Deep Sea Migration: The Whales of Costa Rica


There are few experiences more majestic, more awe-inspiring, than encounters with whales. The powerful sight of a creature so large it defies your sense of proportion, the sense of connection with another intelligent being, leaves an indelible impression. Costa Rica is one of those blessed places on earth where whales congregate in large numbers almost year-round. Close to the equator, Costa Rica receives whale migrants from the northern and southern hemispheres, who travel thousands of miles to mate, give birth and raise their young before returning to their distant, frigid feeding grounds, rich in the krill and plankton that form the majority of their diets.


There are 30 species of whale, dolphin and porpoise that pass through Costa Rica’s waters, but many of them move only through deeper water and thus are more rarely seen, except with a deep sea boat and a spot of luck. The world’s largest whale, the blue whale is one of the country’s silent migrants. Measuring up to 30 meters (100ft) in length, and weighing nearly 200 metric tonnes, it is the largest animal on earth. Killer whales, or orcas, can also be spotted offshore. Though properly in the dolphin family, these large predators have a playful nature, and have been seen surfing the wake of fishing boats.

Three species of sperm whale (of Moby Dick fame), though very few in number, can sometimes be seen off the country’s Pacific coast from May to December, traveling in pods composed largely of females and their young. Other deep-sea travelers include fin whales, Bryde’s whales, Sei whales, several species of beaked whale and bottlenose whales; many of these are best seen in the country’s south Pacific.

Marina Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua
Marina Puesta del Sol, Nicaragua

However there is one species that provides reliable, almost year-round viewing close to the coast (and often from the Hotel Sugar Beach itself!): the humpback whale, whose characteristic raised fluke has become emblematic of all whales.

Two distinct populations, from the north Pacific and Antarctic waters respectively, migrate to Costa Rica during their winter months to mate, birth their calves and allow them to grow strong enough for travel, taking shelter in the safety of coastal harbours. For those on shore, this means prime viewing; the young calves, with the exuberance of all young creatures, will often leap bodily out of the water, falling back with a crash, only to hurl themselves tirelessly upward again.

Humpback whales are frequently found in the Flamingo harbor, just south of the Hotel Sugar Beach, and will sometimes come in quite close to shore, whether in search of a refuge, or to feed on large schools of fish, whose location is always betrayed by circling seabirds overhead, eager to feed on discarded scraps.


The northern population visits Costa Rica from December to April, while the southern population makes the world’s longest migration of nearly 10,000 kilometers (6500 miles) from the Antarctic ocean to spend August through November in the warm, tropical waters. Between October and December, stragglers and early-birds from each hemisphere might share the same waters, a congregation unique to Costa Rica, and one scientists believe will serve to mingle their genes and increase genetic diversity. Humpback males, known for their penetrating, complex wooing songs, may even exchange “musical notes”, learning from one another. During mating season, the water is haunted by their long, drawn out calls; even in the shallows, one needs only dive to the sandy bottom to hear them singing from as far as 15 kilometers away.

As a convergence point, Costa Rica has the longest humpback viewing season in the world, and it certainly can’t get any easier than lazing in a chaise lounge, with a fresh mango smoothie from the Hotel Sugar Beach restaurant in hand, waiting to catch a glimpse of these magnificent ocean dwellers as they venture close to shore.

–C. Keogan