whale watching in panama

Humpbacks are not the only whales in Panama!

Whales in Panama are abundant, which is why Panama is considered one of the best places to see whales in the entire world. While you can find some species in both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, the majority live near or visit the Pacific side of the country. Humpback whales are the stars of Panama’s whale-watching spectacle, but they’re not the only species you can see.

Selva Terra Island Resort is the perfect place to go for your whale-watching trip in Panama. We are located on the Gulf of Chiriquí on Panama’s Pacific coast, very close to two of Panama’s biggest marine parks: Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park and Coiba National Park. During peak whale season in Panama (July through October), we offer guests the opportunity to see whales year-round in Coiba and in the Gulf of Chiriquí.

Some whale species, such as the sperm whale, blue whale, fin whale, sei whale, and humpback whale, are threatened or highly in danger. Therefore, we encourage sustainable whale-watching practices.

Types of whales in Panama that you can see:

Humpback whales

Seeing humpback whales is quite easy, since this type of whale needs to surface every 40 minutes to breathe. Measuring from 48 to 62 feet (14 to 19 meters), they are about the size of a large bus. Their pectoral fins are huge, reaching up to 16 feet (4.8 meters) long. A small hump in the front of their dorsal fin gives them their common name of “humpback.” Underwater singing seems to be their form of communication.

While you can find them in every ocean in the world, they don’t live full-time in one place. During the summer, they feed in places as far away as Antarctica, while they migrate to the warm waters of Panama during the winter months. This is where they give birth and nurse their calves.

Whale shark

Swimming with a whale shark is on many people’s bucket lists. This species isn’t actually a whale as its name suggests. Whales are mammals, while sharks are fish. They are the largest living fish, commonly reaching up to 40 feet (12 meters) in length. The biggest recorded was 62 feet (18.8 meters), which is as long as a bowling lane! They can live up to 130 years, although they more commonly live to 70 years.

Despite their enormous size, they are no threat to humans. Their huge mouths are usually open, as they are filter feeders. Plankton, krill, fish eggs, small squid, and fish swim into the mouth, which has filter pads to separate food from water. You can see whale sharks near Coiba Island, and diving isn’t necessary to be able to swim with them. While some people would like to “catch a ride” with them, this isn’t recommended, as they can dive down quite fast. Although whale sharks are often found near the surface, they can dive more than 9,000 feet (1,900 meters).

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute studies whale sharks in Panama. In 2018, they recorded the longest whale shark migration. A female they called Anne stayed near Coiba Island for 116 days. Then she migrated more than 12,000 miles (20,142 kilometers) all the way to the Marianas Trench, which is the deepest place on earth.

Pilot Whales

The short-finned pilot whale is a resident of Panama. You can spot these whales in the Atlantic and Pacific. The Gulf of Chiriquí and Coiba Island are home for them. Warm tropical waters are their common habitat, but they prefer to live in deeper, offshore areas. They resemble dolphins, as they are part of the oceanic dolphin family. Their fins are shorter than their long-finned relatives, and they have fewer teeth.

Males can reach to 23 feet (7 meters) long, while females are smaller, only 16 feet (5.1 meters) long. These animals are super-sociable, and you can often find them in groups that range from 10 to 30 pilot whales. They live in female-based societies where eight females accompany one male. Their offspring usually stay with the group for years.

Bryde’s Whales

Bryde’s whales are also residents of Panama. They are baleen whales, meaning that they have no teeth. Instead, they feed with a filter system. Water with animals such as krill come in; then the water is filtered out. This type of whale has two blowholes. They are relatives of humpback whales and blue whales. Females can be longer than males, reaching up to 49 feet (15 meters). They look a lot like sei whales, which you can occasionally see in Panama.

This type of whale is harder to see, since they can blow or exhale under water. They surface at irregular intervals and change directions at whim. Unlike other whales, they can be spotted alone or in pairs, but rarely in groups. The good news is that they’re very active at the surface, especially near the coast.

Killer Whales

Orcas—or killer whales, as they’re commonly known—are not common sights in Panama, but they do visit both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. They actually belong to the oceanic dolphin family, being the biggest of their species. Males reach up to 29.5 feet (9 meters), and females are a bit shorter, at 25 feet (7.7 meters). You will recognize them easily, since they are quite common in aquariums. They are all-black with white eye spots and bellies. Killer whales are apex predators, meaning no animal preys on them. They come to the warm waters of Panama to hunt large cetaceans such as humpback whale calves.

Two other types of killer whales in Panama are the pygmy killer whale and the false killer whale. Both of these species are permanent residents of Panama. Just like the killer whale, the false killer whale is also a large dolphin. They are very sociable, living in large communities into which other species of dolphins can integrate. They don’t get along with all dolphins, since they feed on some species, but they prefer fish and squid. The false killer whale is smaller than the killer whale, and the pygmy is even smaller. All three are toothed whales, meaning they are cetaceans with teeth.

Blue Whales

You might be surprised to find out there are blue whales in Panama, but they are common visitors in the Pacific Ocean. This animal is the largest known animal that has ever existed. The record size is 110 feet (33 meters) in length, but males are usually 78.7 feet (24 meters) long, and females are 8.5 feet (26 meters). They are baleen whales, which can eat up to 40 million krill per day. This is a solitary species; only when mating will a male follow a female. It’s hard to spot blue whales because there aren’t that many worldwide due to whaling, but numbers are starting to grow again.

Other species

While whale-watching in Panama, you can see whales in many sizes, ranging from the biggest in the world to some of the smallest. The fin whale is a bit smaller than the blue whale, but they occasionally mate to create a hybrid species. This whale comes to both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean.

The sei whale is an occasional visitor, while the sperm whale is a common visitor of Panama’s Pacific Ocean. Both of these whales are quite large in size. Other smaller species you can see in the Pacific include the pygmy beaked whale, Blainville’s beaked whale, pygmy sperm whale, dwarf sperm whale, Curvier’s beaked whale, minke whale, and melon-headed whale.

Selva Terra Island Resort can organize a trip for you to see the humpback whales in Panama and to hopefully find other species as well.

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