One of the big things on my life bucket list was to go whale watching and in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, we discovered the HQ of whale experiences.
In the warm waters of the Bahia de Banderas, one of the largest bays in Mexico, more than 800 humpback whales gather between mid-December and late March to mate and give birth. With a gestation period of between 11 months and a year, this year’s babies are a result of last year’s fun. The bay is also relatively shark free, since dolphins congregate here too, and pods of these lively creatures patrol the area to protect their own young.
The experience starts off poorly. The only day on our whole trip, the day we have pre-booked for whale watching, is cloudy and much cooler than the norm. We have signed up with the organization that, we have been assured, offers the premier whale watching experience, Vallarta Adventures. Their phone number is not printed on their brochure. The one on their website seems to be wrong. We finally get it from the tourism office. Next strike: we have followed their directions, exactly as dictated to me over the phone, and arrive at the wrong office. It’s another 60 peso cab ride to the right place. They don’t offer to pay. There’s more: when we arrive we are told there are additional fees, beyond what was charged to my credit card. Oh, and the boat is leaving half an hour earlier than we were told. I believe I have reached a first class example of the Department of Sales Prevention.
However, when the guide comes to collect us all from the assembly point he is cheery and full of information and little jokes. The boat is only half full, which gives us a bit of room to spread out, but we are still packed in like sardines. I cannot imagine what it would have been like at capacity. The lady sitting right in front of me is the size of a house. “I believe we have seen our first whale,” Diane says. The craft is a fast rubber sided boat with huge twin outboards, often referred to as a Zodiac. It’s close to the water and the best way to see whales. If they do come close there’s no chance of them being injured against the soft sides. We see other boats of all sorts on the water, from deep sea fishing boats to sailing catamarans and dirty old tour boats. Most have two or three times the number of passengers and are much slower, so we have the advantage over them in the search for whale photo ops. Soon enough the radio crackles and the skipper and guide have a discussion. Whales have been spotted both to the north and south, but they believe the bigger pod is south. So we turn across the waves, which are quite active by now, and get a good soaking as we come about. The guide hands out towels. “Don’t worry,” he jokes as water sloshes about the bottom of the boat, “We won’t sink fast.” It’s one of those little jokes without the funny bit at the end.
Just at the point when we were wishing we hadn’t come out onto the ocean, on a day when the Pacific wasn’t at all peaceful, whales are spotted. All discomfort is forgotten. A pod of two or three males are up ahead, blowing after a long dive. One lies on its back and slaps its huge flippers on the water, part of a courtship display, we are told. Then with a wave of their giant tails, they dive again.
With engines slow ahead, we follow the pod, no closer than the regulation 60 metres. Suddenly, one of them breaches, half out of the water. A second follows. The third clears the water entirely. A full breach. I think my mouth is hanging open at the sheer size of the monster. My shutter finger isn’t quick enough to capture the moment, but I have a lovely picture of the splash. On it goes, for an hour or more. In the distance we see another pod blowing. There are whales all around us. Then, one moment later, they are all gone, heeding some primal urge to dive deep. It’s time to turn around and speed back to base.
We retire to Joe Jack’s Fish Shack in the old town, where we know they will have excellent hot sea food chowder to warm our chilled bones and a gentleman’s portion of icy cold mojitos to warm our spirits. I have the best mac and cheese with bacon I have ever tasted, so the day ends well.
Tours with Vallarta Adventures can be booked online.
TIP: Take a damp proof camera with a good long lens and pick a sunny day.