Extent of whale and dolphin watching
With coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world with more marine territory (574,725 Km2) than terrestrial area (51,100 Km2). While the Pacific coast is characterized by several gulfs (like Papagayo, Nicoya, Dulce), bays and peninsulas (Santa Elena, Nicoya and Osa), the Caribbean coast is more uniform.
As many as 34 species of whales and dolphins and whales have been reported in Costa Rica’s waters1-3, supporting a recent rise in commercial watching activities since they first started in the early 1990s4-6. Every year the coastal Pacific waters of Costa Rica host two different humpback whale populations from Northern and Southern Hemispheres. However, other species, such as the common bottlenose dolphin and pan-tropical spotted dolphins can also be viewed during whale or dolphin watching tours, which are predominantly boat-based in Costa Rica.
Target species, peak times of year and locations
Whale watching activities along the Pacific coastline are focused on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Whale watching originally developed in the Pacific coastal communities in the South of the country (Dominical, Uvita, Drake Bay, Caño Island, Golfo Dulce). However, in recent years, commercial whale watching has been extended to central coastal communities (Manuel Antonio, Quepos, Jaco, Montezuma, Curu, Tambor, Tortuga Island, parts of the Nicoya Gulf, etc.) as well as a few in the north (Cuajiniquil, Gulf of Papagayo, Tamarindo, El Coco, Sámara, etc.). During the Northern Hemisphere winter (December to March), humpback whales that feed on the Northwest coast of the United States migrate to Costa Rica’s tropical waters to mate, give birth, and nurse their young. Meanwhile, from July to mid-November, humpback whales that feed in the Antarctic Peninsula and southern Chile make the species’ longest recorded migration to breed in Costa Rica’s warm waters. Each year in September, the community of Bahía Ballena organizes a whale festival, during which the price of tours is reduced and many boat owners that do not normally offer commercial tours engage in whale watching activities.
Common targets for dolphin watching activities along the Pacific coast are the Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata) which are both found in coastal and oceanic waters year around. Various sites on the Pacific coast also yield more opportunistic encounters with False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens), Rough-toothed Dolphins (Steno bredanensis), Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) and Bryde’s Whales (Balaenoptera edeni). Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris) and Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are sighted in offshore waters of Osa and Nicoya Peninsula.
On the Caribbean coast, bottlenose dolphins are easily observed along the entire coastline. A small isolated resident population of Guiana Dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) is present in the coastal waters near the southern town of Gandoca-Manzanillo, the only location in the country where this species can be reliably observed. False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens) and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis) are also sometimes observed opportunistically in Caribbean coastal locations.