Humbpback Whales - The Star Attraction of Costa Rica's Tropical Waters

Humpback Whales

October 7th, 2013 by Anamaya Resort

Humpback Whales in Costa Rica

Biology

The humpback whale is one of the most recognizable whale species. Towering anywhere between 40 and 50 feet in length, a humpback whale can weigh up to a staggering 48 tons. They are easily identified from other whale species owing to their huge flippers, almost a third of their entire body size, and the trademark hump on their backs. Humpback whales can be anything from a gray to black color and have distinct white markings on their lowerside. These markings are often like fingerprints are for humans, allowing researchers to identify individual creatures.

Humpback whales live in oceans across the planet and can be spotted more in shallow waters. Usually, these creatures live and move together in pods upwards of 20,000 whales. These enthralling mammals are known for their complex mating tunes. Researchers who have studied the whale songs for years are still intrigued by the complexity of these songs. Studies suggest the whales are innately perceptive and intelligent creatures. Only the males are responsible for the whale songs, however, since they are primarily a mating call. Apart from this, these whales are famous for the water acrobatics. Humpback whales can regularly be spotted leaping out of the water and sometimes can use their flukes to push themselves completely out of the ocean.

Humpback whales diet fundamentally comprises smaller fish and krill. They are baleen whales, meaning they are mainly filter feeders. These whales have two parallel rows of baleen plates stuck to their jaws, allowing them to filter water for fish and krill. They can consume up to a ton of food a day, and newborn humpback calves can eat 100 pounds of their mother’s milk a day. They only feed in the summer months. Humpback whales are known to breathe voluntarily, unlike human beings. Since they have to remember to breathe, researchers believe humpback whales rest by switching off half their brain at a time.

Humpbacks are an extremely cooperative species when it comes to hunting and have developed a technique of collecting concentrated masses of prey that is called bubble-net feeding. The hunting members of a pod form a circle 10-100 feet (3.1-31 m) across and about 50 feet (15 m) below water.

Then the humpbacks willingly blow a covering of bubbles as they swim to the surface in a curved path. The conical wall of bubbles makes the trapped krill or small fish move to the surface of the water in a huge concentrated mass, which the clever humpbacks nicely take advantage of. The humpbacks then consume their hearty meal. Humpback whales have a life expectancy of about 45-50 years.

Noted for being Costa Rica’s prime wildlife attractions, the humpback whale is the species which brings more tourists to the country than any other creature here. The fifth largest of the rorquals whales, the humpback is a memorable sight to experience, growing to fifty-two feet in length and weighing up to fifty tons. It has a narrow mouth, with fourteen to thirty-five throat grooves on its lowerside and a humongous jaw that contains a staggering 330 pairs of baleen plates. Its dorsal fin is small and the flippers measure a third as much as its body length. Humpbacks can be gray, black or mottled, and are mostly white on its flippers and lowerside. Since the white markings on the lowerside of their flukes are distinct, scientists have identified and studied individual whales. Pointed growths pop up from its head.

Humpback Whales are one of the most dispersed animals ranging through almost all of the worlds seas. Their three major populations: one in the southern hemisphere and Antarctic, another in the north Atlantic and the third in north Pacific. Each group migrates to the equatorial tropics to breed and bear their young and all three are known to send pods to Costa Rica (which makes it a whale spotters haven). Apart from giving them their interesting names, the Humpback’s physical features are used to identify them. They’re generally dark gray except for their flippers, undersides and tail flukes. Humpbacks have warty protruding called tubricales around their heads and on the edges of their flippers that aren’t found on any other whale species but these are not used for identification because they are more difficult to classify than the fins and tail. Southern hemisphere humpbacks are comparatively bigger and can exceed 18 meters (60 feet) in length and fifty tons, their counterparts in the north are very rarely lengthier than 15 meters (50 feet) and generally much less than 40 tons.

One of the most fascinating and intriguing characteristics of these mammals is the “whale song” , their song like sound that travels thousands of miles at frequencies beyond human detection through deep water channels. The songs are sung by males positioned almost motionless head down in the water. Whales and other cetaceans are not known to possess vocal chords and the sounds they make are said to be produced by compressed air pushed through their nasal cavities. The twenty minute overtures are often repeated with minor alterations and are used to combat challenges and dominance and entice potential mates.

Where To Spot Them

Costa Rican waters are home to dozens of exotic marine mammal species, which can be spotted when bottlenose dolphins generally escort small crafts on exciting offshore excursions. If visitors undertake fishing or snorkelling trips they’ll most likely spot the smaller cetaceans but if they want to see the superstar of the show, they should make sure they travel when these magnificent creatures are “wintering” in the sunny tropical waters and take specialized humpback whale watching tours in Costa Rica’s famed waters. Costa Rica has the enviable distinction of more months with humpbacks inhabiting it’s than anywhere else in the world.

Each group arrives in Costa Rica at the commencement of their respective winter and stays until its spring time. Females who mated twelve months earlier give birth to a single calf who grows at least 8 meters (26 feet) feeding on heavy milk over the first year. The adults don’t feed and nursing females can shed up to a third of their body weight. The widely believed theories about why humpbacks migrate to the tropics are that the warmth allows the calves to mature at a quicker pace, or that the waters are more protected because of reduced numbers of predators like orcas. Whatever the motivation for wintering in the tropics it means Anamaya’s guests can watch Humpback whales in Costa Rica nearly year round because the seasons are reversed in the two hemispheres and both populations head to the tropics when it gets chilly back home.

Whale watchers on Costa Rica cruise tours may notice the humpback’s twelve-ft long flukes with scalloped edges before the species embarks on its spectacular dives. The species generate a bushy blow and breaches so impactfully that the humpback may elegantly carry most of its body above the surface of the water, then meander through the water for which it is named, and is a splendid sight to behold that visitors on Costa Rica tours will always back with them. Many cruise companies in and Montezuma conduct whale watching and other cruises where guests are treated to a variety of sightseeing, diving (and other water activities) and gourmet food among other attractions.

When visitors think of whale sounds, it is usually the humpbacks they refer to. The humpback’s songs are some of the most complicated sounds you’ll ever hear. It can last up to thirty minutes. Humpback males sing predictably as a mating and breeding ritual, but where those sounds actually originate from is not fully understood, since the species are not known to possess vocal cords and do not apparently appear to open its mouth or exhale while giving out tunes replayed over days of presumed mating calls.

Humpbacks travel to Costa Rica from the earth’s polar waters to breed, live and give birth, migrating from the Arctic migrate as far south as Venezuela and from Antarctica as far north as Costa Rica. During certain seasons, visitors on Costa Rica tours will see humpbacks that have migrated from both poles. The peak months for humpback sightings in Costa Rica are December to March and July to November. Marino Ballena National Park, on the Pacific coast, is named for the whales it shelters, and is a strategic spot for visitors who travel all the way to Costa Rica wishing to see humpbacks. Further south between the Osa Peninsula and the mainland, humpbacks can be spotted during the dry season in the Golfo Dulce off the shores of Puerto Jimenez. Humpbacks may also be seen out to sea in Drake Bay, near the Isla del Cano Biological Reserve.

Four of Southern Explorations’ guided Costa Rica tours and two of its self-guided Costa Rica trips include leisure time along the Pacific coast in the region where humpbacks can be easily spotted. The guided trips are the seven-day Coast to Coast tours, the eight-day Rainforest and Beaches and the Rainforests and Volcanoes tours and the ten-day Classic Costa Rica trip. The self-guided tours are the eight-day Adventure Fly and Drive and the Classic Fly and Drive. The whale watching season in Costa Rica’s South Pacific officially begins in July when the Humpback whales begin their migration to the warm waters of Bahia Ballena on Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast. The whales arrive from the northern hemisphere and come to the area to reproduce and give birth.

According to some people employed at the Marino Ballena National Park, there are lucky days when whale watchers can see spot up to ten whales at a time. For the next three months, visitors can also expect to see incredible performances from a variety of dolphin species, known for jumping out of the water and performing stunts in the air to complement the whale sightings. The humpback whale migration is one of the most spectacular journeys by any creature on earth and it is made by one of the biggest creatures on the planet, which makes it all the more incredible to witness. The humpback whales travel further than any other species of whale to reach their breeding grounds, more than 5,000 miles on just one leg of their travel. Theirs is the longest recorded journey by any individual mammal.

Since the Humpback Whales spend so much time above the surface hopping, slapping their fins, and breaching, they are by far the most sought after species for whale watching tours in Costa Rica. The whales are popping above the surface to look around and constantly indulging in some hyper energetic activity that attracts viewers. Scientists believe that the other behaviours may be forms of communication or mating calls because of the almost unbelievable sound volumes created when whale flesh comes in contact with water bodies. Others have come to the confident conclusion that the whales leap clear of their waters because they are trying to get rid of parasites such as the sea lice.

Although the whales along the Pacific Coast represent only a fraction of the world’s population they’re easy to spot because they collect closer to the shore. Pacific Humpbacks swim in pods of about a dozen in the familiar calving regions near the outer shore of the Osa Peninsula and in the sheltered waters of Marino Ballena National Park near Uvita. Off late, data collected from the area reveals there are also plenty of breeding groups that frequent the Golfo Dulce inside the Osa Peninsula and probably even inhabit the Papagayo Bay in Guanacaste. Most whale watching tours commence from Drake or Carate on the seaward shores of the Osa peninsula or from the central Pacific coast along the beaches of Ballena Park near Uvita. The best dates are from December through April for the California Humpbacks and starting again in July when the Antarctic whales arrive to stay until about November. In the last couple of years fishermen and divers going towards the Bat islands have reported more whales off the northern Pacific coast of Guanacaste but it’s not clear whether they are hibernating there or just passing through to the known nurseries further down south. When their patterns there are better nailed and viewing is more predictable whale watching tours will immediately commence.

Whale spotting in Costa Rica is done from small outboard motor skiffs or larger inboard fishing boats. Tour prices range from around $50 per person for a bare bones half-day trip to $100 or $150 per person for an all day guided tour that might include a leisure halt at Cano Island to snorkel or Corcovado park to hike and lunch on the beach. It is considered illegal for anyone other than scientific researchers to swim with the whales or dolphins in protected Costa Rican waters.

Humpbacks definitely steal the show on any whale watching trip but keep your digital equipments in place because Costa Rican waters are home to Orcas, Pseudo Orcas, Sei, Beaked, Brydes and Pilot whales and while you’re busy spotting them you could also enjoy bonus sightings of their smaller cousins the Risso’s, Common, Spinner and Roughtooth dolphins.

More on the Humpback Whales

Whalewatching Tours – Montezuma whalewatching tours
Humpback Whales – Costa Rica humpback details
Humpback Whales – on Costarica-scuba.com