Whale Watching in Panama
Panama is host to over 30 species of Cetaceans (marine mammals) throughout the year. If you fancy whale watching Panama is one of the best places for it. It is only Panama and neighboring Costa Rica that receive migrating Humpback Whales from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The Humpbacks come in good numbers – about 2,000 visiting from the north between July and October and about 300 visiting from the south between Dec and February. They are a favorite with visitors on whale watching tours in Panama, and I’d imagine everywhere else, partly because they are not too shy and will come quite close to boats (Grey Whales are the friendliest) even when their calves are quite young, partly for the song sung by the male Humpbacks and partly because they often breach very high out of the water which is a spectacular sight and a tremendous noise. We have a separate page dedicated to Humpback Whales in Panama. We’ll show this link again at the bottom of this page.
Whale Watching in Panama with Us
Our 98′ luxury cruise yacht is the perfect way to observe whales in Panama in style and comfort. Its top deck gives you a superb vantage point to observe whales from a distance, and even close up is often the best view as you can look into the water more clearly without the bright reflections you get from lower down.
We often bring the renowned naturalist and whale watcher, Anne Gordon, as a guide to interpret what we encounter. The has such an in-depth knowledge of whales, their behaviors and their habitat, she can talk all day on the subject without repeating herself. She is an outspoken promoter of responsible whale watching and often gives guidance to boat owners and captains on appropriate behavior around the whales
The captains of Panama Yacht and Fishing Charters follow a strict code of behavior around the whales. We never rush quickly towards them and take particular care when behind them and in their ‘ blind spot’. Given time and space and with the engines idling quietly, the whales often come right up to the boats of their own accord, even when the mothers are with very young whale calves.
Whether we are on the Pacific side or the Caribbean we can see whales, though they are present in larger numbers on the Pacific Ocean side. The Coiba National Park, with its low human impact, is a favorite but there are many whales around the Pearl Islands just a short distance from Panama City, and therefore accessible as a day trip. Sometimes we see whales on the way to the Pearl Islands as you can see in one of the photos in the slideshow at the top of the page with the city sky-scrapers in the background. A weekend trip or longer of course gives a lot more time for whale watching or any other activity because you are waking up at the island destination without needing to travel during the morning.
Panama is also visited by numerous whale species besides the Humpback.
Megaptera novaeagliae :
A favorite amongst whale watchers in Panama due to their friendly nature and their acrobatic displays, often ‘breaching’ with only their fluke (tail) remaining in the water. They also slap the water with their fins and fluke. Their pectoral fins are proportionately larger than any other cetacean. They visit both the Pacific and Atlantic waters of Panama. They are dark with white on their undersides and pectoral fins. They have humps on the leading edge of their dorsal fin and bumps on their rostrum. They often have barnacles and lice on the underside of their jaws.
We have a page dedicated to the Humpback Whales in Panama.
Physeter macrocephalus :
There is a substance called spermaceti oil that is present in copious amounts in the large heads of these whales, hence their name the Sperm Whale. This oil was one of the motivations for hunting them, as well as a waxy substance that they excrete called ambergris. It can be found floating in the ocean and a finding a large chunk washed up on a beach could net you tens of thousands of dollars. It’s main commercial application is it’s use as an agent to slow down the evaporation of perfumes so that they have a more enduring fragrance.
The male Sperm Whale can be up to 18m in length and the females are smaller at 11m. They are slender, with a square head and have no significant dorsal fin. They have a wrinkled appearance and are brown in color. Their blow is very tall by which they are easily spotted in the wild, and it comes out at a 45° angle from their left nasal opening.
Pygmy Sperm Whale and Dwarf Sperm Whale
Kogia breviceps and Kogia sima :
Kogia are extremely difficult to see in the wild. They are usually spotted in very calm waters and they are usually logging on the surface (just floating at the surface) and will just sink below the surface before diving and so aren’t very visible at the surface then either. Although surface activity is uncommon they have been seen leaping. They are roughly 2.7m to 3.4m and are quite dark.
The Beaked Whale family are an incredibly diverse group of animals and the least known of all cetaceans. They are inconspicuous when at the surface and they dive deep. They range in size from 3.5m to 13m. Physical characteristics, which are adaptations for their deep diving, are small dorsal fins and recesses in the sides of their bodies to tuck the pectoral fins in for reduced drag. Of the 20 beaked species, only four may be found in Panama water and will only be seen in deep waters offshore. Maybe big game fishermen going to Hannibal Bank will see them
Balanoptera edeni :
Bryde’s Whales (pronounced broodus) are commonly seen throughout the tropics and although they are not the most surface-active species they can be seen breaching at times. They do not fluke up when they dive (tail up in the air) and they sometimes raise their chins when surfacing after a long dive.They measure up to 15m, they are dark in color with a small dorsal fin curved like a sickle.
Balanoptera borealis :
Sei Whales are found in both tropical and temperate waters but despite their wide distribution are probably the least known of all the Rorquals (the largest sub-group of Baleen Whales – they sift water for their food). They are not surface active, do not fluke up before diving and very rarely breach.
Balanoptera physalus :
This is the second largest cetacean reaching a maximum length of 22m. It is sleek and fast, and is often referred to as ‘the greyhound of the sea’ reaching speeds of u[ to 30 km/h. They are dark brown or grey with unique color patterns and have a white band on their pectoral fin, a white underside with white streaks from the dorsum, and white on the right side of their jaw. Fin whales can be found in small groups and seem indifferent to the presence of boats, neither approaching nor avoiding them.
Balanoptera musculus :
The largest animal on earth has been recorded to have reached 34m in length and a weight of 190 tonnes, but typically reach 27m and between 110 and 140 tonnes. They have a migration cycly, feeding in the Antarctic and nursing their calves in warm tropical waters. Their color is a mottled grey but thay appear blue underwater. Their blow is vertically upward and reaches up to 9m, which makes them easy to locate from a distance.
Rhincodon typus :
The Whale Shark is not a whale – it’s a slow moving, filter feeding shark and the largest known existing fish species. They are up to to 12m in length. The Whale Shark lives in tropical and warm oceans and lives in open seas with a lifespan of about 70 years. They have large mouths and feed mainly on plankton and very small fish.
West Indian Manatee
Trichechus manatus :
Manatees (aka sea cows) are not Whales. Despite their appearance they are not closely related to whales, dolphins, seals or sea lions, their closest relatives are the Elephant and the Hyraxes. They are easy to identify in the wild and cannot be mistaken for other marine mammal species. Manatees reach 3m in length with a weight of 1 tonne. They are grey in color, very rounded, have no dorsal fin and have a round flattened tail. Vestigial toenails are found in their flippers. They travel very slowly and have algae growing on their backs. They are the only herbivorous marine mammal and use their large palpable lips to graze on sea grasses and algae, consuming up to 15% of their body-weight daily. Due to their foraging behavior, which is just below the surface in coastal areas, they are vulnerable to collision by motor boats and so are the subject of conservation efforts. Unlike Whales, they are tolerant to varying salinity, but they are intolerant to cold and are only found in shallow tropical waters.The West Indian Manatee can be seen along the Caribbean coast of Panama.
Orca (Killer Whale)
Orcinus orca :
Probably the most recognisable of all the dolphins, and one of the most diversified species. They are the largest of the dolphins and can reach upto 10m in length and have a distinctive triangualr dorsal that begins to grow in adolescence. Killer Whales are black with white eye patches, white belly patterns, and a variable white ‘saddle patch’ located just behind the dorsal fin. They are hunting animals that go after large cetaceans. In Panamanian waters they have the opportunity of feeding on young calves, which they first attempt to separate from their mothers.
False Killer Whale
Pseudorca crasidens :
This black dolphin reaches a maximum length of 6m and has a dorsal fin that often resembles that of a Killer Whale. They are easy told apart from the other dolphins because they are black and do not have a pronounced rostrum. Their heads are rounded and appear blunt, their dorsal fins are curved. False Kiiller Whales are an out-going species and can be found throughout tropical waters.
Pygmy Killer Whale
Feresa attenuata :
These are the smallest of the blackfish, reaching 2.5m with a medium-sized curved dorsal fin, and a rounded head with no beak. They are all black with a darker cape pattern, white undersides and distinctive white coloration on their ‘lips’ and chin. They are aggressive towards humans and other cetaceans. There is evidence from wild populations that they prey on dolphins.
Melon Headed Whale
Peponocephala electra :
This dolphin of the blackfish family is also known as many-toothed blackfish and electra dolphin. These are only slightly larger than the Pygmy Killer Whales and are often mistaken for them as they have very similar color, dorsal fin and also have white around their mouths, but the Melon Headed Whales do not not have white on their chin. They travel in large groups throughout the tropics but are rarely seen by humans as they prefer to stay in deep water.
Short-Finned Pilot Whale
Globicephala macrorhynchus :
This is a large dolphin of the blackfish family reaching lengths of up to 6.5m. It lives in tropical and subtropical waters and its cousin, the Long-Finned Pilot Whale lives in colder waters, between them they have the world covered. They are friendly and can be approached in the wild but are typically not very active at the surface. Due to their foraging at great depths they have long dive times.Short-Finned Pilot Whales,/em> are one of the few mammal species to go through the menopause. They are highly social and studies suggest that both males and females remain in their mothers’ pods, very unusual amongst mammals. They are among the cetacean species most commonly stranded on beaches.
Visit our Whale Watching Pinterest board to see a collection of related images. You may want to see our other boards also.