Whale's tale
Costa Rica,  Nature and wildlife

Will we see whales?

Sorry, we were told, when we planned our stay on Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula; February is a bit early in the season to see humpback whales in Drake Bay and there are no tours running.

Slightly disappointed, we settled for a day visiting Caño Island, a biological reserve about twenty kilometres offshore. We were promised great snorkelling (for those who wanted it), and a landing on a beautiful island. But not whales.

So after breakfast at the beautiful Aguila de Osa lodge we joined seven other guests down at the jetty. Those planning to snorkel had flippers fitted in the dive shop before we boarded our small but very comfortable boat for the outing. Despite the warnings about the season we were keeping our fingers crossed that we might spot a whale; after all, one had been seen during the same tour the previous day!

View of the shore from a boat with dark clouds
Looking back at Corcovado National Park

After the sunshine of the last few days we were surprised to see some dark clouds and even more so when it started to rain. Although of course this is a rainforest!

But the shower was soon over and a few minutes later a shout went up from one of the crew. Whales had been spotted ahead. Our captain manoeuvred us closer to the group of two females and a calf. One was breaching quite a bit; she seemed to be playing. I used my burst shoot mode and managed to get some decent photos.


After a short while with the whales (too short!) we continued to Caño Island. The five of us who wanted to snorkel got into the water with one of the guides, David. Almost immediately we seemed to be surrounded by fish! There were Parrotfish, Surgeonfish, King Angelfish, Gruntfish, and many more whose names I didn’t subsequently catch when David described them!

He guided us towards some rocks (no coral reefs here) where I was excited to see a large turtle. Too excited as it turned out, as I managed to swallow some sea water and worse, get some inside my mask, making it hard to see anything at all. Not being a strong swimmer or experienced snorkeller I decided to head back to the boat at that point.

Small rocky beach and forest seen from offshore
Caño Island vegetation ~ spot the snorkellers just beyond the Brown Booby in flight

There I re-joined Chris who had stayed on board. He told me about their short ride to drop off two divers with another guide, then we just drifted until the others returned. A German woman was first; like me she only felt up to a short spell in the water. The other three stayed in longer (and reported seeing Manta Rays and a White Tip Reef Shark!) Once they were back on board we headed over to pick up the divers and then towards the island.

Rocky shore with small boat moored
Caño Island from our boat

On Caño Island

It was a wet landing in about a foot of water. Once we were all on the beach we were given beach towels and a tub of fruit (watermelon and pineapple) to enjoy at our leisure. Chris and I found a perch on some logs where we could eat our snack while watching the antics of the many hermit crabs.

Then we strolled along the beach taking a few photos until it was time to get back on board.

My second snorkelling session was less successful. I had trouble with my mask right from the start so decided to call it a day and just relax on board with Chris. The bonus was a great view of a very untimid Brown Booby who swam right up to the boat!

When everyone was back on board we were given some brownies and then it was time to return to the hotel. This time we had blue skies but no whales!

It had been a great morning with the whales the undoubted highlight for me. Although I was left wondering whether just maybe a boat trip spent just looking for and watching them might not have been feasible after all?

I visited Costa Rica in February 2022


  • Forestwood

    How exciting that you got to see the whales! Fantastic and an unexpected bonus. I have not been whale watching despite the whale watching cruise boats leaving less than 3 km from my home on a regular basis. So people love it and others just feel seasick in our unpredictable bay. Was this very deep water? Or calm protected lagoons?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      We were properly out in the ocean but not miles and miles offshore and in a bit of a bay. See 8.69851189913231, -83.7910104239375 for the location. It wasn’t choppy although the boat was fairly small so you could feel movement. But I’ve been in far choppier waters!!

  • Christie

    Spotting wildlife in the wild can be very exciting, especially when it’s not truly expected. Sorry to hear the snorkeling was not a success, I know it is hard to keep up with a group sometimes, or even with the rough waters. But what a great bonus to spot the whales! Great shots!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Christie – yes, tbh the whales were so special that I wasn’t too bothered about the snorkelling, although it would be nice to have seen the ray perhaps. But I did get to see lots of the fish and the turtle, and some of the others missed the latter because they shot off too quickly!

  • rosalieann37

    We were there a long time ago (1996) and I didn’t think the snorkeling was that great, but I was by myself without a guide as the rest of the folks had a walking tour and I wasn’t up to it. We had lunch there and a young hawk came and stole a lady’s sandwich. He hit Bob on the head with his wing.

    • Anonymous

      Also we have seen a lot of whales on the cruise I am on now in Hawaii. There are an unusual number of them this year

      Rosalie Beasley

      • Sarah Wilkie

        I think it’s one of those snorkelling locations where you really need to know where to look, but I saw a lot even in a short time. Maybe you were just unlucky? Great story about the hawk however 🙂

  • Anne Sandler

    What a wonderful day you had Sarah. I did the same with my snorkeling experience. Once I had seen all there was to see I went back to the boat. And your whale images are terrific. I’d like to get one where they breach head first. I’ve gotten the tail wag! Take care.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Anne, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who likes to keep their snorkelling experiences short and sweet 🙂 I’d love to get a whale’s head too but I fear I need either quicker reactions or a much better sense of where they’ll emerge next!

  • photobyjohnbo

    I have had little luck in those whale spotting tours over the years. With only a modicum of success, I now tend to shy away from them. Maybe I should reconsider and do a better job of being where the whales are. >grin<

  • maristravels

    I’m like the other Marie above, and can’t go out of my depth or go off a boat for snorkeling, so I miss a lot. I envy your boat-trip and all the things you saw and did. I went whale-watching off Teneriffe a few years ago and was amazed at how many we saw. i thought it was a ‘come-on’ but went anyway, and it turned out to be a brilliant day with the whales. The boatride was run by some conservationists. I didn’t get any photos though as I was too absorbed in their antics and kept thinking they might disappear any minute, besides it was rocking a bit and I’m sure they would have been rather blurry.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Your whale watching trip sounds great! I do think the ones run by conservationists or similar are among the best, as they really study the behaviour of the animals and know not only where to find them but also to ensure they aren’t disturbed by their ‘visitors’ 🙂 The best way to get photos is as I said, to use a burst setting if you have one. You can fire off a series of shots very quickly, then concentrate on enjoying the whales and hope that when you check later there will be at least a few decent images. The joys of digital photography when you don’t have to worry about wasting film!

      • maristravels

        It would probably help if I read the manual! Yes, I have burst shooting – I know this because I often hit it accidentally and then wonder why strange things are happening, just as I’ve sometimes hit the video button (I don’t know how) and ended up with mini-videos when I wanted still pictures.

  • lisaonthebeach

    It sounds like such a wonderful trip! I do love snorkeling and could spend quite a bit of time doing it if there is stuff to see. Usually, I’m the last one out of the water on the rare occasions I have to snorkel. I’m glad you were able to see the whales! It is so amazing to see creatures like that out in nature!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      There was certainly stuff to see Lisa, so you would have enjoyed this I am sure. For me the whales were the highlight but for the keen snorkellers who saw them it was the rays I think 🙂

  • Marie

    What a wonderful trip…
    I can’t swim out of my depth and have missed out on many extraordinary snorkelling experiences over the years – I’m very happy when I have the option of messing about close to shore but can’t go off a boat… as for masks! I met a German woman a few years back who had a full face mask – with prescription lens included – think I’ll invest in one if I have get a snorkelling chance again…

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m happier close to shore too Susanne. I don’t mind being in deep water but when it comes to sorting out a leaky mask I’m much more comfortable if I can stand up to do what’s needed!

  • Nancy Gorodn

    Wow those whale pictures are fantastic. How wonderful you had a sighting. Your outing sounds like it was amazing and the scenery so beautiful. I’ve never been to Costa Rica so this blog is especially nice for having a virtual tour.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Nancy 🙂 It is a beautiful country and highly recommended. I’ve promised Colin I’ll do a slide show for a VT zoom – the next one if I can get it ready in time but more realistically April. Hope you’ll be able to make that one!

  • Yvonne+Dumsday

    What an amazing day for you both. Like Suzanne, I agree, if it is not your own mask and snorkel, it might take some getting used to – but it certainly did mot seem to spoil the day for you. Thankyou for sharing.

  • margaret21

    The only time I’ve been on a specific whale watching trip (off Vancouver Island), we saw only one, at the very very end. But we saw so much other entrancing wildlife that we didn’t feel too short-changed. After all, we can’t expect everything in the ocean to run to our chosen timetable!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Exactly! We would have risked it even if it wasn’t high season for sightings (and would probably have been rewarded it seems) but it wasn’t an option. We’ve been many other times as we always opt for one if available. Actually it was in Vancouver Island we had our best two – a day seeing the Orca off Telegraph Cove (watching two pods) and another trip out from Tofino where we saw a grey whale so close to our Kodiak we could have reached out and touched her! But we drew a blank on our first attempt in the San Juans a couple of years ago, and had only distant sightings when we went out from Cape May. It’s always the risk you take with wildlife tours of any sort but we keep trying because the rewards are so great!

  • Suzanne@PictureRetirement

    Sarah, your day sounds divine. I can’t think of anything better than being out on and in the water, enjoying nature, sea air and cold melon slices on a beach. And, to top it off, an unexpected treat – whale sightings. A Snorkeling mask can be tricky, especially when it hasn’t been fitted properly. Water intrusion is fairly easy to clear, once you get the hang of it. it’s just those initial uncomfortable seconds of water in your nose and eyes that is so startling, coupled with the feeling that you are going to sink while clearing the water. I’ve walked Malcolm through the process a few times, but he is still the first person back on the boat every time we go. Thanks for breaking down your trip for us to enjoy.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m sure you’re right Suzanne – maybe I need to get someone to show me some time. I think David our guide would have helped if I’d asked. But when you’re with a group you can’t expect the guide to give you full attention as they need to keep up with everyone else so I decided it would be best just to go back to the boat. I’d already seen quite a bit!

  • Alison

    A nice bonus seeing the whales then. Snorkelling is quite difficult to get right and once it goes wrong then all hope is lost! Don’t give up though and try again on another trip 🙂

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