Humpback whales are some of the most famous Ticos of all. These Costa Rican whales are born here throughout the year. They travel the world but they do not always get respect. Dive in with the whales below to find out why they need help.
A version of the article was published in The Tico Times in 2006. www.ticotimes.net
The biggest being you are likely to see in Costa Rica is the humpback whale, and unlike most of the world , here you can see them almost all year. These massive creatures arrive from as far away as the Southern Ocean International Whale Sanctuary, the ring of ocean surrounding Antarctica. The other half of the year they come from the north. The whales are coming back home to court, mate, give birth to the next generation of Costa Rican whales, and generate a lot of money for Costa Ricans working in tourism.
They make the now famous Antarctic-to-Costa-Rica trek, one of the longest in the animal kingdom, because Costa Rica’s waters are a prime place to make a little whale big enough to survive in cold seas full of large predators. Around the end of the rainy season, they head back to the Southern Ocean, the best place in the world for these unique mammals to become full-sized whales.
Adult whales need to eat more than your car weighs every day to grow bigger than a bus, and they cannot find that much food in Costa Rica. The Southern Ocean is where whales feast on vast amounts of shrimp-like krill and other tiny creatures that congregate into cloud-sized swarms. But Costa Rican-born whales may be in big trouble when they head back south for food this year.
The same whales that thrill tourists and locals alike and support one of the fastest growing segments of Costa Rican tourism may be hunted and killed by illegal Japanese whalers when they return to the Southern Ocean. According to the May 2006 issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine, when the whales arrive south, Japan plans to kill 50 or so humpbacks in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary for research and later sale of the meat. Fifty dead Tico whales would probably mean the end of Costa Rica’s whale watching, as probably only about 50 of these endangered species come to Costa Rica each rainy season.
So what can tiny Costa Rica do against a powerful First-World nation that is an expert at exploiting the resources of other countries? Probably not much, but perhaps we could take an important symbolic step.
Using fin-print photos, why not declare the easily identifiable whales born in Costa Rican waters Ticos, and ask the countries of the world to respect these citizens and not kill them when they visit other places? The whales will generate far more money in the long run from whale watchers in Antarctica and Costa Rica than they will with a onetime sale of meat in a fish market.
Tourists of the world are already starting to boycott nations that support whaling. By declaring whales born here to be Ticos, Costa Rica would set a worldwide example of helping to protect these mysteriously intelligent mammals that have been hunted to near extinction in the past. We would also be poised to receive all the tourists who will stop going to offending destinations that normally compete with Costa Rica.
Too bad Nicaragua doesn’t see the writing on the wall. If it worked together with Costa Rica to develop dolphin and whale tourism, both countries could make untold money year after year. Sadly, at least one Japanese whale-factory ship is registered in Panama, and that might not bode well for our other neighbor’s marine tourism prospects.
The three countries working together would be that much more influential, and could help establish the area as a mega marine tourism destination.
If you like the idea of Costa Rica’s whales not being killed when they visit feeding waters, or if you like to make money working with tourism, tell everyone you know to help save these whales by declaring them officially Ticos.
All rights reserved 2010 Costa Cetacea Shawn Larkin
Learning To Dive
This story first appeared in The Tico Times in 2006 and is included in the book True Costa Rican Wild Animal Stories-
By Shawn Larkin
You might not think that a whale needs to learn how to dive, but it does, just like children need to learn to walk. Born along Costa Rica’s Pacific coast, baby humpback whales learn to swim, dive and be good whales. Offshore of the Osa Peninsula, we watch whales grow up throughout the year, every year.
A baby humpback whale needs a lot of help from its mother, plus a lot of milk. Every day, little whales drink more milk than would fit in your refrigerator. A mother whale usually swims and floats right next to or just under the little one. Often the baby will rest on the adult’s back, to be brought to the surface whenever it needs a breath. When mom swims, the little whale gets sucked along in a special slipstream of water currents made by the big whale as she slowly fins along. Much of the time, the new baby does not need to do much – just go for a ride and breathe.
A mother whale with a newborn does not go far; she stays close to the shallow, protected bay where she gave birth, and where she may have been born herself. A newborn humpback whale probably stands a much better chance of surviving its first weeks in a place where there is not a lot of big wind and waves. To migrate to and then survive in the higher latitudes of feeding areas, a little whale must practice diving and coming to the surface to breathe, with help and teaching from its mother and perhaps other whales.
A baby humpback is awkward and clumsy; it rolls around and seems unable to get all that blubber to dive down. When a humpback whale wants to dive, it lifts its tail out of the water, and this pushes the whale down quite a bit, making it much easier to dive. This action is called a flukes-up dive. While some whales learn it faster than others, it seems to take the little ones many days to get it down pat. I watched one little humpback learn to dive like this after practicing for a fortnight.
The little whale, named Caño by area schoolkids, started life with her tiny dorsal fin bent over. She was about as big as a bottlenose dolphin. A couple of days later, by the time she had learned to float and breathe sometimes on her own, the little fin stood straight up. Soon, Caño was swimming around for short distances. She then began to practice lifting her little whale tail up – the first step in diving down.
At first, Caño’s tail flukes would flop to one side, or not come up high enough to push her down underwater. She tried again and again. One day, as she was working on her flukes-up dive, a boat came and began to drive right at her, making her mom come over and stop her practice.
The boat and its people bothered the little whale for a while, and then another boat came and did the same. If this kept happening, learning to dive would have taken the young whale a lot longer.
The boats finally went away, and she went back to practicing diving as we watched from a distance, floating with our motors off.
Another day, she almost swam into a commercial fishing boat’s long line. The tough line, if wrapped around a fin, could slowly saw it off. Again, Caño went back to practicing her flukes-up dive. This little whale was diligent and persistent.
One sunny day, Caño executed a perfect flukes-up dive into the blue Pacific. She stayed down almost four minutes, the longest we had seen her dive. Her mom breached halfway out of the water afterwards. A few days later, Caño and her mom were swimming near Caño Island Biological Reserve, more than 20 kilometers away.
About two weeks later, Caño faced her biggest challenge yet. A pack of giant dolphins, each longer than a car, decided they wanted a bite of the little whale. The huge dolphins, known as false killer whales or pseudorcas, had been attacking whales in the area. We saw more than a dozen pseudorcas chase a big humpback, repeatedly surfacing right alongside the whale as it swam at high speed. The humpback was huffing harder then I have ever heard a whale breathing, with wheezing, haggard blows. About the same time, Caño showed up around our boat with big bite marks on her tail. Maybe she was just big enough to get away. Somehow, Caño survived to fin her tail.
The little whale was getting into shape for a very long trip. Costa Rica is a great place to get big, but colder waters have greater productivity, and thus are the best place in the world to eat enough to stay big. The largest animals in the world, such as blue and fin and humpback whales, like to feast in cold waters that are home to massive quantities of fish, shrimp and krill.
Humpbacks born during the dry season in Costa Rica head north; many are photographed off California. Others born here in the wet season are sometimes photographed in the Antarctic Ocean. Tico humpbacks head north and south because that’s where the food is. But Costa Rica’s protected Pacific bays are among the best places for a tiny humpback whale to be born, grow big on mother’s milk and learn how to dive.