“It’s like watching dinosaurs, Mommy,” said 8-year-old Luis, gripping the side of the boat as the 40-ton humpback whale broke the surface, spouted a double stream of vapor 20 feet into the air and rolled back under.
The 12-passenger boat was occupied mainly by members of the press, some radio, some print journalists. Luis, however, captured the moment better than any of us could have hoped to do. It wasn’t long before the radio journalist repeated the line into his microphone and the wordsmiths scribbled it into their pads.
The whale, with its scarred, leathery skin covered in barnacles, had made its way down to Costa Rica’s warm southern Pacific coast from Arctic waters to breed and calve. We had made our way from Playa Uvita, specifically BallenaNationalMarinePark, in hopes of catching a glimpse of it. We weren’t disappointed.
Rather like safari, whale spotting is usually reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
The beauty of this 90-minute experience was that it cost adults no more than ¢12,000 (about $20), while children under 9 went free, all under the auspices of the region’s first Whale and Dolphin Festival, organized last weekend by the Ballena National Marine Park Tour Operators Association in conjunction with national park management.
Featuring a sand sculpture contest, informational workshops and cultural activities in addition to the whale- and dolphin-watching tours, the event drew an estimated 4,000 attendees, far above organizers’ expectations.
“The purpose of the festival is to enable tourists and, more specifically, locals, to come and see exactly what is done at Ballena,” said Sonia León from the UvitaInformationCenter, one of the festival’s organizers.
“By making the trips more affordable, more people can get out on the boats and understand what the national park is all about. If they are aware of the problems facing the park, then they can work to help solve them.”
A sad reality of the construction boom in the hills above the national park’s coastline is that tons of sediment have been washed down into the sea, smothering coral reefs and destroying the first link in the ocean’s food chain, according to marine biologist Damián Martínez.
“Thankfully, the recent economic crisis has meant that a lot of the construction has stopped, so at the moment things aren’t as bad as they were,” Martínez said. “We just have to hope that new legislation will protect marine life rather than the rights of developers.”
A similar view was held by our host, Alvarado Guzmán, manager of La Cusinga Lodge, a five-minute ride from the park. “We all have to pull together to preserve the area and keep it special,” he said.
One gets the impression the whales’ presence is closely linked to the area’s preservation. With efforts such as last weekend’s festival – organizers plan to make it an annual event – hopefully these majestic cetaceans will not go the way of young Luis’ dinosaurs.