Humpback Whale Watching in Panama

One of the reasons people enjoy watching humpback whales so much is because of the whale's playful behavior. They can often be seen breaching (jumping out of the water) or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails, or heads. No matter how many sightings you experience, the joy of seeing such a massive mammal in the wild is thrilling. 

Humpbacks can weight between 25 and 40 tons, adult females are larger than adult males, reaching lengths of up to 60 feet long.

Seeing humpback whales on the Pacific Coast of Panama during whale watching season (June - October) is so common that many expeditions will guarantee a sighting. Reasons for this are that during migration, humpbacks stay near the surface of the ocean and while feeding and calving, humpbacks prefer shallow waters commonly near offshore reef systems, islands, or continental shores.

Humpbacks are dark grey, with white on their pectoral fins and flukes. The pattern of the white pigmentation on their flukes is unique to each whale, so much so that it can be used to identify individual whales, much like a human finger print.

When & Where to go Whale Watching in Panama

While the humpback's schedule is a bit flexible, with migration in Central America anywhere from mid June until late October, the hight of the season is from July until September. According to a 2015 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there is an estimated 500 humpbacks that travel through Central America to breed and give birth. The top places to see whales in Panama during this time include the Pearl Islands, Pedasí and Isla Coiba off of Santa Catalina.

Another, smaller migrations of humpback whales visits Panama annually coming from the Northern hemisphere in February. However, whale watchers are most likely to see action during the Southern migration simply because it is a larger migration.

The visiting humpback whales in Panama have traveled great distances on this seasonal migration, in fact it is the farthest migration of any mammal! The longest recorded migration being 8,300 km, a trek was completed by seven humpbacks including one calf from Costa Rica to Antarctica.

Seeing mating rituals, and momma whales with their calves are both breathtaking experiences and quite common on whale watching expeditions in Panama. However, it is important that you are with an experienced guide who knows when to back off and allow the whales space to move away from the boat and carry on their journey (See below for our #1 recommended whale watching charter).  Some of the most exciting behavior that can be witnessed while whale watching is exhibited by competing males, this behavior includes vocals, bubble blowing, tail thrashing and breaching.  

Listening to Humpback Whale Songs

A whale’s song can be heard using a hydrophone, so you will want to check with your whale watching guide to see if there will be one on-board.  A humpback's song is beautiful, unique and can last for a long time. Whale songs are sung exclusively by males. Typically one population of male humpback whales with sing a variation of the same song. While uncommon, it is possible that songs could be shared between two different populations in shared breeding destinations, like in Panama.

The reason behind the humpback’s ability to produce songs of such complexity, despite decades of research, is still a bit of a mystery. Scientists have recorded these songs evolving during migrations, with groups of humpback populations singing variations the same song and theorize that a whale’s song could be a mechanism for mating used by males to show off their vocal abilities and appeal to females. If that is the case whales songs would be one of the most complex acoustic mating rituals in the animal kingdom.

However, female humpbacks have very rarely been recorded approaching a singing male whale and male humpbacks do not exclusively sing during mating season, which is why some scientists believe that there has to be another purpose for their underwater symphony. Some suggest that the songs could act as a guide for migration, synchronizing the movements of groups of whales. What we do know is that many sea mammals depend on a strong sense of hearing to communicate and feed. For this reason environmentalists are concentred an increase of ambient noise in the ocean, for example noise caused by ships passing through the canal, could be harmful for whales and other sea creatures relying on their sense of sound.

Threats to Humpback Whales in Panama and Beyond

A few years ago the Panamanian government and the International Maritime Organization worked to pass a law that would limit the speed and routes of ships traveling through he Panama Canal. The plan for Traffic Separation Schemes (TSSs) in Panama, to direct ships entering and exiting the Panama Canal on set routes aimed to minimize the overlay of shipping routes and humpback whale migration patterns.

Smithsonian marine ecologist Hector Guzman suggested TSSs could minimize incidents between humpback whales and commercial vessels and reduce maritime accidents. Information gathered by tagging and follow the humpbacks over their migrations has lead researches to the understanding that the Pacific entrance of the Canal is an important breeding area for humpbacks whales and several other species of cetaceans. So with an increase of vessels entering the canal annually and the opening of the Panama canal expansion a plan was vital. While TSSs show an effort to protect the population of humpbacks wintering in Panama they might create other issues for humpback whales and other marine life.

Last year we spoke with Anne Gordon of Whale Watching Panama, who had some hesitations about the plan. She explained that by implementing one path we could create a “super highway” for commercial vessels resulting a sound barrier that may have negative effects on marine life. Since many sea creatures relying on their sense of sound for many aspects of life, there could be negative effects from creating concentrations of ship noise.

Apart from ship strikes, humpback whales also face a list of other dangers including entanglement in fishing gear, harassment by whale watchers and environmental impacts on their habitat.

Entanglement in fishing gear and other marine debris has been known to occur on during long migrations. Shipping channels and costal developments may displace whales, discouraging them from breading in an area that would normally use.

Are Humpback Whales Endangered?

In 2015 NOAA delisted two-thirds of the world’s humpback whale population from the endangered species list. Humpback whales were listed as endangered species in 1970 but after 45 years of conservation many populations are growing.

While the West Indies population of humpback whales is growing at the rate of 2% every year and the East Australia population is growing at the rate of 11% per year, some humpbacks populations are still stuggling. The population migrating in Central America is among the populations still at risk. Panama’s humpback whale population is often noted as being abundant with up to 2000 whales however, NOAA says that the population is probably more like 500 whales.

To deal with the problem of not all populations being equal, NOAA divide the world’s humpbacks into 14 distinct population segments (DPS). Humpback communities can be divided by migration and feeding patterns as well as by the unique songs they sing. DPS helps scientists to study and protect the humpbacks,  allowing for some communities of humpbacks to be delisted, while others continue benefit from the much needed protection. Currently the Central American population is listed as threatened.

Guides to go Whale Watching With in Panama

Our #1 recommendation for a Whale Watching Guide is biologist Anne Gordon, founder of Whale Watching Panama. Anne and her crew of extremely knowledgeable guides offering the unique opportunity to visit with the humpback whales of Panama responsibly. Whale Watching Panama is one of several companies working to preserve Panama’s natural gifts, documenting whale sightings and working along side the scientists at the Smithsonian to collect data on the whales migrating through Panama. Anne’s team offers a lot of great information on whales and respects the animals, never putting them or their spectators in danger.

For more information on whale watching trips visit, contact Anne by phone at 6758-7600 or by email at If you are looking for a group to go out with, like us on Facebook, and we will add you to the Playacommunity Facebook group. Our community group is the best place meet other people in Panama looking to explore the country.

A Day on the Water with Whale Watching Panama
"We headed out early in the morning from the Amador Marina. Approximately 40 whale watchers boarded a large catamaran that is usually used as ferry to shuttle passengers between the Amador Causeway and Taboga Island. Our trip plan was to have lunch at Gerald’s Restaurant on Contadora Island. Along the way we would observe whales.
Anne Gordon and her team of bilingual Natural guides and boat crew are some of the most knowledgeable guides that are running Whale watching tours on this stretch of the Pacific. We learned about feeding and birthing patterns and what the Smithsonian and Panama are doing to study and protect the yearly passage of Humpback Whales through Panama.
The boat was spacious with ample seating and viewing areas for this large group, which included a local camera club. We were rewarded with a Humpback show at various points of our trip. We saw a pod of 6 whales, where 3 males were vying for a female’s attentions. We saw a whale breach and flip on it’s side and wave to us. The photographers among us captured many whale tails that day, as the magnificent animals dove. Some fingers never made the release button, as a photographer stared at the creature ahead with mouth open.
There is simply nothing in the ocean that compares to a whale sighting. It is exhilarating! One is awestruck when seeing a whale up close and hearing it blow water through it’s blowhole. No matter how many times I am blessed to see the sight, it never gets old!"

- Happy Whale Watcher

What to Expect on a Whale Watching trip in Panama

- Expect to get up early
- Expect whale sightings if you are going out during peek season
- Expect to see other animal sightings like birds and dolphins
- Expect to get a little wet

You should bring the following items:

- Passport
- Camera
- Sunblock
- Rain Jacket (just incase)
- Bathing suit
- Cash (check with the group you are traveling with for trip price)

What to do if you See Whales when Boating in Panama

Here are some guidelines for whale watchers who do not have a professional guide on board:

- Never approach whales at high speed
- Never approach a whale from behind or directly in front
- The official distance to keep between you and a whale upon your initial approach is 200 meters
- If a whale changes direction to avoid you, allow them the option to go elsewhere
- If whales start to come toward you, stop the boat and let the whales pass by
- Do not stay with moms and their calves for more than twenty minutes, it is against the the law in Panama
- In Panama it is illegal to swim with the whales

These are just a few of the guidelines of responsible whale watching. The goal is to keep people on board and the whales in the water safe.

If you see a whale that is in obvious distress, please call SENAN (Servicio Nacional Aeronaval) 211-6013 or Anne Gordon 507 6758-7600