An Unlikely Tail - Whale Watching off Colombia's Pacific Coast

By Huw Hennessy

To whale watchers, whether serious naturalists or general thrill seekers like me, there’s something special about a whale’s tail. It’s slightly different in each species. Some are wide and narrow, some long and curved, but the humpback whale’s tail is the most beautiful of all: crescent-shaped with slightly outward pointing tips and a small straight notch in the middle; occasionally scarred and sometimes with bitemarks along the edge. The top is glossy black, while the underside is strikingly white and serrated. Sometimes it’s pockmarked with barnacles, which hitch a ride all over whales’ bodies, but which don’t seem to bother them unduly.

The other point about the tail, or to give it its proper name, the caudal fin, is that the sighting of it, dripping wet when dramatically raised above the waves, usually means the whale is about to dive down and swim off. So, it’s a final farewell. “So long guys, that’s your lot. I’m off for a bellyful of krill.”

But of course, it’s not just the tail. There’s the spout – also different for each species – and which is also often the first thing you see: a puff of white spray over the waves, sometimes catching the sun in a shimmering rainbow. The dorsal fin is frankly pretty small and unimpressive, considering the 40 tonnes and 18-metre size of this leviathan, but again a distinctive marker, for its hooked shape, sometimes flopped over to one side. And most obviously is the whale’s humpback: a slightly unfair tag in my opinion because most of the time the humpback whale swims along with a streamlined straight back, just slightly raised above the surface. But, again when it’s about to dive, it arches its back in a wide curve, before flipping up its tail in a cheery wave. The whole graceful movement is so measured and smooth, when the whales swim close together in twos and threes, as they like to do, that it looks like a perfectly choreographed aquatic ballet, all in synchronised harmony. Not bad for this heavyweight giant of the seas.

You notice these small details when you’re out in a boat, partly because unless you happen to be an underwater photographer in a mini-sub, or diving suit, you’re not going to see the whole whale’s body. But that really doesn’t disappoint anyone: these are its distinguishing features, just as much as a lion’s roar, or the glint of a crocodile’s eyes on a night-time riverbank. And we had plenty of opportunity to appreciate them from our small boat, heading out from the jetty of our eco-lodge down the jungle-fringed shoreline from Nuquí, on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Until recent years, the Choco region has been avoided as too isolated and inaccessible. But lately, more travellers are coming out to this stunning coastline, not just for the whale watching, but for all the abundant flora and fauna, from monkeys and birds to turtles, butterflies and poison dart frogs.

But we only had whales on our mind as Poso, our eagle-eyed pilot, steered us out from the shore and revved the engine, sending spray high into the cool morning air. As we zig-zagged across the bay it was only a few minutes before we caught our first sighting, in fact the most spectacular of the day: a huge whale breached right in front of us, shooting half its body out of the water, showing its pale underbelly and side fins, its tiny eyes and bemused mouth, before crashing back into the sea again with an enormous splash. The whole display only lasted a few seconds, leaving us gasping with excitement and fumbling with our cameras. Too slow! Soon though, we were treated to a stunning show, as more and more whales appeared from all directions, always in small groups of two or three, and usually only staying on the surface for a few minutes before diving out of sight again. After an hour or so, as we turned this way and that to try to keep up with the whales, it started to feel almost as if they were the ones following us, not the other way around. There are strict rules, as with whale watching all over the world. We shouldn’t come closer than 200 metres; no more than three boats should follow one group of whales, and not for more than 15 minutes at a time. But, whales don’t know these rules and the humpbacks down here must have been infected by Colombians’ natural gregariousness. They kept bobbing up sometimes only a few metres from the boat, calmly swimming alongside us. Maybe they use their echo-location sensors to bounce off the hull of our boat and check us out. Or maybe the bold adolescent whales like playing chicken with each other, daring to see who can get the closest, or drench us all with their whiffy spray…

Certainly, the huge whales wouldn’t be afraid of a little boat like us, you’d have thought. Perhaps they’d be more cautious of giant Japanese trawlers, but out here they’re blissfully free of any such threat. If anything, we’re the ones who should be scared. Out at sea, out of our element; while the humpback whales are majestically at ease in their oceanic habitat, which stretches around the globe, from the North Atlantic to the Southern Ocean.

I felt mixed emotions of awe, excitement and an almost masochistic thrill of being so close to such massive creatures, who could crush us and barely notice it.  When they dived, a patch of surface water left behind turned glassy and smooth, perhaps calmed by the suction of the huge mass plunging down…  leaving us stunned and waiting, half in hope, half in fear of where they might suddenly reappear. What if one came shooting up right beneath our tiny boat, blasting us out of the water? They might even bounce us from one barnacled snout to another, like footballers practising headers.

Sorry, the heat must have been getting to me for a moment then; subconscious echoes from Captain Ahab and Jonah. And I never did get my perfect picture of the immaculate whale’s tail. In fact, my camera battery went flat after a couple of hours of endless snapping, forcing me instead to look properly with my own eyes, which is ironically when I started to relax and really see these beautiful creatures properly. Mammals like us, nurturing their new-born young, and teaching them all about these strange humans buzzing around them in a little boat. Who’s watching whom?

 Factbox: Humpback whales in Colombia

What: Humpback whales grow up to 18 metres in length, and weigh up to 40 tonnes. Weight at birth: 1.5 tonnes; length at birth: 4 metres; life expectancy: up to 60 years; diet: krill and small fish; reproduction: one calf every two to three years.

Where: three best places are Nuquí, Bahia Solano, and Bahia Malaga, nr Buenaventura.

When: between June and November, when about 1,000 whales swim up to the Pacific coast from their feeding grounds in the Antarctic Ocean; to feed and bring up their young.

How: Various travel agencies and hotels on the coast around Nuquí offer whale-watching tours, including El Cantil Eco-Lodge; prices range from US$40-50 for three hours.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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