Whale Watching in Costa Rica: Everything you need to know

Orca, seen while whale watching in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the world’s top whale watching destinations. It boasts a super-long humpback migration season, strong conservation mentality, and tremendous marine biodiversity. I’m not exaggerating when I say my experience whale watching in Costa Rica was one of the best wildlife encounters in all my travels.

If you’d like to see whales on your Costa Rica trip, you may have questions like, when is the best time to go? Where should you book a whale watching tour from? What can you expect to see? And what are the boats like?

In this post, I’ll help you plan every aspect of your journey to see these magnificent creatures. Let’s dive in!

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you decide to purchase through these links, I receive a percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you.

When can you go whale watching in Costa Rica?

A Bryde's whale near Drake Bay
The waters near Drake Bay are crystal-clear in winter, making it a good time to go whale watching in Costa Rica.

The whales that you can see off the Pacific coast of Central America are migratory — they only pass through for a few months a year. So if you want to see whales, the first thing you need to know is when to visit the region.

Luckily Costa Rica has an exceptionally long whale season. This is because whales migrate both northward and southward through the waters off the southern Pacific coast.

The best time of year to go whale watching — when you have a high likelihood of encountering humpbacks — is mid-July through October. This is when the southern migration occurs. Whales travel from as far as Antarctica to breed in the warm tropical waters, so baby sightings are common.

You can also see the northern migration of whales in Costa Rica — from December-April. January and February are the best months within the northern migration, and this also overlaps with Costa Rica’s long dry season. I went in January and had a great experience!

Where are the best places to book a whale watching tour?

Drake Bay, one of the best places to see whales
Drake Bay is the best whale watching destination in Costa Rica — and it has lots more to offer, like secret beaches.

Whale watching in Costa Rica is concentrated on the southern Pacific coast. The #1 destination for whale watching tours is Uvita, a small beach town south of Domenical.

Uvita is the gateway to Marino Ballena National Park. This protected area has strong conservation policies to preserve hospitable environments for whales. In season, you have an extremely good chance of seeing humpbacks in this area.

However, I recommend doing your whale trip from Drake Bay instead. This little town on the Osa Peninsula is still pretty off-the-beaten-path. After all, you have to drive 6 hours from San Jose, then take a bumpy 90-minute boat ride through the mangroves to the open ocean to get there. But despite its remoteness, it provides easy access to the whales’ migration route. The biggest difference between Drake Bay and Uvita is in Drake Bay, you’ll probably be the only boat on the water.

Both Drake Bay and Uvita deserve a spot on your Costa Rica itinerary regardless of where you choose to see whales. There’s tons to do in both towns, and they have some of the best beaches in the country as well.

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You have a chance of seeing whales off the Pacific coast further north (Manuel Antonio National Park, Guancaste, Tamarindo and elsewhere) in the summer season, but it’s not as likely. These central Pacific destinations don’t have a winter whale season.

What can you expect to see on a Costa Rica whale watching trip?

Orcas playing in the ocean
You have to be extremely lucky to get an orca sighting like this.

The #1 thing everyone wants to see when whale watching is humpbacks. These creatures are one of the largest animals in the world — with males weighing up to 80,000 pounds!

You have a good chance of seeing humpbacks in-season, but it’s not a guarantee. I didn’t actually see any on my whale watching tour, but I did see them the day before in the same waters on a snorkeling trip.

Even if you find a pod, you probably won’t see one breaching (coming out of the water). It’s much more common to see them empty their blowhole and dive back under a few times. But either way, it’s a heart-in-throat moment — especially on the tiny boats used for these tours! When I saw them, we spotted the baby first. It already looked huge. A few minutes later, the mother came up, and everyone on the boat froze in stunned silence at how enormous she was, and how close to the boat she came.

Humpbacks are just one of the whale species you can see in Costa Rica, though. Others you may see are Brydeswhales, orcas, false killer whales, and sperm whales.

In addition, you’ll probably see lots of dolphins. Spinner, spotted and bottlenose species are all common. And you’ll see sea turtles hanging out on the surface — leatherbacks, hawskbills, olive ridleys, black sea turtles, and others.

Keep in mind, there’s always a chance you will see nothing. If you have your heart set on seeing whales, I’d recommend leaving an extra day to book a second tour in case you strike out the first time.

What’s the tour like?

A pod of killer whales
This was…pretty unnerving. There were a LOT of orcas around our extremely small boat.

One reason whale watching in Costa Rica is great is because you get a surprisingly intimate experience with these giant creatures. If you’ve seen the big whale watching boats in places like Hawai’i, well…this is not that.

Your whale watching boat will probably be a small 8-10 seat speed boat. If you’re lucky it’ll have some shade, but it definitely won’t have bathrooms or indoor seating.

You’ll meet your boat captain in the morning, usually around 8 or 9 am. If you go from Drake Bay, you’ll need to wade into the ocean to get on the boat. Once everyone is aboard, the boat speeds off toward areas where the whales are commonly spotted. You’ll drive around for a bit, your guide scanning the horizon.

If you spot something, the boat captain will head that way. You’ll hang out for awhile with any whales or dolphin pods you encounter so you can observe their behavior more closely. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes to find them…sometimes it takes half the day. Sometimes they leave you after a minute or two…other times they hang around for an hour or more.

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Many whale watching boats are equipped with sound systems that will allow you to hear humpbacks’ unique song if you encounter them.

Under absolutely no circumstances are you allowed to swim with whales or dolphins in Costa Rica. But your boat captain may stop in a clear area to let you hop into the water and cool off.

You’ll either have lunch on the boat or on a beach at the end of your tour. Most trips get back to their departure point around 2 pm, but you may be earlier if you find tons of whales super-fast.

Will you get seasick?

If you’re prone to seasickness, bring medication to control it. You’ll be on a small boat for at least 4 hours, often turning quickly to stay a safe distance from the whales.

In the winter season, the ocean is usually fairly calm in the morning when your trip starts out. Waves can pick up later in the day.

During summer, especially as you approach rainy season in August, the seas can be a lot rougher. Boat captains won’t go out if it’s truly dangerous, but it can be a little unpleasant even when you’re perfectly safe.

My experience whale watching in Costa Rica

Up-close view of a Bryde's whale
To give you a sense of how close we were…that’s our Brydes whale friend’s eye.

I met my whale watching guide at 8 am on the beach in Drake Bay. It was a clear January morning, the third day of my Costa Rica trip. I had seen humpbacks while snorkeling the day before and didn’t think I could top that experience, but my trip was pre-booked so I figured I might as well give it a shot.

We drove for a good long while, spotting only sea turtles sunning themselves on the surface. Then, as if from nowhere, a 40-foot Bryde’s whale came up directly next to the boat!

He swam alongside us for awhile, then started cutting under the boat. It seemed clear he was playing with us — showing off his belly, jumping out of the water a bit, giving us the side-eye. He stayed with us for a full hour.

Just when I was thinking it couldn’t get any better, in the distance our guide spotted something else. We snuck a bit closer to investigate — it was a large pod of orcas! They’re quite rare to see, especially in such large numbers. There were females and babies, and they were jumping and playing all around the boat.

After 30 minutes with them, we branched off to see if we could find dolphins. But the orcas weren’t done with us yet. Over the next few minutes, we watched “our” pod and another group that had been further off come together, greet each other, and start swimming together all around us. The group now included a large male who was the clear leader of the pack.

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The orcas stuck with us for awhile longer, then dove deeper than we could see them. We knew we’d need to go a good distance away to find any dolphins at this point — orcas eat them, so they stay away. So we had a quick lunch on the boat with a view of the waterfall in Corcovado National Park. Lunch was a healthy pasta and veggie salad with cold drinks and cookies.

Then we hugged the coast for the hour-long trip back to Drake Bay. We did find some spinner dolphins, but they were pretty shy.

We got back to the boat landing around 2 pm, just in time for me to catch my boat back to Sierpe.

Is whale watching worth it?

The Bryde's whale coming up for air
My whale watching trip was 100% worth it — but I also saw a ton of whales. There’s always a risk you’ll see nothing.

I paid $100 for my whale watching trip with Divine Dolphin. This is the best option in Drake Bay, although cheaper tours (usually around $60) are available in Uvita.

Obviously that’s not the cheapest experience in the world, so I wouldn’t blame you for questioning whether it’s worth it! And it’s a hard question to answer. If we hadn’t seen any whales, I would have been super bummed about spending all that money. And since I’d already seen humpbacks I probably would have been annoyed if we’d only seen more of those as well.

But the orca sighting was really special, and the extensive time spent with the Bryde’s whale was super cool too. So I definitely feel like my specific trip was worth it. In fact, it was the highlight of my time in Costa Rica.

If you aren’t on a tight budget and you’re willing to take the risk, the reward for whale watching can be enormous. You just have to be prepared for disappointment. But that’s nature — there are no guarantees, and the chances go down if you’re not traveling in peak whale watching season in Costa Rica.

Where to stay when whale watching in Costa Rica

A sea turtle sunning itself in the ocean
Okok, one non-whale picture…we saw lots of sea turtles like this guy, sunning themselves.

If you’re traveling on a budget, both Drake Bay and Uvita have great backpacker places to stay.

In Drake Bay, my recommendation is Martina’s Place. This family-run hostel is super-budget friendly — I paid $12 for a private room with shared bath. Facilities are basic but comfortable. The staff is seriously awesome and they can arrange all your activities if you haven’t booked in advance. The only downside is the WiFi isn’t great, but that’s true everywhere in Drake Bay.

If you’re in Uvita, you can’t miss a few nights at Hostel Cascada Verde. This budget jungle lodge has howler monkeys, caimans, locally roasted coffee, tasty breakfasts, a canopy-level lounge area, and the best kitchen facilities you’ll ever find in a hostel. It was my favorite place to stay in Costa Rica.

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Don't miss the chance to go whale watching in Costa Rica! Book a whale watching tour from Uvita or Drake Bay and see humpback whales, orcas, dolphins and more. Whale watching season is from July-September and December-April. #costarica #travel

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