When we planned our family trip to Costa Rica, one key question was ‘where will we have the best chance of seeing whales?’ Tribes’ Alex Neaves recommended the Osa Peninsula, a spectacular region in the south west of the country, combining rainforest with coast – which turned out to be a great suggestion!
We chose to spend five nights towards the end of our holiday at Casa Corcovado Jungle Lodge on the Osa Peninsula. This lovely, welcoming place is perched on the hillside overlooking its own beach and is adjacent to the glorious Corcovado National Park. When I say ‘adjacent’ I mean it literally – the private path through the lodge’s beautiful grounds borders the park and you simply step off the path onto a trail in the park.
The lodge is reached by a boat trip past palm trees, beaches, hill-side houses and colourful landscapes on one side and nearly turquoise water on the other.
We kept our eyes peeled for whales, though in truth I didn’t really know what I was looking out for. Would the ocean be full of whales leaping out of the water, twisting and turning in front of us? Or would we only spot a tiny figure in the distance?
On that particular journey we saw nothing at all…
However, arriving at the lodge more than made up for the lack of cetaceans on the journey there.
It’s a lovely place, set in gorgeous gardens and surrounded by jungle on three sides and the coast on the other. Howler monkeys whooped and grunted in the trees and a pair of long-married scarlet macaws flew low overhead before settling in a tree for a rather noisy quarrel.
That first evening at Casa Corcovado we began what became our daily tradition – the 4.30pm cocktail hour at the lodge’s Margarita Sunset Point.
This beautifully manicured piece of land has a jaw-dropping view down to the ocean and across to Cano Island and has its own little bar that is open for just an hour each evening, so that guests can enjoy a drink and nibbles as they watch the sun go down.
I sat, margarita and camera equally to hand, and marvelled at the natural show of colour and light we were being treated to.
Then the barman said ‘Look! Can you see the whale?’
We all gazed down to the water close to the shoreline and I felt frustrated as guest after guest said ‘Yes! There it is!’ while my eyes darted back and forwards across the water. Eventually I made out a dark shape for just a fraction of a second, then it was gone. I think that’s what everybody was exclaiming over… If this was to be my sole experience of seeing a whale it was hardly the jaw-dropping, spine-tingling experience I’d hoped for. But I had seen it. Well, briefly… I think. Then the sunset arrived with full, glorious force, and all thoughts of whales were temporarily forgotten.
The following day we took the Cano Island snorkelling trip. This is a 45-minute boat ride from the lodge, and we had been told that the guests who did this the day before had seen whales, and plenty of them.
35 minutes into the journey we suddenly veered off course, towards where two other boats were sitting still in the water.
“We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!”
Then it happened. About 30m away, a black, curved shape, slick with water, slid out of the water then back under the surface, looking like a giant, smooth-treaded tyre being rolled along. A few seconds later came the tell-tale spurt of water – noisier and higher than I’d imagined, and the ‘tyre’ appeared again. This time with a smaller one alongside!
We were in the presence of a mother and baby humpback whale and it was beautiful. No dramatic breaches, no great thrashes, just gentle movements. Cue slightly red eyes and a few sniffs and gulps all round…
We took another detour when my son yelled ‘dolphins!’. A large flock of seabirds was circling round in the distance. A group of dolphins were on the hunt, creating a ball of fish – those birds knew where to find a good meal! We were treated to the sight of dolphins leaping out of the water and the birds’ impressive diving ability as, wings tucked by their sides, they hit the water with a precision that would put Tom Daley to shame.
Snorkelling in the clear, warm waters off Cano Island was great fun, with a lovely assortment of colourful fish weaving their way amongst the coral. The lodge’s manager Stephen said that he was going to see if he could hear whale song beneath the water. He dove down about 4m then raised both his thumbs; he could hear it. Unfortunately diving while snorkelling is not a skill I’ve yet mastered. I wasn’t alone in this, but my 20-year-old son was one of those who took the plunge (literally!) and enjoyed the most magical experience, as beautifully eerie sounds echoed all around him. On the way back to Casa Corcovado Stephen pointed out jets of water in the distance as he spotted other whales, and we had another mother and baby encounter.
Two days later, my husband and I took a private boat trip with just guide Cynthia and the boat captain back towards the waters around Cano Island. We had no specific timetable, just two to three hours to hang about on the boat, following any whale sightings that might come up. It was possible that we wouldn’t see any, of course…
We stopped en-route to drop some cold drinks off to fishermen in exchange for some of their catch.
A magnificent frigate bird had chosen to make the air above their tiny boat his temporary home, continually circling us and them at a low altitude in search of a free meal.
That day turned out to be one of the most special experiences of our lives.
It was a beautifully still, calm day, bathed in sunshine, the water almost mirror-like at times.
We saw several mother humpbacks and their calves and then, drawn by tremendous splashes in the distance, we honed in on a large male.
For at least 15 minutes we sat, probably only about 20m from him, as he thrashed his huge tail repeatedly, then he rolled onto his side and started bashing enormous flippers from side to side, great plumes of water streaming from them, our boat juddering with each ‘smack’. The noise was incredible, a mighty, thunderous crash that you could hear long before you got close to him.
We were so near that we could make out the barnacles and sandy creatures on his tail. It was immensely powerful, stunningly beautiful and also a tiny bit intimidating.
Then, between us and this magnificent creature, appeared another mother and her baby. Our guide stiffened and said ‘sometimes the males can hurt the babies’ but, as if riding to the rescue, five dolphins shot in from the side, swimming around the mother and calf, leaping out of the water in a joyous fashion.
They were so near, I could have leant out of the boat and touched them. The mother whale got so close to us that when her back breached the water the only thing filling my camera lens was her skin. Then, as this incredible spectacle continued in front of us, I looked behind and to the side. Four more whales were there, some breaching, some sending out fountains of water… For the next 15 or 20 minutes, wherever we looked there were whales.
All four of us were silent on the way back to the lodge. There were really no words. We had shared an experience we would never forget. I had been moved to tears several times and even writing about it now makes me emotional.
Having started our time at Casa Corcovado barely able to spot a whale directly beneath our vantage point by the sunset bar, I ended it a veritable Captain Ahab; albeit definitely not with whale hunting in mind! My eyes became accustomed to scanning far out to sea, filtering out waves crashing against rocks from the spray from a blowhole and picking out whales several miles away. My ‘margarita’ sunsets now had a new purpose – whale spotting! Each time I saw one, even if it was at a vast distance, it was a thrill. And the knowledge that for every one I spotted there were infinitely more out there, was just incredible.
We’d return to Costa Rica – and Casa Corcovado – like a shot. An amazing country with wonderful people and with unforgettable landscapes and wildlife. And who knows, maybe I’ll get my courage together and learn how to dive down while snorkelling. I really, really want to hear that whale song…
All images © Karen Coe