Close Encounters of the Whale Kind – 29/9/18

Despite being a marine zoology graduate, remarkably, at the age of 24 this was to be my first whale encounter! I awoke to the dawn chorus of birds outside my window, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I made my way to the dock in Puerto Jimenez to meet local skipper Ronnie. Fortunately, the weather was on our side, a refreshing change from the recent monsoon like conditions here on the Osa Peninsula. An omen perhaps? The gulf was delightfully serene and calm like a millpond; perfect whale watching conditions. The day felt truly special even before we left the dock.

It took all of 10 minutes for us to have our first sighting of a whale. I couldn’t believe my luck, on the horizon was the infamous hump of a humpback whale, momentarily disrupting the calmness of the gulf as it surfaced for air. As we approached, I was overwhelmed by its sheer size; of course I’m familiar with their size, but nothing quite prepares you for when you see one in the flesh. A mere 20m from me was an ocean giant, floating effortlessly in the tranquil sea, and this was only the start.

I recently discovered that the Golfo Dulce is one of only four tropical fjords in the world, with depths plummeting to over 200m! It’s deep, still waters make it a perfect location for adults to breed, but it also serves as a prime nursery for the zealous calves. After getting a few shots of a mother and calf surfacing for air, we moved on to try find some of the more charismatic individuals that are said to be present in these waters.

We motored on for less than 5 minutes before our next sighting, and this where the magic happened. A mother and calf performed an enchanting ballet of repetitive breaches for the following 45 minutes; a dreamlike scenario for a photographer, or anyone for that matter. It was during this period that I got the shot I was waiting for – the breach.

Thanks to a high shutter speed, I managed to catch the action with enough detail to see the individual water droplets, and close enough that you can even see its eye gazing back. Mothers and calves can commonly be found in the gulf displaying this behaviour, which is said to be a part of their learning process. Although, the exact reasons behind breaching is not conclusive, I quite simply enjoy the theory that they do it for pleasure; the emotive abilities of these creatures never fail to amaze me.

After the delight of capturing the breach, I now wanted that classic tail fluke shot. It wasn’t easy. It felt like the whales were teasing me, repeatedly diving down to the gulfs depths without revealing their tail fluke. Yet, after what seemed like a lifetime, I finally managed to capture it. Though the photo isn’t quite the quality I was looking for, the experience itself was satisfying enough for me.

To finish the day, we moved closer to the river mouth where we were told we there’s a possibility of seeing a super pod of up to 400 spotted dolphins. Just when we thought the day couldn’t possibly get any better, we saw dorsal fins in the distance. Before we had a chance to take a breath, we were surrounded by a super pod of acrobatic dolphins in numbers beyond counting. I spent a few minutes photographing some of the breaches, but shortly switched up to video in order to try and film this awe-inspiring spectacle before heading back to the harbour.

Prior to this experience, I would have been over the moon to have just caught a glimpse of a whale on the horizon. Yet, it was everything I could have ever hoped for and more. Not only did I get some photos I’m extremely pleased with, I got to experience one of nature’s greatest events and live out a childhood dream. A truly breath-taking day from start to finish, and one that will undoubtedly stay with me for as long as I live.


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