I am finally getting around to writing this post on our whale watching adventure. I love riding in boats on the ocean. It’s something my mother taught me to enjoy. We would always catch some rides with the fishermen in the West Country who offered trips around the bay in the tourist season and made their living catching fish the rest of the year. There is nothing like the smell of the sea, the wind in your face and the rising and plunging of the boat in the waves. Even the occasional drenching from a sudden spray bomb is fun. Mum and I liked to sit right up front.
A sea adventure is part of my enjoyment of coming to Puerto Vallarta. Susan and I wanted to have a boat trip and see whales. We were anxious to take a whale watching tour with a company that was really concerned about the welfare of the whales and wouldn’t add to the problems caused by tour boats and particularly diesel engined boats. The problem with diesel engines is they disrupt the whales’ ability to communicate. It has to do with frequencies and the way sound travels in water.
We researched the local companies and were assured we were taking the most ecologically friendly one available. Ocean Friendly is the name of the company and Oskar was our guide. The boat held twelve of us plus the three crew (captain, guide and assistant). We were lucky to book on a day that turned out to be very calm for these waters. Large swells to be sure, but no whitecaps or high waves.
Our taxi driver, Mario, not one of the infamous brothers, picked us up at 8am and drove us across town to the pier where we were to meet our boat. We gathered and received a 30 minute briefing on the humpback whales that come to the Bay of Banderas each year. It was a fascinating lecture and helped us to be prepared for what we would soon experience. I was glad to note too, that Oskar was particularly safety conscious. He had concern both for our safety and the safety of the whales we would be observing.
We boarded the boat at 9am and Oskar fitted each of us with an auto-inflatable life vest that we were required to wear the whole trip. Most of the boats here have life vests – but usually they are heaped up somewhere and would be of little use in a fast developing emergency.
Fully briefed, both informationally and sartorially (no knicker-less riders here), we chugged out of the harbour area. Once we hit the open sea the captain opened up the twin engines to full and we raced along at great speed. There are some reefs in the area which cause some wave action and when we hit these waves the boat literally flew and crashed down onto the sea. You would think water would make for a soft landing – not so! Sitting on a comfy cushion would have been helpful.
The trip was to last about four hours. They advertised on-board lavatories. This consisted of a metal box like structure in the mid-section of the boat in front of the captain’s wheel and controls structure. It turns out that to use said facility the lid is opened up. A man using the facility would stand up, facing the skipper, with his head visible to all on board. A smile of contentment or relief coming over him at the critical moments. Oskar needed to demonstrate this contraption, which seemed to help the rest of us make the four-hour journey without the need for relief. A woman’s head would probably be visible above the structure, but luckily she wouldn’t have to be looking at the captain during this natural interlude.
What about the whales, I hear you demanding. What about the whales indeed. We were soon treated to meeting a mother, her four-week old baby and a male escort (keeping mother and baby safe from predators and possibly overly amorous males).
We had our first glimpse when the guide or captain spotted a plume – or spout. I now understand the cry “Thar’ she blows” a la Moby Dick. I often wondered if Moby was Mennonite (this is a Manitoba and family inside joke).
The Captain, I believe, saw the flume from either the baby or the mother and changed directions tearing across the ocean towards the place where he had seen the flume. It was time to hang on tight! I was unable to capture any distant flume shots (way too much boat movement and I needed both hands to hold on) – but basically a large geyser of spray is blown out of the whales blowhole and shoots up high into the air and is often carried along on the breeze for quite a long time.
This is a little bit of a flume from one of a pair of Whales we came near. Not too exciting, but it gives you an idea of their blowing. The sound is quite dramatic.
When we arrived at the place where the captain thought he had spotted the flume we looked around. There was the tell-tale clear patch of water where the whale had descended. When they sound, or drop quickly under the ocean, the force of their descent leaves a vacuum behind and everything is pulled in after the huge body (40-50 feet long and 70-80,000 lbs.) This leaves a circular shaped smooth patch of water that lasts for a considerable time. Whales can hold their breath – or at least go without surfacing, for long periods of time. Baby whales need to surface more frequently. However, whales can travel great distances during the time they are submerged so they don’t pop up where you last saw them – unless they are curious and want to observe you or your boat.
Suddenly the whales may breach (jumping straight up out of the water and landing with a resounding crash), or show their backs and tails as they swim near the surface in an undulating, dolphin like motion. The shot above is of just the top 40,000 lbs!
These are the most sought after observations, but for me being close to the undulating swimmers is more wonderful, if less exciting.
How do I know it’s a male? Oskar told me. How does he know? By the scars from encounters with other males and possibly defending the young against Orcas (Killer Whales).
The underside of each whale’s tale is unique, much like our finger prints. Part of the work and contribution of the better tour operators is to provide photographs of the tales to the whale research group. They have a huge catalogue of the different whales that have been identified; when they were seen; and exactly where in the bay. By this they can determine visiting patterns and also in cooperation with other research groups discover the whales’ migration patterns.
If I understood correctly the mothers go through a three year cycle. Year one they come to the bay to mate (around October). Once pregnant they leave the bay for the northern feeding grounds. Gestation is about 11 months (one calf per pregnancy – you can understand why). The pregnant females return the next fall, and deliver their calves. They raise the calves in the bay until ready (strong enough and have learned enough) to travel north. The next fall the female and young whale return, during this winter the mother weens the calf and then goes on vacation for a year. The next winter is free time. Then they start the process again the following October.
This one reminded me of people doing handstands in the water.
While we were at sea we also saw sea turtles. One, that we went by too fast, had a Blue Legged Booby sitting on its back. The turtles often sleep on top of the water.
When we got back to shore and after moving rapidly to Las Banos (Bathrooms), we were greeted by some rather large and overly friendly iguanas.
And so, our trip came to an end. We probably saw about 10 different whales that day. We also heard a pod of four males talking – one very close to us the others a kilometre or so away. The guide lowered a very sensitive microphone into the water and we were able to hear the whales singing to one another. Apparently the sounds can be heard by the whales twenty kilometres away. This is a crucial method of communicating danger, travel plans and locations. There is considerable concern over the US government approving undersea blasting techniques within whale frequented waters and the devastating consequences this could have.
These truly are amazingly gentle giants of the deep, it was a great privilege to see them up close. Although the photographs are poor, I hope they give you some feel for our adventure with the leviathans.