Of all the wildlife in water and on land in Costa Rica, one of the most spectacular animals are the whales. Both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts have over 25 species of dolphins, porpoises and whales.
During the peak months of migration, it is easy to see these magnificent beasts roaming the waters. Costa Rica’s waters are blessed with good health, temperature and location, so some whale species come here year round to mate, give birth and raise their young before heading back to feed on krill which are rich in the colder waters.
So if you’re coming to Costa Rica hoping to see some whales, you’re in luck!
There are many spots around the country to see these majestic marine mammals and you’ll probably be able to see other animals like dolphins, manta rays and turtles as well.
In this guide you’ll read about the different whales that pass by Costa Rica, the best places and times to see them and the type of whale watching tours offered.
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Whales in Costa Rica
The most common whale to see in Costa Rica are the humpback whales as they pass by Costa Rica more than 6 months of the year. So if you want to see whales during your trip to Costa Rica, the humpbacks are the ones you will see as the other whales are deep ocean dwellers.
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of pilot whales, which are actually the second largest oceanic dolphin. We were lucky to see some hunting while we were out boating in the Gulf of Papagayo one day! A big pod of them just swimming alongside our boat.
This is a video of us boating in the Gulf of Papagayo. Skip to 3:18 to see the whales!
Best Time to Go Humpback Whale Watching in Costa Rica
The best time to see whales in Costa Rica is December to March and August to December. This is due to the migration patterns of the humpback whales, of which both Northern and Southern hemisphere humpbacks pass through Costa Rica. However, the months of August and September are known to the best to see humpback whales as they are coming to breed and raise their young.
Southern Hemisphere humpback whales travel from Antarctica to Costa Rica from late July through early November (sometimes there will be early birds in October). This migration route is 11,500 miles (18507.5 kilometers). Northern hemisphere whales head to Central America from Alaska from the months of December to March. These long routes make them one of the farthest migrating animals on Earth.
Between the months of October and November, it is common for both sides to pass through Costa Rica at the same time and this could serve as an advantage for males, increasing the genetic diversity during mating. Because of this, Costa Rica has the longest humpback whale season in the world.
Best Places to See Whales in Costa Rica
It is not common to see whales from shore but hop on a boat, go out for a bit into the ocean and you have a good chance to see one!
Drake Bay and Golfito are two excellent places in the Osa Peninsula to see whales. There are whale watching tours in the Osa Peninsula during the season and it is also very common to see dolphins along the way!
Gulf of Papagayo
Humpback whales are commonly seen in the Gulf of Papagayo in July – October and you can also see them in other beaches like Playa Matapalo, Playa Conchal and Playa Flamingo. You may also see whales in Tamarindo.
One of our friends was stand up paddle boarding in Conchal right next to some whales! He has also seen them up by Santa Rosa National Park where the famous Witch’s Rock is so if you’re going out there for a surf trip in August or September, you may see them there.
The national park in Uvita, Marino Ballena National Park was created specifically to protect the waters for whales as this is considered the best place in Costa Rica to see humpback whales. You don’t need to go out far on a boat to see them either!
It’s common to see mom and baby whales together as this is the time where mothers nurse their young and teach them how to breach, dive and feed. The babies are very playful and sometimes when you see them they are splashing their fins around and eagerly jumping out to practice.
Humpbaak whales are fairly easy to spot because they spend much of their time at the surface and close to shore. Humpback whales have a distinct hump, a black dorsal fin and can range in length from 12 – 16 meters long.
Whale Watching Tours
There are many whale watching tours in Drake Bay, Flamingo, Uvita and Manuel Antonio for whale watching. There are a couple laws surrounding whale watching and all the tour operators should know and respect them. No one can swim with dolphins or whales except for scientific researchers and these laws are instated to protect these animals.
In August/September there is a humpback whale festival in Uvita to help promote the education and awareness of whales. Whale watching tours that are normally around $90 are $30 for adults. Check the Festival de Ballenas y Delfines Facebook page to stay updated.
Tips for Whale Watching in Costa Rica
Uvita is one of the only places in Costa Rica that runs tours almost all year long
There are several tour companies in Uvita that run specific whale watching tours nearly the entire year. If you’re coming in the off season (October, April – June), you can contact them to see if they have seen whales lately and if it’s a good idea to go. We have gone with both Bahia Aventuras and Ballena Aventuras and their tours are the same. Read about our whale watching experience in Uvita.
There aren’t many specific whale watching tours in the Gulf of Papagayo
Playa Flamingo has a company that does specific humpback whale tours but you must contact them to plan it as whales are not as common up there as down in Uvita. There aren’t very many companies that do actual whale watching tours, most of the times when people see them is when they’re jet-skiing, on a catamaran sailing tour or like us, on a snorkeling tour.
The times we have seen whales in Gulf of Papagayo were completely random. We were on a snorkeling/beach hopping tour and just happened to come across the whales. We saw them in August and July, once near Playa Matapalo by the RIU and one a little outside the Papagayo Marina.
Take anti-nausea medicine
When we went whale watching in Uvita, I got extremely seasick. I highly recommend taking anti-nausea medicine if you are prone to seasickness or if you are planning to take pictures because looking through a camera on a rocky boat is not fun.
Know that nature is unpredictable
Nature will do what it will and even if it’s the season, you may not see whales. And sometimes people have seen them in the off season. If seeing humpback whales are on your bucket list, try to come during the peak season months of August and September.
Bring a good lens
If you are going out whale watching, make sure to have a full charged battery for your camera and that you have a good zoom lens if you have a DSLR. There are so many other animals out there in the ocean that you’ll want to have it handy to catch it on film.
If you’d like to read more in depth information about the various whales in Costa Rica, check out the Mammals of Costa Rica: A Natural History and Field guide book.
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