Every summer humpback whales make their way up the coast off South America from Antarctica to breed and give birth. We have traveled to the small fishing village of Puerto Lopez, Ecuador multiple times to photograph this migration and after a three-year hiatus due to Covid, we were finally able to return in August 2022.
International air travel has changed since the last time we flew: there are new health forms to fill out, the airports are crowded and disorganized, and the planes are packed.
But our flights were relatively on time and our luggage arrived with us, so our travel was easy compared to some of the horror stories we’ve heard!
Puerto Lopez is a three hour drive north of Guayaquil airport and our pre-arranged taxi was there to meet us at midnight. Years ago, on our first visit to Puerto Lopez, we discovered Hosteria Itapoa, a delightful bed & breakfast, and have stayed there ever since.
It was like coming home to find our bed in cabana 16 ready for our 3 am arrival!
The gardens at Itapoa grow more beautiful each year and every morning at breakfast we tried to capture a few of the birds that flitted around us.
The dogs are still there, including “Pelican”, who we first met as a little puppy!
The town of Puerto Lopez has changed a lot since our last visit. Many restaurants and shops did not survive the pandemic but we were happy to find a few of our favorites still in business.
We also discovered some new gems.
Where there were once just a few ramshackle beach bars spaced quite far apart, there is now a continuous strip of competing, brightly decorated full-service restaurant/bars, each blaring loud music and lit up at night like the Las Vegas strip.
The fisherman still come in at the southern end of the beach in the early mornings — the same cacophony of colors, sounds, and smells.
Years ago we found Palo Santo Travel, one of the many whale-watching tour companies in town.
We were impressed with the respect with which both the captains and guides treated the whales and found out later that the owner, Cristina Castro, is affiliated with the Pacific Whale Foundation.
The Pacific Whale Foundation partners with various research programs and Palo Santo allows guests to accompany them on scientific outings.
This year’s project is part of the Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whale Sentinel Program, out of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. Tissue samples are being collected to study organic pollutants as well as determine the size of the fat cells in the whale’s blubber — an indication of their food supply.
PWF’s Juliana fearlessly stood on the bow of the boat collecting samples from the massive, 40-ton animals, looking for all the world like Xena, the Warrior Princess.
While Luna watched from above, taking photos and meticulous notes on which whales were biopsied, the GPS coordinates, and the weather conditions.
It was exciting and interesting to watch and learn – plus it gave me a new appreciation for the courage of scientists in the field!
Each day the two Palo Santo boats traveled to Isla de la Plata, an island located approximately 25 miles from Puerto Lopez. We looked for whales on our way to and from.
Once on the island, we had the opportunity to enjoy the many green sea turtles swimming in the bay,
And then hike up to the top of the hill
to enjoy the blue-footed boobies,
And the many other birds that call this “Poor Man’s Galapagos” home,
Along with gorgeous views from high up on the cliffs.
There is always time to snorkel in the bay and I have loved diving down to listen to the whale songs or photograph the fish and turtles.
But this year the water was too cold for this wimpy South Floridian, so I passed my underwater camera to Silvano who had fun snapping pics of what he spied.
In past years we have been treated to amazing breaching activity – part of the whale’s mating ritual.
And although we saw an occasional breach and plenty of mothers with calves, we had yet to find a good “jumper” on this trip. We were starting to feel a little frustrated with our photos thus far.
We are early risers and were ready for coffee long before Itapoa’s 8 o’clock breakfast so each morning we walked down the beach to a spot open at 7 am: Jouser.
It was at Jouser that we met a tour operator named Winston Churchil. (Yes, Churchil with one “L”)
Winston arranged for us to go out on a small panga with Miguel, a local fisherman.
There are five things needed for perfect whale photos:
(1) Good light at your back – which is tough in Puerto Lopez as it’s almost always overcast in July and August.
(2) The boat must go slow and steady as possible.
(3) Patience – a lot of it!
(4) A good captain who knows whales and knows the waters.
(5) Luck – although a good captain can make his own luck.
We hit the jackpot with Miguel. The sea was calm and the light was beautiful. For once the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Miguel puttered along at a rate so slow we were barely moving.
It took some patience but in the end we were rewarded with a beautiful baby humpback breaching over and over and over. It was magical.
Another change this year was that our favorite captain, Jaime, was no longer with Palo Santo. He was the best captain we’ve ever had and we sorely missed his expertise on the boat.
One morning Jouser was closed so we backtracked to Spuma del Mar, an open-air restaurant on the Malecon. This turned out to be incredibly fortuitous.
While sitting at a sidewalk table at Spuma, a passing car suddenly slammed on the breaks and the driver hopped out. It was Captain Jaime and what a joyful reunion we shared! He now runs his own boat and agreed to take us out for a private tour on Monday morning, our last full day.
As expected, it was off the charts. Captain Jaime delivered not one but two jumpers. We had a whale breach right next to the boat 43 times – 43 ½ if you count a spy hop.
And as one was jumping right in front of us, we had another whale in the distance that also breached — 11 times!
Captain Jaime and I kept count, whooping and shouting out the numbers until I finally said I need to switch to English as it’s too hard for me to keep track of both jumpers and also remember how to count in Spanish!
When it appeared that the whales were finally at rest, I asked if we could look for the “lobos marinos” (sea lions) on Salango Island.
It was a bit of a detour but Capt Jaime readily agreed and beelined us to the island where we found six big, beautiful sea lions sunbathing on the rocks.
It was everything we could have hoped for and we could not have scripted a better end to our week in Puerto Lopez.
We’re already dreaming about going back!
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