A Unique Experience with Humpback Whales


...an enormous humpback whale suddenly leaps out of the water as a giant torpedo...

We are excited as we descend the pronounced curve that leads to Puerto López in the central Pacific coast of Ecuador.  From the privileged observatory uphill, we have a full view of the crescent-shaped bay, framed by a long sandy beach and the picturesque town with its multicolored houses along the waterfront. The church’s tower stands above the rest of the buildings. In the bay, another display of color is provided by the dozens of fishing boats and tour boats of all sizes and categories, ready to take visitors onto a unique experience. The sky is mostly overcast as we get down to the beach.

Puerto López - photo credits: Ministerio de Turismo

At the southern tip of the bay, the beach is the embarking point for the boat tours. Our guides Juan and Luis are there, ready with life preservers, water bottles and beach towels, as a dozen of tourists, including myself and a couple of friends, scramble barefooted and with ankle-deep water into the small dinghy that will take us to the pre-reserved boat for today’s adventure. The Zodiac marine craft pulls away from the beach and winding through the maze of fishing boats makes it after a five minute ride in very calm waters, to our small but sleek and comfortable tour boat, one of the best available in the area.
Once on board the yacht, our guides assemble the group of tourists on deck. There are two couples from U.K, a group of three North American friends, a Canadian couple, an Australian young lady and three Ecuadorians (my group). The guides give us a complete briefing and pre-departure talk featuring safety measures and the rules and regulations that are in effect to protect the unique marine life we are about to encounter.  A short introduction to the tour includes some history about the area, an ancient Pre-Columbian settlement, and information about the rich marine and terrestrial fauna and flora that led the authorities about three decades ago to create the Machalilla National Park, one of Ecuador’s most important and the most antique along the Pacific coast. The Park includes land areas near the coast and inland; coastal areas, mangrove forests, a marine corridor and, some 15 miles to the west, a solitary island: La Plata, a wildlife refuge and history-filled location also known as "Llittle Galapagos" or "The Galapagos for the Poor" because the most common bird species of the Enchanted Islands can be seen there.

Blue-footed booby (Isla de la Plata) - photo credits: David Chang V.

Then the guides focus on what is the highlight of the day: we are off to observe and enjoy the company of the mighty humpback whales who come to the warmer Equatorial waters between late May and October of each year to breed and raise their calves in nutrient-rich waters. The guides tell us about the long journey that these giants of the seas make for thousands of miles, from Antarctica to the Equator plus their feeding and breeding habits. The yacht’s captain, Jorge, is introduced and soon we are on our way to the open sea, leaving behind the picturesque village of Puerto Lopez. As we exit the sheltered bay, we start to pick up some choppy waters, fueled by a rather strong southern wind. The captain skillfully navigates the yacht on a 45 degree angle to avoid the rocky motion of our east to west course.
We are told to be alert and to keep our eyes scouting 360 degrees around the boat, aiming to see the spouts that will testimony the presence of the whales. Other boats are also making their way in the same direction and with the same purpose. Just some 6 to 8 miles off-shore and one of the guides alerts us to check out some 200 yards away from the boat, the first whale spouts. It doesn’t take long for most of us to realize, with our without binoculars, that several spouts are consistently rising from the sea surface into the air, pumped out from the whales blow-holes, located on their foreheads. As it is mandatory, the Captain reduces the yacht’s speed to the minimum and approaches the spouts very slowly and carefully. We are told to refrain from the temptation of screaming out of emotion and to keep as quiet as possible. It is a magic moment. We are getting close to the immense marine mammals and we must keep a minimum distance from them, so we do not disturb these gigantic and gentle leviathans of the sea.

Salango Community - photo credits: Ecuador Planeta Magico

Soon, an awesome natural show is staged in front of our eyes: an enormous humpback whale suddenly leaps out of the water as a giant torpedo and almost exposes its entire body as it makes a graceful turn, opening its long black-and-white front flippers, before doing one more antic to re-enter the water, head first, while making a big splash with its majestic hind-flippers. We cannot keep from airing some loud cheers of emotion which do not seem to bother the animal. The boat is now at a complete stand-still and soon, the powerful sound of another spout scares us from the opposite side towards which we were watching. Much closer now, what Juan and Luis identify as a female humpback gently cruises very close to our boat, allowing us a full view of this marvel of nature: the largest mammals on earth. The experience becomes better when we can see a young calf, navigating alongside her mother and doing his or her share of spouting too. We spend more than a half-hour just living the unique emotion of having such close and pacific encounter with these beautiful giants of the oceans, known for their intriguing seasonal songs and gentle ways. At this point, words are not sufficient to describe adequately the state of emotion that we experience.
As we leave this humpback whales’ trio and move on for some more sightings, we are served refreshments and a light snack. The unique experience will be repeated again in a few minutes with other whales, before we return to port with the feeling of having had one of the most amazing encounters with a living natural marvel.

Humpback Whale - photo credits: David Chang V.