Getting Over the Hump:
The Plight of Costa Rica’s Whales
Increased risk of sunburn is just one of a growing list of problems attributed to global warming. But did you know that blubber is just as sensitive as skin to the UV rays? Sadly, scientists from the Zoological Society of London recently found that many whales are suffering from this human skin affliction. These colossal creatures receive high levels of sun exposure when they breach the surface - which they must do every seven to 20 minutes in order to breathe.
The best SPF protection for whales is not gallons of SPF 50 – it’s stressing clean energy that doesn’t pollute the ozone, enforcing responsible fishing practices and supporting sustainable hotels and tour operators that are economically dependent upon the conservation and vitality of natural habitats, rather than their destruction.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better place for respectful animal watching than the tiny coastal village of Drake Bay on the Osa Peninsula. Here, locals have learned the value of the biodiversity that surrounds them thanks to the large number of ecotourists that visit the region every year. Conscientious whale-watching boat operators know to keep their distance when they spot a whale, and reprimand anyone that doesn’t. Because this town is isolated and small, everyone knows one another - making it easy to keep people in check in terms of safeguarding the area’s precious natural environment.
Of the roughly 25 species of whales and dolphins that migrate through Costa Rica, humpback whales are by far the most abundant – and they show the most marked migration patterns. They journey just off the Pacific coast during two seasons: the first migration comes from the north, mostly from California, from December to March and sometimes April. The second comes from the south, from July to November. Humpbacks like to feed on fish and krill in the freezing polar waters, and then either mate or give birth and begin to raise their young in the warm tropical waters. Because babies are born without a lot of fat on their bodies, warm temperatures are imperative, or else they might freeze.
Interestingly enough, we don’t know if the humpbacks continue on along the coast after visiting Costa Rica before heading to Antarctica. Other species also pass through Drake Bay en route to mate or feed, but their sporadic habits are not nearly as predictable. Such species include Bryce whales, fin whales and many “whales” that are really a part of the dolphin family – like killer whales, false killer whales, and pilot whales.
As a country, Costa Rica also has various regulations in place to preserve these diverse populations of marine mammals – for example, simply swimming with a whale or dolphin anywhere in the nation is completely prohibited. Unfortunately, some Drake Bay residents, like professional wildlife photographer Vincent Campos, are worried that rules protecting the whales aren’t being enforced.
“In some places they really harass the whales – you’ll find 10 or 20 boats chasing a single creature because everyone wants to see them,” he says. “It’s good in the sense that we are spreading the word, but if this area stops being a safe and calm area to have babies, then these whales will go somewhere else – to Nicaragua or Panama. The babies ... don’t know how long they can hold their breath – they can drown if the mother stars running away from boats and the baby gets tired.”
According to Campos the biggest threat to Costa Rica’s whale and dolphin species is pollution: “fishing nets and long lines are dangerous – especially for the babies. They get stuck in fishing lines and the buoys give them problems on their way down. Sometimes the whales get wrapped around the nets and can’t feed.” Ironically, this very destructive pollution is simultaneously *i*saving*i* whales from being hunted by giving their bodies high levels of mercury, making it more and more unsuitable for human consumption – particularly in places like Japan, where whale meat is an all-too common item on the menu.
Where to see the whales:
Drake Bay is a great jumping off point for responsible whale watching tours on the Pacific. Nature Air offers a daily 45-minute flight to the town.
Where to Stay:
La Paloma Lodge - The perfect place to find peace and tranquility on the Osa. Its incredible views over Drake Bay and Cano Island don’t disappoint. www.lapalomalodge.com
Casa Corcovado - Aptly named thanks to its prime location on the edge of Corcovado National Park. Share your porch with a slew of animal species including monkeys, scarlet macaws and tree frogs.
Aguila de Osa - Isolated and elegant, the gorgeous woodwork gives this eco-resort a rustic feel. Great food, attentive staff and a wide range of local wildlife tours.
Drake Bay Resort - Features over 20 cozy tropical cabins and a legendary buffet breakfast each morning. Packages include airport transportation, guided excursions and three meals a day.
Pirate Cove - Pirate Cove is a small hotel, consisting of comfortable cabins and bungalows, located on the Osa Peninsula with seven cabins hidden among rainforest trees on a 2 kilometer deserted beach on the Pacific Ocean. www.piratecovecostarica.com Diving at nearby Cano Island
Tips and Tricks for Photographing Whales:
- If you have a point and shoot camera, try to take video. You’ll never know when they are going to jump, and you might miss it.
- If your camera has a sport mode, use it. Its faster speed is particularly good for jumping dolphins and whales.
- Bring a camera with a strong zoom.
- Be patient. Whales may submerge to sing for as long as 20 minutes, but they usually return to jump around at the surface for three to five minutes afterward.
- Keep your distance. Boats need to follow these creatures until they feel comfortable enough to start doing something – like playing, jumping or feeding – which they will inevitably do.
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