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Between June and October, as thousands of tourists flock from all over the planet to the beaches of Ecuador, a group of visitors rushes through the waters of the southern Pacific to meet them. Coming to the shores of Ecuador to find a soul mate with whom to raise a youngster, this annual migratory mass glides effortlessly past Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and the Peruvian coast to arrive off the coast of Ecuador where they proceed to sing and perform an aquatic ballet to the delight of their admirers. Cruising through the sea with the grace of angels and effortlessly taking momentary flight with the dexterity and eloquence of a ballerina, these remarkably beautiful creatures perform a majestic dance just meters from the boatload of delighted onlookers who silently witness the performance in awe. Watching them cut through the waves and surf within a stone’s throw of the boat, it would be easy to think that the mate they have come in search of is on board and not already at their side. However, these amazing animals – some of the most noble, beautiful, and impressive on Earth – have come in search of their own, the great humpback whale.
Humpback whale in flight. Photo courtesy of Luis Jaime Cuenca
Known in the scientific community as Megaptera novaengliae, the humpback whale was given its name for the manner in which its curved back arches above the water as it surfaces. While there are some 10,000 individual humpbacks, belonging to several varieties and distributed all across the globe, the variety seen migrating to Ecuador is unique in many ways from the others. Living for most of the year in the Antarctic, the migratory humpback travels throughout the region in search of sustenance, feeding primarily on small fish and invertebrates, such as shrimp, which it can filter through small plates in its mouth. However, come March the humpbacks leave the cold polar waters of the Antarctic and travel north to find a mate and reproduce in warmer waters. Arriving off the Ecuadorian coast in June, the whales pick a companion and proceed to mate. Because their young are born without a protective layer of fat, they would quickly perish if they were not born in tropical waters. Hence the migration of the humpback. The species spawn in the warm waters of Ecuador, where the average temperature is around 70 degrees farenheit, so that their offspring survive and have a chance to develop a protective fatty layer of insulation grown from the nutrition gathered from the mother’s milk while returning to the Antarctic where the offspring will live an average lifespan of 70-80 years.
Known for the physical variation between individuals within the species, no two humpbacks are identical. However, like any species, they all share certain attributes which can be used to distinguish them from other varieties of whales. First and foremost, the humpback is distinguised by its size. Truly an enormous creature, some reach lengths of up to 60 feet and weigh up to 40 tons. But their overall mass is just one of the species extraordinary measurements. Differing from other species of whales in the extraordinary span of their pectoral fins, the wingspan of the humpback is usually nearly one-third the length of its body as is its long, slender head. Other distinguishing features of the species are the fleshy mounds found towards the top of its head and its lower jaw and the wide, white spots seen on the animal’s belly, throat, and pectoral fins, which stand in contrast to its otherwise dark gray and black skin. Furthermore, on the whales back are two twin blowholes from which quick, short, fountain-like blasts of water emerge and rise 10 feet into the air when the whale surfaces every half hour or so for air.
Known to be an extremely active and social species of whale, the humpback can be observed both alone and in groups of up to 8 individuals. Always talkative, the humpback is known for its love of communication and for the harmonious sounds it emits underwater while communicating with other whales. In fact, the song sung by the male in an attempt to attract a female is the longest and most complex song in the animal kingdom, lasting up to an hour at times and spanning various octaves. In addition to singing, the humpback has been known to express itself by slapping the water with its pectoral fins, producing a gun-shot like noise which can easily strartle any observer.
This constant communicative orchestra does not fall on deaf hears, so to speak, as the humpback whale depends on its sharp sense of hearing not only to communicate, but to navegate, as well. With poor vision that leaves it lost and directionless at night or in choppy or muddled waters, the humpback, much like the dolphin, uses its own sort of biological sonar system to determine the form and distance of foreign objects with remarkable precision. In fact, the humpback’s auditory perception is thought to be ten times as sharp as that of man.
Despite the initial shock caused by seeing a 40-ton animal break the surface of the water and take flight, nearly causing a tidal wave upon landing, the humpback is known to be a very non-aggressive animal which never attacks humans. Moreover, the whales, especially newly born offspring, are known for their infinite curiosity which often compels them to come within a few meters of the boats that come to witness their splendor and glory. In fact, so far from timid are these animals that, watching them gracefully launch into the air repeatedly, often in pairs, before letting out several fountain-like blasts from their blowholes as they rise for air, one sometimes wonders whether this most spectacular of rituals being performed by the most majestic of animals has not been put on for their enjoyment.
Witnessing the wonder and marvel of these amazing creatures in the wild is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that should not be missed. The sight and sounds of the whales are undescribely awe-inspiring, the tours are informative and inexpensive, and the area is among the most singularly beautiful spots on South America’s Pacific coast. Accordingly, this trip is a must for anyone with plans to visit Ecuador between June and October. Below, we have provided a brief summary of the information necessary to plan your whale-watching adventure.
A pair of humpbacks letting loose a fountain of water as they surface for air. Photo courtesy of Luis Jaime Cuenca
When to go – June to October
Where to go (Location, province) –
- Salinas, Guayas
- Puerto Lopez, Manabí
- Machalilla National Park, Manabí
- La Isla de La Plata, Manabí
- Puerto Cayo, Manabí
- Manta, Manabí
- Bahía de Caráquez, Manabí
- Mompiche, Esmeraldas
- Súa, Esmeraldas
Tours – Tours can be arranged with many tour operators in the tourist districts of Quito (La Mariscal and Las Amazonas) and Guayaquil, or with local operators and hotels on the coast. At USD 20 – USD 30 per passenger, the tours are a bargain, especially if they include a trip to La Isla de La Plata (a.ka. “poor man’s Galapagos” due to its biological diversity, proximity, and affordability), which many tours originating from the vecinity of Machalilla National Park do.
Transportation – All destinations in Manabí and Guayas can be easily reached by a 1- to 4-hour bus ride from Manta, Portoviejo, Jipijapa, or Guayaquil (all of which are “hub destinations” for buses from all over the country). For the best route from any given destination, you can consult a map and/or ask around. Buses usually cost between USD 0.75 to USD 1.00 per hour, depending on the company.
Accommodations – From budget hostels to luxury resorts and eco-lodges, the coast has all types of accommodations for all types of travelers. However, some locations (Salinas and Manta, for example) have much more developed tourist infrastructures than others. For a description of the region, please refer to our coast page under theregions section. For a list of recommended hotels in the region, please visit our coast hotels page.
Other Activities – In Ecuador, the fun and adventure never have to end with the tour. Other activities not to be missed at the coast are the many scuba and snorkeling opportunities in Manabí; surfing in Montañita; hiking,exploring, and wildlife watching in Machalilla National Park and La Isla de La Plata, two of the nation’s most precious protected areas; relaxing at Los Frailes, the nation’s most picturesque beach; and much more. For a complete list of activities, check out our tours and things to do section.
Further Information – For a first-hand account of the whale-watching experience, check out EcuadorExplorer.com’s Dr. María Antonieta Viteri Flores’ “A Moment with the Whales of La Isla de La Plata“.
Conservation – Due to general environmental degradation and over-fishing of the humpback, the species has long been included on the Endangered Species List. Nevertheless, despite this protection and despite receiving increased protection by commerical whaling moratiums issued by the International Whaling Commission in 1966 and 1985, the whales are still in danger of extinction. Anyone interested in learning more about how to protect the breeding grounds of the humpback whale should contact the Yaqu Pacha Organization.
Additional Whale-watching Information: