Sail Amongst Whales off of Ecuador’s Coast

Every year a nature puts on an amazing show as a huge pod of whales arrive off the coast of Ecuador after their 5,300 mile journey from their feeding grounds in Antarctica. From June to September a variety of species of whales, including humpback and on rare occasions fin whales, make the long journey to warmer waters to mate or give birth. The spectacle peaks in July when males jump from the water and splash their tales and fins to attract a female. Thousands of people flock to the Ecuadorian coast for a chance to catch a glimpse of these amazing creatures.

The recommended way to view the whales is aboard a sailboat, which travel through the water quietly, compared to engine powered boats that disturb the wildlife. The whale museum in Salinas has even switched from motorized boats to sailboats to get closer to the whales.

jumping-whale-ecuador

We spoke with Arnaud Chandesais the captain for Phoenix Travel Yacht Charter, located at Puerto Lucia Yacht Club in Salinas, Ecuador. The charter accommodates small private groups for unique sea adventures that can sometimes last months at a time sailing around the world.  During the whale watching season they offer day trips for whale viewing.  Their tours strive to give respect to the sea life while observing their natural habits in an ecological and responsible manner. They work with students from a local marine biology university whose photographs and records will help biologist to further study these animals and their migration habits.

We had a chance to speak with Arnaud about his unique sailing experiences with the whales off the coast of Ecuador.

Arnaud

Where did you learn to sail?                                                                   

I was almost born on my parent’s sailboat. We made it to the harbor just in time, so for as long as I remember I have always been on boats.  The boat I learned to sail on was a steel hull, wooden mast classic sloop with a long bowsprit. The boat did not have an auxiliary engine and batteries (so no electronics) or any modern equipment.  Of course we are talking about the early 1980’s when a GPS was still unheard of. We got our first GPS on the next boat. It had a sort of chip you had to plug into a port to have a map of the North Sea and you had to wait for 5 minutes of warming up time before you could start to look for satellites. It had a position radius of a 100 ft. Oh and did I mention that the screen was black and green. So, that’s how I learned to sail on the North Sea.

As the captain of a yacht, how much time do you spend at sea?

I am full-time on the boat. The time spent  at sea depends greatly on charters and expeditions, but we can go from an afternoon to a month without seeing any land.  The boat is fitted for long worldwide expeditions, so the only limit is where work has to be done, as long it is on the water 😉

How large is the yacht you captain and how long are the journeys? / How long are the journeys for whale watching?

The boat is a 54 ft. ketch.  We have journeys that range from half a day and up to several months depending what is needed. Whale watching tours are usually an afternoon or a whole day.

How big is the crew and how many guests does the boat hold?

I can handle the boat on my own, but usually there is somebody to help with our tours.  In addition to the paid crew, we sometimes have volunteers onboard who come from all over the world. They are usually young people who would like to learn how to sail or to gain experience.

On the day trips we limit the passengers to 12, only because we don’t like to overcrowd the boat and it gives people a better experience. For longer expeditions we limit our guests to 6.

When is the best time to spot whales?

July and August are really the best months to do observations.  There are hundreds of whales at that time in Ecuadorian waters.

Why do the whales appear off the coast of Ecuador at this time?

Whales come to the warmer waters to mate and to give birth the following year. Whales here in Ecuador come the whole way up from Antarctica where they feed. During the time here they are on a diet.  Female whales that are giving birth and feeding their calf can lose up to half their weight before they arrive back to their feeding grounds in Antarctica.

How do you locate the whales?

We locate the whales visually by their jumping and splashing in the water.  We can spot whales from 1 hour ahead.

Patience is very important and every day is different. The longer the trip is means the more whales  that can be spotted.  Last year on our way to Isla de la Plata, we had to change our course several times to not end up on collision courses with the whales, because there were so many. If you are lucky you’ll see dolphins and sometimes a fin whale.

It is more difficult later in August to spot whales, because they begin to jump less often and later in September only the mothers with their young will remain in the area.  They stay as long as possible, so that the calf can grow strong enough for the long migration. During this time it is not unusual for  one of the calves to start jumping out of the water and to come close to the boat for an inspection.  They don’t fear us, because we don’t use an engine.

Do you have an exciting or unusual stories from sailing near Ecuador?

We try to respect the whales as much as possible and don’t want them to see us as a potential danger to them or their young, so we never approach whales directly, but set our course to pass by to see if they feel comfortable about our presence first. We then turn around and stay viewing from a safe distance. We never go in between whales also.

But one day we passed by a mother with a calf and the young one got so excited that it left his mother to investigate.  We were not close enough for him, and as he swam around us he started to jump completely out of the water.  The mother started to call him back, but the bad boy didn’t listen. He continued following us and wanted to go to the other side of the boat.  So we eventually had to sail back to his mother and pass around her so we wouldn’t get in between them and we hoped he would stay with her.

To find out more about whale watching opportunities near Ecuador or yacht adventures visit Phoenix Travel Yacht Charter’s website at – www.sailing.ec

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