Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is a great winter destination, and for all the usual reasons. It’s a charming place, with a pretty downtown, a lovely seafront malecon, or boardwalk, good restaurants and a long, beautiful beach. But it also has an attraction most visitors don’t know about: whale watching in Puerto Vallarta is some of the best in the world.
I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta several times. And while I won’t be getting there this year, winter brings memories of two earlier visits when I had amazing encounters with the Puerto Vallarta whales. I’ve seen cetaceans in the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Saint Lawrence River, but it’s still these experiences that stand out in my mind.
It’s hard not to do a little whale watching in Puerto Vallarta. From December to March, the waters of Banderas Bay are filled with humpback whales, huge creatures the size of a bus, with their distinctive long pectoral fins and white-tinged tail fins. Many have travelled all the way from Alaska, to mate and to give birth to new calves in this sheltered corner of the Pacific.
And getting a look at them can be amazingly easy, Some days they can be seen right from the downtown malecon, splashing and spouting out in the bay. But to get a real look at them, you need to go out on one of the whale watching boats that set out from the city’s marina or from Punta Mita, a few miles down the coast.
In either case, there’s a short run out to the breeding grounds, and a few minutes searching the waters. But it’s not long before the cry of “ballenas” (“whales!”) goes up, and the boats approach to see what they’ve found: a solitary whale, a small pod of two or three, or a whole group swimming together.
Whale watching in Puerto Vallarta is officially controlled, so the boats that take tourists to see the whales need a licence, and some schooling on the rules of play. Small boats are not allowed to approach any closer than 60 metres, or 180 feet, and only from behind the whales — never blocking their route. Larger boats have to stay farther away — the boat in this photo is not as close as it seems, since I used a long telephoto lens. (Hint: click on the photos to see them full size.)
On my first trip, our boat saw three different groups of whales. And seeing them from that distance, I was stunned not only by the experience but by their sheer size. A large female can be more than 18 metres (60 feet) long and weigh more than 40,000 kilograms (about 90,000 pounds).
The whale watching in Puerto Vallarta is not only for the pleasure of tourists — though it is a great time. It’s also for scientific purposes, and some of the companies that run the tours also take part in an ongoing study of the humpbacks, which are still recovering from the ravages of whaling.
Happily, the number arriving in Banderas Bay each year has been increasing, with close to 700 individuals seen each season. Researchers use photos of the whales’ tails to identify the whales, since each one is unique. On my first trip, I was happy to get good photos of several different individuals.
But my second trip turned up the heat. Our boat came upon a group of males in pursuit of a female who was ready to mate — sometimes called a “heat run”. It’s a rough game, with the males breaking the surface and crashing into each other, raising great splashes and incurring a few scrapes and bruises. It made for some dramatic shots, even from a small boat bobbing up and down in the waves..
Scenes like this are more typical early in the season, when the whales arrive looking to mate. By January, the females begin to give birth, so it’s possible to see calves following their mothers.
The humpbacks rule the waters of Banderas Bay in the winter. But they’re not the only attractions: the uncommon Bryde’s whales are sometimes seen here, and bottle-nosed dolphins, spotted dolphins and spinner dolphins are a regular sight. On my first trip, we came across a pod of spotted dolphins heading across the bay.
There are also 600 species of fish, sea turtles which nest on the beaches, and manta rays, which sometimes give onlookers a thrill by jumping out of the water and “flying” for a few feet. And of course, a multitude of water birds, including the famous blue-footed boobies I saw in the Galapagos.
Some tours include a run around the Las Marietas islands, which are sometimes called the Mexican Galapagos for their rare bird life. This is a brown booby, a cousin of the blue-footed booby, sunning itself on the rocky cliffs of Las Marietas.
Whale watching in Puerto Vallarta is a rare adventure. There are few other places where you can get such as good look at these giant creatures without travelling to remote — and often frigid — waters. And to me, having them so close to the city makes Puerto Vallarta a special place. If the whales spend the winter here, why shouldn’t we?