Before I begin on the wonder that is the Humpback Whale tour in Puerto Lopez, I have to tell you something. From a young age I have been in love with whales and sea life. I grew up with the dream of seeing any type of whale in the wild; Blue, Humpback, Sperm…maybe not Orcas after seeing how cunning they are with their prey, anyway, you get it- I really hoped one day I’d get the chance. And then we were on our way to Puerto Lopez and I realised my dream was about to become reality and I couldn’t wait, I secretly had visions of me diving spectacularly off the side of the boat and being taken to the depths of the sea to witness what it is they do down there. I actually did think that, it looks like my childhood imagination remains with me.
The whale season in Puerto Lopez officially begins on the 22nd of June and ends in September-October and while it’s mainly Humpbacks, Orcas have also been spotted (I only just found that out now!). Depending on the time of the season, the Humpies might be travelling through the area or coming to give birth in the bay- the shape and current means that it is harder for sharks or other predators to attack the newborn calfs.
In keeping with the impressive ecological awareness that we came across in Ecuador, we were happy to see that the whale tours are extremely well organised and a community initiative. There are numerous companies in the town but they work on a rota system which means that you no one hassles you in the street or sells you a cheap/rip off tour in a bid for more customers. Everything is nice and relaxed and official. Also, the locals recognise that the whales mean big business to them so they are well taken care of- in instances where a whale has been disorientated and gone too close to shore, local fishermen carefully guide it back out to the open sea and away from harm. Furthermore, when the season officially starts there is a festival with music, food and free tours for the locals to go and see the Humbacks in all their glory because after all, they should have the same opportunities as tourists and understand why these beauties are so important to their home town. Puerto Lopez was ticking all the right boxes. Tours leave at 8am and there are two options: $25 for the whale tour and $35 for the whale and Isla de la Plata tour which has been dubbed the Poor Man’s Galapagos…I’m not really into that so I’ll just refer to it by it’s real name. You can buy your ticket from any office the night before or on the day, although you do run the risk of there not being any spaces left because there is a quota of boats that are sent out each day. I suggest going for the whale and Isla tour because it’s only $10 more and is definitely worthwhile. If you go for this you will need sunblock, shoes that you can walk in, lunch and water.
So we left in our boat of ten- mostly foreign tourists but with a few Ecuadorians plus the crew who told us that the previous day ten Humpies had jumped up to say hello. That’s another thing, you are very very nearly 100% guaranteed to see at least one whale. There was an air of nervous excitement and everyone was staring out in every direction. There were a few false alarms, a bit of spray here or a bird diving into the water there and someone was jumping up and then realising that it was not yet the right moment. After about half an hour on the boat, I knew we were about to see our first whale. How did I know this? Because I had started to feel so queasy and had to sit at the back of the boat breathing in and pleading with my stomach to relax but I just knew that when Mr. or Mrs. Whale was popping up I would be having a vomit attack, and I was right. So if you are even a little bit prone to seasickness, take a tablet! Otherwise you might be hanging over the left side of the boat when your visitor is on the right. At least no one saw me being sick. After I had been left with an empty stomach, more whales were jumping up out of the water (probably to ask me if I was ok) and everyone was completely mesmerised, it really is a spectacular sight. I had already decided against taking photos because I really wanted to enjoy the moment instead of fiddling around with the zoom or looking at the camera screen rather than what was happening less than fifty metres away. It was incredible and I felt very lucky to have seen such an incredible animal in his or her natural habitat. The captain stopped the engine and we were all pointing and cooing at the whale flying out of they water. Apparently it is not known why they jump and may depend on the season: it could be to remove annoying molluscs from their sensitive skin, perhaps a competition between males and later on in the year, mothers teaching their newborns how to perform acrobatics above the water.
After the whales dived down to the mysterious depths we headed to Isla de la Plata. Legend has it that Francis Drake found silver treasure off the coast of the island, or else that in bright sunlight all of the bird droppings make it look as if it were covered in silver (plata in Spanish). I think I like the latter. On arrival to the island we were greeted by a beautiful turtle who was popping his little head up to say hello and came very close to the boat. That alone made the trip to Isla de la Plata worth it. At least four endangered turtle species come to the area to nest and further along in Machalilla National Park beaches are frequently closed to allow the mamas to be a chance to nest in peace.
The visit to the island involves a two hour hike and a chance to follow an easy trail or a more advanced one. Whichever you choose, you’ll be treated to the Blue-Footed Booby which is a sea bird with the most incredibly coloured feet and a great waddle to match- they look like they have shoes on which are too big and Great Frigate Birds, the males puff their red chest out and sit in the trees with their wings spread out, head up in the air and scream their heart out. I have to say, I was in my Sir David Attenborough element. The walk is tiring but there were people of all ages so even if you’re not a walker it would still be fine and there is a guide to walk you around and let you in on the bird secrets.
On the way back to the boat, as if we hadn’t been treated enough we saw a manta ray lifting a wing up to say hello. (Side note: I remembered being in Fiji and a local telling me that when you see a manta close to shore it’s because the weather is about to change. Sure enough, the next morning was bright and sunny instead of overcast as you can see in the pictures. Locals always know best). If you’re feeling brave, there is a twenty minute slot to snorkel right next to the island but the water was just too cold for me so I stayed on the boat and talked to the captain about life at sea and the glory of seeing Humpbacks everyday and being paid for it. He also told me that the visibility in the water during the start of the season isn’t that great, so I was grateful to have opted to stay on the boat.
Puerto Lopez is a beautiful little town that celebrates the magic of having Humpback Whales gracing it’s coast for a few months in the year. Without them, it would not be on the tourist map at all but luckily for us and the locals it is a great little destination to escape to and still has not been seriously hit by tourism, at least at the beginning of the season when we were there. Enjoy Puerto Lopez and the locals, this was definitely a gem in our trip.