book has been our most treasured crew member since we left Cartagena (Colombia) direction Panama a few months ago, a crew member we could count on; who never failed us. Thank you Tina, and thank you Eric!

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We arrive at night with one final squall pushing behind us, navigating in pitch black, paying little attention to the charts and much more attention to The Book, avoiding shallow areas and reefs, until we see the lights of hotels and houses on Contadora.

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There are free mooring balls just off the beach and Ivo orders us to catch one, on sail. We are super close to shore, it’s shallow, it’s dark, there is strong current and we are trying to catch a small mooring ball, without engine! Here is how it’s done: you sail in the direction of the mooring ball but not towards it, so that when you are close enough, the ball remains exactly where the wind is coming from. A few meters away from the ball you turn towards it (and towards the wind) and quickly furl the head sail. The main sail is up, but the wind is against you and the boat slows down super quickly and stops just next to the mooring ball. You catch it and drop the main. You have to consider the current as well when you estimate when and where to turn. If you turn too soon, or if the distance between the boat and the mooring ball after you turn is too big, the boat stops before you reach the ball and starts drifting backwards. In this case, you have to position the boat sideways to wind, spread the headsail again and repeat the operation. Always be aware of the surroundings and other boats in the area, shore, rocks, wind and current. In high winds, at night, and in a crowded unfamiliar anchorage, it is much more difficult to do this operation. In our case, the current is super strong, it is pitch black, we have never been here before, and there are a few small fishing boats on moorings all over the place. Yet, after much yelling and running around- Ivo on the wheel and furling the head sail, Maya with the spot light, and me with the long hook trying to grab the damn thing- we manage to catch one mooring ball without turning the engines on, only after the third attempt… A great exercise.

The sea at sunset

The sea at sunset

The next morning, we wake up in front of a small beach with the hilly island of Contadora rising behind it. A few small hotels and private luxurious mansions are perched on the hill, surrounded by trees and flowers. The island is a little more than one square kilometer in territory with a couple of hundred permanent residents and many hotels and vacation homes. With its small airport and small boat port, Contadora is the most accessible and most popular of all Perl Islands among foreign tourists and weekenders from the capital, attracting visitors with its pristine beaches, and gorgeous resorts built without disturbing the nature.

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After the construction of so many hotels and houses, roads and public spaces in the 1960s and 1970s, the flora here has been successfully preserved with lush tropical vegetation looming over buildings, and roads making sudden illogical turns around large centennial tees. The busy tourist season has not started yet, and there is almost no one. The hotels are deserted, many- abandoned and in ruins. It feels so calm and quiet as if time has stopped. It is also the only island from the archipelago that has streets long enough to run, so Ivo can still train for his marathon.

Cintadora

Cintadora

It is a great relief being here alone, in the calm clean transparent waters teaming with fish, after so many weeks in the polluted rocky and sometimes noisy anchorage at La Playita near the Panama Canal’s entrance. It’s time to relax, snorkel and fish, and once again fully enjoy our cruising way of life. This is exactly what we signed up for. And it gets better.

(To be continued…)

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Fata Morgana

Mira

Mira

Ivo

Ivo

Maya

Maya

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya

Read about our favorite cruising destination on the Caribbean side of Panama: Paradise at The End of The Sea

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