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Whales on Vacation

Apr 13, 2019
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Costa Ballena is a major cetacean destination

The Costa Ballena (“Whale Coast”) off Dominical and Uvita is one of the best whale-watching spots in the world, unique as a place where majestic humpbacks from both the northern and southern hemispheres migrate every year to breed and calve. It’s sort of like a “winter break” for whales.

Easily spotted by the geyser of air they expel when they surface to breathe, whales have captured the imagination of human beings since antiquity, not least of all because they are immense yet harmless.

Whales are not only the largest animals in the world today, they are the largest creatures that have ever lived on the planet. The biggest, the blue whale, can reach 100 feet in length and weigh 190 tons.

For whale watchers, the most entertaining performer is the humpback whale because of its spectacular breaching behaviors. The humpback often hurls itself into the air and falls into the water on its back or side, delighting people on whale-watching boats (and sometimes scaring the hell out of kayakers).

The surfacing behaviors of whales and dolphins have inspired a broad lexicon of amusing terminology, including “spy hopping,” “lobtailing,” “porpoising,” “logging,” “pectoral slapping” and even “peduncle throws.” Biologists theorize that these behaviors are mating displays, feeding strategies (to stun fish), self-cleaning tactics (to remove parasites), and/or just a form of play.

Snowbirds of the deep

Humpback whales occur in every ocean of the world and are often spotted off the west coast of the Americas. Different populations live in the northern and southern hemispheres, feeding on krill and small fish during the warm summer months. When winter arrives, they migrate toward warmer waters from as far north as Alaska and as far south as Antarctica.

Because the seasons are reversed in the northern and southern hemispheres, southern populations migrate to the tropics from July through November, while northern populations do so from December through April. Humpbacks may migrate an astonishing 16,000 miles per year.

Just like human beings, whales love to vacation in Costa Rica. Unlike humans, they may spend months here without enjoying the local cuisine, living instead off of stored fat reserves. They have other things on their minds — namely breeding and calving. With a gestation period of 11 months, a whale may get pregnant in tropical waters one year and return to bear her young the next.

Baby whales nurse for up to a year, feeding on pink milk that is 50% fat, supplemented by other food as they grow.

The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is up to 50 feet long (roughly 7.4 Shaquille O’Neals) and weighs up to 33 tons (127 Andre the Giants). But don’t worry, snorkelers — they don’t eat humans, and they don’t even have teeth.

World humpback populations were once severely depleted by whaling, but today their numbers are considered quite healthy. With some 80,000 individuals thought to exist, the humpback is rated of “Least Concern” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List of Threatened Species.

Are whales altruistic?

Whales sometimes appear to be curious about whale-watching boats, as if they are watching the people watching them. Humpbacks have been spotted socializing with other whale species and dolphins, and even protecting other species from sharks, including porpoises, seals and sea lions.

In 2017, whale researcher Nan Hauser was snorkeling with humpbacks in the Cook Islands when she experienced a close encounter of the whale kind.

“I was in the water and he approached me,” she says in a video of the incident, “and he didn’t stop. He put me on his head. I kept trying to get away, but for 10 and a half minutes he was tucking me under his pectoral fin and lifting me up out of the water and just rolling around with me on his body.”

She said another whale in the distance kept slapping its tail, and she later observed from her boat that there was a large tiger shark in the vicinity. She believes the whale was trying to save her life.

“Humpbacks are altruistic,” she said. “They have this incredible behavior where they will rush into a situation and save another species.”

Some whale bi0logists are skeptical of Hauser’s theory as to the whale’s motivation. Sharks have been known to attack baby whales, and this whale may have been reacting as if Hauser were her own calf.

Among other whale species sometimes spotted off the Costa Rican coast are the beaked, Bryde’s, pilot and sei whales. Dolphins are also abundant, including the bottlenose, common, rough-toothed, spinner and false killer whale.

It’s not uncommon for a pod of dolphins to swim back and forth in front of a speeding boat, as if racing, or to “surf” in its wake just for fun.

The town of Uvita holds a Whale and Dolphin Festival every year, usually in September, to celebrate the arrival of the giant visitors. In addition to discounted whale-watching tours, the festival offers cycling and hiking events and a performance on the beach by the Boruca indigenous group.

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