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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