By: Javier A. Pinzón
Photos:: Eduardo Estrada y Javier A. Pinzón
Panama is the meeting place for great animals that travel the world and converge in this small isthmus to care for their young. In fact, from July to mid-November, the warm waters of the Panamanian Pacific house close to 2,000 humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). The giant travelers journey more than 3,700 miles from the icy waters of the South Pacific in search of more favorable waters for giving birth to their calves and teaching them to swim and face the dangers of the ocean.
Scientists report that, before the southern whale season ends, the northern whales begin to arrive in Panama as part of their annual migration. This means the waters of Panama are a meeting place for whales traveling in both directions. The truth is that these crystalline and warm tropical waters are the perfect place to start a new life. Mothers and calves stay here for several months so that the young ones can learn to swim and become independent.
At birth, calves measure about 13 feet long and weigh about 1,540 lb. They exclusively consume their mother’s milk (about 12 gallons per day) during their first six months. For the next six months, after returning to southern waters, the calves alternate between breast milk and the food they are able to catch. When the calf reaches its second year and is about 30 feet long, the definitive moment for weaning arrives. After five years, the whales reach sexual maturity and the cycle of life begins again; the now-adult humpbacks return to the waters of the Panamanian Pacific Ocean to reproduce. Humpbacks live in groups, but these are often small and unstable, since the only lasting bond is the one between mother and child.
As incredible as it may seem, humpbacks are very acrobatic, capable of lifting their 40 ton bodies nearly 50 feet high, over and over again, in a behavior that has no explanation but play. These amazing animals also make the longest and most complex song of any animal in their kingdom. The males emit notes that range from low bellows to high-pitched shrieks, which they repeat, forming songs up to 30 minutes long that are audible for miles under the water. Interestingly, whales don’t have vocal chords so they generate their song by forcing air through their enormous nasal cavities. According to the American Cetacean Society, the humpbacks of the North Atlantic all share the same song, which is different from the one emitted by their Pacific counterparts. These songs, which change slowly over a period of several years, are never repeated the same way.
These giants of the ocean were hunted for centuries, reducing their population by 90%, before a moratorium was put in place in 1966. Since then, their population has been increasing, but collisions with ships, noise pollution, and entanglements in fishing equipment continue to be a source of concern for whale focused scientists and NGOs.
Until just a few years ago, the Panama Canal did not have a separate corridor entrance for ships, which increased the likelihood of collisions between shipping vessels and whales. A scientific study that used satellite transmitters placed in whales, determined that these probabilities could be significantly reduced if the entry and exit of ships in the Canal was organized in corridors.
The International Maritime Organization heeded the recommendations of the study, which was carried out by Hectór Guzmán, Catalina Gómez, and Carlos Guevara of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). This led to the installation of traffic separation devices that organize the course of the vessels, minimizing one of the risks whales face.
Whales are curious and tend to approach small boats spontaneously. This charming behavior has inspired a whale-watching tourism industry, which now attracts more than fifteen million tourists per year and generates more than a billion dollars worldwide. Wetlands International reports that Panama’s whale-watching industry generates over three million dollars each year. Nevertheless, the whales’ curious and friendly behavior, which is so attractive to tourists, can become dangerous for both whales and observers. For this reason, the MarViva Foundation conducts trainings for guides and boat captains to promote responsible whale watching.
The whale season is in full swing, so get your cameras ready, put on your sunscreen, and contact one of the many tour operators serving the Gulf of Panama or the Gulf of Chiriquí. And be sure to bring your swimsuit because you will also have the opportunity to enjoy the white sand beaches and crystal clear waters or go snorkeling around a beautiful reef as you listen to the singing of the whales.
Humpback whales swim at a speed of three to sixteen m.p.h. and can dive nearly 660 feet deep.
The scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae translates to “New England large-finned whale,” which refers to the great size of the whale’s pectoral fins.
When they prepare for a deep dive, these cetaceans arch their backs, which appear like small humps. This is where they get their common name “humpback whale.”
The spray of a humpback can reach 20 feet high. It is audible more than 800 feet away.
Humpbacks make long migrations twice a year. They travel to the cold polar waters in the summer to feed and return to the warm tropical waters in winter to reproduce.
The song of a humpback is audible twelve miles away.
For more information on whale watching tours, please visit: