Just seconds after my toes push off from the hull, the cool rush of the sea envelops my sun-warmed skin in an ecstasy of contrast. Suspended in blue, I imagine that I am mere meters from a humpback whale, that just beyond visibility a deep black eye watches me swim to the surface. I float on my back, wondering if this infinite cerulean skyscape is the mystery that the humpbacks sing their songs about.
“Alright, let’s try another spot.” Ben calls from the boat, perhaps taking my swim break as a sign of waning faith.
I steal a few more moments in the water, prolonging our pause out on the endless surf. After our morning of unrewarded anticipation in an area as stunning as it is famous for having some of the best whale watching in Panama, I am content to simply be in the same water as the majestic humpbacks, even if they refuse to show themselves to me.
“The whales? Ja! You will see them, don’t worry,” I was assured this morning by Aris Almengor, an area native and Director of Tours & Activities for the Panama luxury resort at Isla Palenque. Aris sent us off with a huge smile and a blasé shrug of his shoulders — Panamanian body language I’ve come to understand as meaning I’m in for a grand surprise.
The sky seems to foretell of big things, too — it’s a day so bright that you can actually see sunbeams in the sky.
From the disappointing depths I climb back aboard the boat to resume my post. Balancing carefully on the bobbing hull, I spin slowly to take a Gulf of Chiriqui roll-call: Islas Paridas, Gamez, Bolanos, Mono and Ladrones form a trail of god-sized stepping stones towards the mainland where Volcan Baru looms haloed by a ring of clouds. In the shade of the mountains rests Boca Brava, and then Palenque completes the circle, distinguished by the iconic Panama tree jutting boldly from her silhouette.
Stalled in the middle of this massive oceanic garden of islands little-known to modern man, we wait for the mammals that have been summering here for centuries. Humpback whales migrate to the Gulf of Chiriqui to give birth and fatten up for the winter in these warm subtropical waters. Once they’ve been spotted for the first time (usually around July or August), there’s a 100% guarantee that you’ll spot them in the Gulf until the babies are strong enough to travel North again for the winter (usually sometime in October).
My surroundings leave little to be desired, and yet my imagination takes over. The slightest irregularity in the expanse of Pacific blue becomes a breaching mirage. After several rounds of gasping, “oh, oh right there” and Ben’s patient chorus of “just a wave,” “rock,” “that’s another rock,” “that’s just a big wave,” and “that’s the same rock,” and one coconut floating along that we both momentarily take for a human head, here we wait.
The engine is off and we are bobbing unanchored, the only sound is the quiet collision of foamy Pacific crests against the reflective white veneer of Jacob, our boat. I look at Ben, Ben looks past me, I turn to stare at the sea again, my scan of the surface becoming ever lazier.
Switching my gaze to the other side, about 50 feet past us, unmistakably, a whale is breaching.
“That’s a whale, that is seriously a whale!” I scream, scrambling off the hull and leaping to the other side without taking my eyes off of the submerging giant.
Ben, already at the wheel, catches the tail end of the glistening gunmetal mammoth before it disappears in a splash, and starts the engine. The watch is on.
We troll in the direction of our first glimpse but from just behind us, a colossal exhale turns my head to meet a rising momma humpback and her little one. She blows out another three-foot cloud of ocean spray and I reply with a yelp of joy – this is magnificent.
I look down to see momma humpback swimming not more than ten feet under our boat.
We linger above the surface, craning out of Jacob – in awe to be so close to a humpback, and in horror that if she breaches too soon, Jacob will be a shipwreck and we’ll be swimming to shore – if we’re lucky.
All 40-50 feet of her pass under us like a dark shadow, vivid are the deep grooves and white tubercles that mark her skin – this unique pattern is individual to every whale. Her long graceful fins float by, and then I can see barnacles clinging to the mottled skin of her vast backside, and at last, the wavy edge of her black and white tail fin. It took her an entire minute to pass under our boat, and 20 feet later, she breaches with the baby, blowing out a loud exhalation of water through her blow hole that seems to say, “not too close, you two.”
She dives deeper and again we troll expectantly in the direction she swam. The tactic works, and we are able to hang with the humpback duo, each vision as sacred as the last. It is early in the season, and momma keeps close to her young baby and the surface, staying low to the water as they breach. We follow cautiously in expansive circles.
We stay within 50-100 meters of them for another few appearances, while less than a mile away, beach-seeking island-hoppers climb out of their water taxis and swim to shore at Gamez, completely unaware that they are swimming amongst giants.
After about 30 minutes we lose them, and the heat and adrenaline leave us exhausted and satisfied, so we head back to Palenque for lunch.
Zooming back through the islands of our neighborhood, I know that those two are somewhere below us, and this time I don’t strain my eyes at rocks or whitecaps in stress that they be humpbacks, because I know very well that they are there.
As summer fades to fall, the little one that we saw clinging so closely to mom will grow and become more self-assured, breaching higher and becoming braver, until he is well enough to face the cold hard reality of the Northern winters. Not unlike the way I will fly back home in a couple days, strengthened by days of exploration and restful nights washed in ocean breeze, confident in the knowledge that if I can just relax my grip hold on expectation, the world will surge forward with proof that a new wonder always awaits just below the surface.