If you visit Coiba between July and September it is more likely than unlikely to see humpback whales around.
Every year end of May to beginning of June humpback whales from the cold south are coming to Coiba visiting the warm and shallow waters as a nursery ground. The females give birth to their calves here in July and teach them swimming and diving till October / November, when they start their way down south to their feeding grounds again. The best time to see them close is middle of August to early October, when the calves are confident swimmers already and their mothers allow boats to approach closer.
If you encounter whales or come to Coiba specifically for this reason, please make sure, that you and your boat crew is following established procedures for whale watching. Keep in mind that whales can be curious and therefore come close sometimes, but they are easily disturbed and stressed by wrong approach, what can harm them and force them to change their behavior. It might get them even injured by boat propellers. They also are wild animals and not used to interactions with humans and of course are a potential danger to people in the water, if they are stressed or scared.
Panama has official whale watching procedures in place since 2007. Here are the most important rules and regulations, what should be followed:
- Every boat / operator offering whale watching should have a trained guide and crew, as well as the minimum safety- and emergency equipment: radio, GPS, binoculars, life vests, fire extinguisher and a comprehensive emergency plan
- While watching whales the boat engine should be put in neutral
- The boat should stay in a 250 meter distance
- If the whales are swimming, or the boat wants to leave the area it must not move faster than 4 knots / 7 kmh
- A boat following whales must not move faster than the slowest whale of the group
- The maximum time for watching a whale or group of whales is 30 minutes. If babies or juveniles are in the group the maximum time is 15 minutes
- The boat must approach diagonal from behind and move in the same direction (parallel) as the whales, staying slightly behind them
- A maximum of 2 boats is allowed in the area of the same group of animals and they should have at least 200 meters distance between them
- It is forbidden to drive into their course of direction, cut their way, or divide the group
- It is forbidden to anchor
- It is forbidden to rapidly change speed or direction of the boat
- It is forbidden to chase whales
- It is forbidden to approach whales swimming
- The crew should be aware of stressful behavior or changes in the behavior of the whales (jumping, evasive swimming away, sudden dives, abrupt changes of course or speed of swimming, change in breathing pattern, aggressive splashing water with fins,…) and leave slowly the area in this case.
Whale watching is an exciting activity and for many people a once in a life time experience. Make sure, that in interest of the animals, local businesses and visitors it is done in a responsible and sustainable way. Respect the whales and let them decide, if they want to come closer and interact with you, or not. Make sure your boat operator respects this too.