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Whale Watching for $20 with the Man from Pamplona


Whale watching in the warm shallow waters off Pedasí, Panama is a popular tourist activity. The humpbacks come each year in the late summer to give birth in the quiet waters off Isla Iguana, a protected reserve. Me too. I wanted to see the whales. I had never been whale watching before and decided this was the time.

I checked the flyers around town and saw there was a whale watching outing for about $60 a person. But I wasn’t interested in their schedule since it was mostly a day at the beach. So I went off to the local tourist office to see if I could find an alternative. Unfortunately, the tourist office employee didn’t speak English and my Spanish is super limited.

I was getting ready to walk out when another man came in, also asking about whale watching. This gentleman spoke fluent Spanish so I figured he had a much better chance of getting the real scoop than I did. I watched and waited, but he soon threw up his hands as well. Out he walked, heading down the road towards Arenal Beach, where the boats depart to Isla Iguana.

I made one of those instant gut-instinct decisions, and off I went too, following my new “friend” down the road….


The man from Pamplona

He saw me coming and waited for me to catch up. We chatted as we walked for the next 40 minutes, albeit in a very limited manner. He knew a bit of English and I had a smattering of Spanish. I learned that he was a school teacher from Pamplona, Spain. And I managed to explain to him that I’d been to visit his city and liked it very much.

But the main fact was, I could tell that this man was totally determined to go whale watching today. And there was no way he was going to pony up $60 to do it! And we both knew that we had a much better chance to see whales by pooling our buying power together instead of each being on our own.

At Arenal Beach

Arriving at the beach, various local boat “captains” approached. I figured my “job” was super simple. Keep my mouth shut and let my friend negotiate everything. In this case, he said $20 was the maximum he wanted to spend, so I readily agreed. I figured that if it happened, great. If not, I’d had a lovely walk to the beach!

Lucky for us, it was also off season. So the boat operators were very hungry for business. My friend was firm and kept waving them away in disgust when they approached with high priced offers. But much to my surprise — in more ways than one — we were soon wading into the surf, boarding our “whale watching tour boat”.

Take a closer look at the header photo. Yep, that’s our whale watching “tour” boat. We went in the big one… the one with the blue awning!

You can see Isla Iguana 5 miles (8 km) in the distance. And that’s where we headed, bouncing and slapping the waves all the way!

Whale watching

As events unfolded, I learned what had really happened. A family of four had negotiated for a trip to the island, and the man from Pamplona had convinced the boat operator to take us along too, adding on a 1-hour “tour”. Soon, we were speeding along and bouncing through the waves. The family got dropped off at the beach. We stayed in the boat for and for an hour, our personal captain kept a keen eye looking for whales. He quickly took us from spot to spot, to get as close as possible. What a fantastic deal!

P.S. No, I didn’t see any giant leaping / spouting creatures that are typical of travel postcards. But I saw enough Mothers and babies to be totally thrilled. I could see the Mom come up for air and the baby right there with her. And I was closer than I would have ever imagined. All in all, a happy satisfying experience for me.

(Click on any photo to open light-box and browse full-size images.)

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