Conscious travel,  Costa Rica

Tips for whale watching in Uvita in a responsible way

Uvita is one of the most incredible places for whale watching in Costa Rica. The area is home to a variety of marine life, including humpback whales and other species of cetaceans.

I traveled to Uvita in 2022 and did a boat-based whale watching tour in Uvita. I had the feeling that the animals were not lured or hunted as in other vacation destinations. It felt to me like an activity where animal health was considered. However, some studies draw different conclusions. In this article I want to tell you more about the impact boat-based whale watching has on the whale population in Costa Rica. In addition, I share some tips on how you can see the whales responsibly.

Boat-based whale watching tour in Uvita

In 2022 I did a whale watching tour in Uvita, Costa Rica. Our group went snorkeling first, which was disappointing compared to some snorkeling spots in Asia. The water was murky and I barely saw any fish or coral. While snorkeling we heard that another boat had spotted a mother whale and baby whale, so we all got back in the boat and started heading towards the whales.

It was cool to see the whales in their natural environment. According to the guide, adult whales can stay underwater for around 45 minutes and babies for around 20 minutes. When they blow up the water, they take a deep breath and then often go underwater for a long time. Whale spotting therefore requires a lot of patience. The whales often stay under the water surface for a long time. According to the guide, the mother whale was teaching the young to stay underwater longer. Therefore, they regularly went under.

We did not see the whales jump up, but we did see the baby whale flip its tail in the water once (too fast for a photo or video). The rest of the time they were busy floating, squirting water and staying underwater.

There were a total of 3 boats around the whales (including our boat). The boats kept a nice distance from the whales and it didn’t feel intrusive to me. The whales were not lured with food and swimming with the beasts was not allowed. After seeing the whales, we visited a cave and then headed back to shore.

During my time in Costa Rica, I had no guilt about my participation in this tour. However, now that I am home and delving more deeply into the effects of tourism involving animals, I feel ashamed that I participated in this whale watching tour. Even though there are much worse tours, where, for example, whales are lured with food or where you can swim with them, it is still not right to book a tour and sail so close to these animals to watch them. I explain more about this in the next paragraph.

What sort of impact does boat-based whale watching in Uvita have on the local whale population?

Whale watching in Uvita, Costa Rica has obviously become a popular activity and important source of revenue. It’s important for supporting conservation efforts and provides numerous benefits like educational opportunities and job creation for locals.

In addition to these positive developments, boat-based whale watching also brings some negative developments. Researchers collected behavioral data (like change in swimming direction, frequency of breaching, slap behaviors, diving, and spy hops) from humpback whales in marine protected areas and concluded that too much boat-based whale watching (over-use of the resource) could lead to long term negative effects on the animals. It’s believed that more whales are going to face problems finding mates due to vessels altering whale group dynamics and travel directions. Additionally, the whale’s health can be negatively affected due to chronic levels of stress and discontinuation of essential behaviors like feeding, resting and nursing. It’s even believed that boat-based whale watching could result in population decline over time.

graffiti with inscription protect the oceans placed on concrete wall
Photo by Laker on

Tips for a responsible whale watching experience:

Below you can find some tips for a responsible whale watching experience in Uvita:

Book a land-tour instead of a sea-tour

Land-based whale- and dolphin watching in Costa Rica has the potential to help minimize the impact from boat-based whale watching. The great advantage of land-based whale watching is that it doesn’t add to pressure on the whales and dolphins or the marine environment. In some areas, of course, large numbers of people could adversely affect the coastline, and this needs to be monitored and controlled, but for the most part, land-based whale watching is low-impact whale watching.

There are three great location for land-based whale watching: 

– North Pacific coast: Flamingo in Guanacaste

The Gulf of Papagayo is located near the popular beach towns of Tamarindo, Conchal, and Flamingo. Here, you can easily combine whale watching with a relaxing beach vacation. The shallow bay is surrounded by mangroves, rocky cliffs, and white sand beaches. It provides a unique opportunity to observe these majestic creatures up close. During the peak season, it’s not uncommon to spot multiple pods of humpback whales, pilot whales and dolphins swimming in the Gulf.

– South Pacific coast: Bahía Drake 

Drake Bay is another great place to go whale watching in Costa Rica, because more whales from both migrations birth and breed here (between July and October and between December and March). There are also many other reasons to visit Drake Bay besides the whales, such as the beautiful Corcovado National Park.

– South Pacific coast: Piñuela in Puntarenas

Playa Pinuela is a quiet and small beach near Uvita that is rarely packed with tourists. From mid-July to October and again in December to March, the warm tropical waters around Playa Pinuela serve as mating and feeding grounds for humpback whales. 

The beach is just a few steps away from the well-known Marino Ballena National Park, which was officially declared a marine park in 1989. This national park aims to protect the marine ecosystem, as well as the whales that come through every year. Despite being a marine park, I do not recommend taking boat trips in Marino Ballena to see the whales. Watch the whales from the shore instead for the most responsible experience.

Keep in mind that nature is unpredictable

While it is possible to spot humpback whales, pilot whales, false killer whales, sperm whales and orcas in Uvita, keep in mind that nature is unpredictable and sightings cannot be guaranteed. Even not if you decide to do a whale watching boat trip.

The best time to go whale watching

The best time to see Humpback Whales in Costa Rica is mid July through October, when the Southern Migration comes from as far as Antarctica. The whales choose to have their babies and breed in Costa Rica. You can also see Humpback Whales from November through April, during our Northern Migration, coming from Northwest USA and Canada. This migration is not as plentiful, but you still have a good chance to see whales and pods of dolphins.

Know what to look for

If you’ve never seen a whale before, it can be difficult to know what to look for. Here are some tips that can help you see and identify them:

Look close to shore and look out across the horizon. Watch for anything that breaks the surface of the water and keep an eye out for water plumes. These are formed when a whale exhales at the surface. They can look like clouds of smoke on the horizon. Also try to look for boats, especially if they are stopped. Sometimes the best way to find marine mammals is to find the other people who are watching them.

Bring the essential items for whale watching

When whale watching in Uvita, you’ll want to make sure you bring a few items to ensure a great experience. Whether you’re whale watching on the shore or on the sea, sunscreen is essential. A hat and sunglasses will help protect you from the sun. Binoculars are obviously a must for spotting and following the whales and a camera is a great way to capture the experience, so don’t forget to bring a good one along. A light jacket or sweatshirt can be nice to have for cooler mornings. Lastly, a small snack or two can help keep your energy level up throughout the day. With these items in hand, you’ll be sure to have a great whale watching experience in Uvita.

Is whale watching in Uvita worth it?

In my opinion, it’s worth going whale watching in Uvita, but please stay on the shores and don’t book a sea-tour. From the shores you can see the whales in their natural environment with binoculars. This is a great way to appreciate the beauty and majesty of the whales in a safe and respectful way. If I had known, what I know all now, I would never have booked a sea tour.

I hope I answered all of your questions. If you still have any doubts or questions, please leave a comment in the comments section below. Safe travels and enjoy Costa Rica!

Author: Daphne

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