Everything in Uvita revolves around the sea. The hotels all rent surf boards, the restaurants all serve ceviche, even the landscape has somehow detected the importance of aquatic life and has managed to famously form part of its beach into the perfect image of a whale’s tail.
Considering these facts, it is fitting that Costa Rica, and in particular the Ballena National Marine Park near Uvita, is home to the longest season for humpback whale watching in the world. It is also the site for the nation’s annual Dolphin and Whale Festival.
Held over two weekends, last year’s event saw approximately 7,200 visitors. This year marks the fourth annual festival and, again, it is being held over two weekends, Sept. 7-9 and Sept. 14-16. With fairgrounds within walking distance of the marine park, the main attraction of the festival is, obviously, under the sea.
“The main goal of the festival is to give people the best opportunity possible to see whales and dolphins,” said Ulises Ramírez, the festival’s head organizer. “We give discounted tours so people will not pass over one of the country’s most beautiful national parks.”
Normally the tours run about $65 for adults, but the festival prices are $20 for children and $32 for adults over the age of 9. The deep discounts could not come at a better time of year for whale enthusiasts of all ages.
Whale season in Costa Rica extends from August until October, with a peak in September. The whales spend December to April in the North Pacific, and then when winter comes and the waters turn cold they migrate to tropical waters.
Ballena National Marine Park also lies in what is known as the Costa Rica Thermal Convection Dome, which is characterized by its shallow, oxygen-rich warm water layered over the top of colder water with less oxygen. This not only provides an ideal habitat for marine life, but also creates an incentive for many whales to stick close to the surface of the water, where they are much more likely to be spotted by excited tourists.
The promise of great whale watching was fulfilled for the majority of the park’s visitors on the first day of the festival. Some boats docked on shore reported as many as seven whale sightings within the park, while other smiling spectators returned in soaking wet clothes from the splash of an errant tail.
“It was so exciting to be near a creature of that size,” said Germán Torres, a representative from Costa Rica’s Tourism Board, who was visiting the festival to make notes on its progress. “For me, just being on the boat and being able to see the scenery made it a very rewarding experience.”
Put on by the tourism board, the festival is an effort to bring more attention to the the marine national park, Torres said, which is still being developed as a hot spot for tourism.
“It’s important to note that it was only 10 years ago that all the fishermen put down their nets and agreed to become tour guides for the park,” Castro said.
While the boat tours steal the show as the main attraction, Ramírez said he hopes the other attractions of the festival are able to pull in a crowd as well. In addition to common fair rides and food, the festival also features performances from local schools and the sale of locally-constructed arts and crafts.
“This is a festival that is growing,” said Ramírez. “It is still growing and we are seeing a higher amount of participation from other groups in the community.”