From July to November every year, thousands of whales congregate in the warm waters of the Colombian Pacific to breed. A visit to the harbor town of Bahia Solano is a chance to see them up close.
Bahia Solano itself, with its perpetual rain, pot-holed roads, and low buildings with corrugated iron roofs, is very different from the comfortable, sunny resorts of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. But precisely because of its unique climate and relative lack of development, the Pacific coast can offer an unparalleled wealth of nature, and has a burgeoning eco-tourism industry.
Whale watching is the main attraction in Bahia Solano. Humpbacks live the Antarctic for the first six months of the year, then when the water temperature drops in June, they migrate northwards along the South American Pacific coast to find warmer temperatures in the Colombian waters between Ecuador and Panama.
During whale season the sea off the western coast of Colombia becomes the humpbacks’ playground, as males hop, jump, and slap the water in an effort to court their mate, while females give birth to calves. Various companies in Bahia Solano offer whale-watching excursions, with posters claiming that “Outings were 100% successful in 2009.”
Finding the whales can take time – expect to be at sea for a while before you see anything – but when they do come into view they aren’t shy. Our boat had been in the choppy waters of the Pacific for two hours before we sighted the first whale. But then everything happened at once. A pod of spotted dolphins came bounding towards the boat, and a second humpback soon emerged. It spent a while basking on the surface, flapping its pectoral fin towards us and revealing its white underside, before sinking back into the depths. Soon four whales surrounded our boat, each measuring well over 30 feet, and they became more and more lively. Suddenly, in the mid-distance, a humpback leapt fully out of the water. For a brief moment, the huge creature was silhouetted against the horizon with its tail curled towards the sky, before it crashed back into the sea.
Back on dry land in Bahia Solano, Rodrigo Fajarado, expert in local biology, explains proudly that the whales “are all Colombians,” – all born in Colombian waters.
“Nobody knows for sure, but scientists believe that the humpbacks don’t eat a thing for the last six months of the year, when they concentrate exclusively on breeding,” he explains. “They mate in Colombian waters, and then come back to our shores after a twelve month gestation period to give birth.”
Humpback watching is not the only attraction in Bahia Solano. Launches from the town can take visitors to explore the mangrove forests. The boatmen turn off their engines and use paddles to squeeze through tight arches formed by the trees’ high roots. Visitors can see crabs scuttling up mangrove roots, lizards which run on water, humming birds, and large spotted butterflies. There are beautiful deserted beaches lining the bay, and excellent opportunities for scuba diving.
Bahia Solano also offers world-class fishing, especially from March to June as rain warms the ocean surface attracting sardines and their predators. January to March is a great time for those interested in mammals, birds, and amphibians to visit the woods surrounding the small town.
Hiring a launch for the afternoon for whale watching, fishing, or a tour of the mangrove swamps should cost a total of COP200,000 (about $110).
Rodrigo Fajardo organizes whale watching, fishing, diving, snorkeling, and hiking out of his hostel Posada del Mar on Calle 3. Email Rodrigo at [email protected], or call him on +57 313 746 0680 or +57 314 630 6723.
Enrique Garcia-Reyes from the Posada Turistica Rocas de Cabo Marzo also arranges the above trips, as well as excursions to the Utria National Park to the south of Bahia Solano. Enrique is American and so speaks fluent English. Contact him by email at [email protected], or by phone on +57 313 681 4001.