Isla de la Plata and Whale Watching in Puerto López, Ecuador

Another major item crossed off the bucket list.

And I’m not talking about one written on a piece of paper or saved on a website, nor any type of Christmas resolution. I’m talking about the bucket list that floats around in the back of your head your entire life, the one you throw darts at slowly, hoping and attempting to mark off another huge achievement for yourself. It starts when you’re a kid. Ideas such as ruling a country, traveling, being the fastest runner in the world, becoming an astronaut, a doctor, a secret agent, or a scientist who changes the world with a new discovery.

Unfortunately, I know that for many people, the interval of time between dart throws slowly degrades as they get older and older, eventually flat-lining. Why does this happen? Many reasons: family, relationships, career choices, financial problems, comfort in the familiar, beliefs about your identity, your interests, et cetera. It seems that as you get older, you must fight more and more to keep throwing those darts. I have felt it before and so have you. Though this is true, I have also discovered an amazing phenomena–the more effort you put into ticking off these big items–and actually ticking them off–, the stronger the drive to keep throwing becomes.

As all children growing up, I had big dreams. Some of mine included summiting large mountains, seeing Everest, and going into space. However, when I heard about whale watching in Puerto López, I was reminded that one of those major dreams was to be a marine biologist. When I was a kid, I would be so excited to go to the public library with my mom to check out a new movie or book. One movie I checked out consistently–to the consternation of my mom, the librarian, and other kids who wanted to watch it–was Free Willy. I honestly cannot say how many times I saw this movie but it was a lot.  It cultivated in me a love for sea-life that has apparently never dissipated, even though my life experiences have turned toward other directions.


 

Day 1

Our first day in Puerto López was not incredible as far as our usual adventures go, but it was filled with a lot of surprises, exploration, and animals. After meeting with our AirBNB Host and dropping off our stuff in the apartment, we headed down to the shoreline to investigate the fishing boats as they hauled in their early morning catch. It’s quite hard to miss the them at the southern end of the beach–hundreds of frigate birds circle the air like a tornado above the smaller vessels that come to shore from the seiners and trawlers in the bay.

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Frigate birds and pelicans attacking one of the fishing boats. I included myself in the picture for size reference.

At the morning fish market, directly on the shore, you can find nearly anything fishy to eat–hammerhead shark, red snapper, tuna, manta ray, striped marlin, mackerel, grouper, snook, shrimp, crab, and other small sea-fish. Unfortunately, we were too dazed and confused from our 10-hour bus ride to pull out our cameras and start snapping pictures.

Many of the beach stands process the fish immediately by descaling, filleting, and throwing them on the grill. Most of the fish is prepared for people who are sitting at tables on the tide-line. Others are loaded onto trucks with huge blocks of ice. However, there is always the option of buying a string of fish straight off the boat and taking them home to cook, which was what many families were doing as they haggled with the fishermen and distributors.

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Fishermen loading the fish onto the trucks.

After staring at a dead crab (the size of my chest) hypnotically washing up and down the tide-line for about 10 minutes, we figured it was time to go back to the apartment to get a shower, some needed rest, and have breakfast before exploring more of the beach.

The rest of the day was spent walking along the northern end of the beach. During our tour, we came across a rehabilitation center for marine fauna. Most of the animals that were being cared for were green sea turtles, although there were a couple of other types (I can’t remember the Spanish word) and blue-footed boobies. One of the workers showed us around the center, explaining (in Spanish) about the process of rehabilitation, the center’s mission, and the different problems that are common among the marine fauna. One of the primary missions of the center is to inform children about the importance of marine animals, the human impact on marine life, and how to rehabilitate animals that have been injured. He informed us that the center was one of the few that can be found throughout Ecuador and that marine animals from all over the country are brought there for rehabilitation, though he was one of only three workers that helped run the center. Even though they were affiliated with and receiving funding from the government, they mostly relied on donations to keep the center running.

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The sign for the rehabilitation center on the beach.
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One of the green sea-turtles being cared for at the rehabilitation center. This turtle had an abscess on its neck but it was in its third month of recovery.
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This turtle ate a jellyfish.
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The center also cared for other marine life like blue-footed boobies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Most of the animals suffered from problems related to human impact such as getting caught in or eating plastic, or other pollutants from waste-dumping, or being hit by boat propellers. On the other hand, some problems were related to natural causes which included one turtle eating a jellyfish which had become caught in its esophagus.

After the rehabilitation center, we continued toward the beach’s northern end to see if we could find any small tide-pools with urchins, mollusks, limpets, snails, or other small sea-creatures. We did find a tide pool but it was gigantic, murky, and looked a little unsafe for exploration (broken bottles, waste, and other debris surrounded it) so we moved onto the rocky shoreline at the edge of the beach. We also didn’t find anything interesting here except for small crabs and micromollusks.

 

Day 2

Our second morning was an unknown as we slowly roused ourselves from the deep slumber we had the night before. We had booked a whale watching tour for the middle of the afternoon, but we were unsure about what to do for the first part of the day. Should we explore the southern end of the beach? Should we go to Agua Blanca, a commune that hosts a sulphur lagoon and archaeological sites from the pre-Incan Manteña people? Should we lay in bed and recuperate? Should we go to Los Frailes beach, one of the most pristine and beautiful beaches in Ecuador?

Racked by too many choices, I did the only logical thing and started making a pros and cons list in my head. The weather was too overcast to enjoy the beauty of Los Frailes; we were here and had limited time so there was no use in wasting it by sleeping; the southern end of the beach was close enough that we could explore it anytime and the northern end of the beach didn’t have anything incredibly interesting…so that left visiting Agua Blanca.

While I thought this would be an easy endeavor, it turned out to be a stressful, enlightening, interesting, hurried, frenetic, collaborative, anti-climatic, and enjoyable (after-the-fact) experience. The conjuncture of predicaments started with a taxi negotiation that was hilarious and incogitable–we were first presented with a $25 bill that would have the taxi driver take us to Agua Blanca, leave us there, and return to Agua Blanca after we called for the pick-up.

Instead of taking a taxi, we opted to take the bus. The ride from the terminal was a 15-minute (and $0.50) journey down Highway 15 (Ruta del Sol) which dropped us off at the Machalilla National Park entrance for Agua Blanca. We paid our five dollars each to enter and the attendant informed us about the area, what our tickets paid for, and how to get to Agua Blanca. A five kilometer walk to Agua Blanca confronted us. While pressed for time to make our appointment later in the day, I was determined to get to Agua Blanca, visit, and return to Puerto López with enough time to spare.

As we walked through the entrance to begin our journey, I spotted two buses parked on the side of the road. Hope sprang into my heart. Maybe they will ferry us to Agua Blanca? However, after many attempts to communicate our predicament to the driver of the first bus in my broken Spanish, they refused us entry and told us to walk (Later on, one of these buses would fly by us and I would spot it parked next to the museum when we arrived at Agua Blanca). Undaunted by the prospect, I waved the bus off and we began our walk down the desolate road. Ten minutes into our journey, the second bus pulled up beside us, opened its door, and allowed us to board.

Speeding down the road and nearly fish-tailing around curves, Danielle and I rode in the front cab of the bus chatting with the driver and bus assistant. They were completely amicable and interested in our presence in Ecuador. While my Spanish is nowhere near perfect nor sufficient enough for phatic communication, I was able to limp along and end the conversation in smiles, coupled with no moments of awkwardness or miscommunication. After pulling up to the commune, the door swung open and the two men dropped us off. I proffered a 5 dollar bill which the driver refused, gave me a hug and a huge smile, and sent us on our way.

Moments like these are really why I love to travel. I am constantly reminded by complete strangers that kindness and compassion will usurp selfishness. Though we explored 1,500 year-old archaeological ruins and artifacts, gazed upon a beautiful and endless forest, and inhaled a volcanic hot spring which smelled of rotten eggs, the moment that will stand out most in mind is the simple 15-minute conversation and offer of help that we received that day.

N.B. I would definitely suggest checking out Agua Blanca and everything it has to offer. It is an incredible place that should be given its due period of time (1-day at the very least) for full appreciation. The area of Agua Blanca is full of exotic birds and flora, as well as the remains of the Manteña civilization who ruled the coastal area of Ecuador before the arrival of the Incans, controlling trade routes, fishing industries, and currency production throughout northwestern South America.

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One of the archaeological sites at Agua Blanca in Machalilla National Park. This was one of the main buildings (like a town hall?) that was discovered within the area.
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The sulphur lagoon that gives Agua Blanca its name. The water is heated and fed by a volcanic spring far below. The whole area smells like rotten eggs but you can take a swim or cake mud from the bottom and sides of the lagoon on your body.
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Machalilla National Park as seen from the mirador at Agua Blanca. It is located in Manabí province, includes over 750 square kilometers of land, ocean, and two islands.

Returning to Puerto López was an adventure in-and-of itself. Helping someone with a flat tire, as well as finding a ride back to Puerto López–which included passing around cars on blind curves–were just some of the highlights of our return trip. After grabbing a quick lunch and changing our gear, we headed to the pier and boarded our boat for the 30 kilometer trip to the mating grounds of the humpback whales.

 

We arrived at the boating agency’s office at the pre-determined time, only to be shuffled off quickly with a whale researcher to the boat that was now (apparently) waiting on us to arrive. We pulled off our shoes, threw them into a burlap sack with everyone else’s, and quickly boarded the boat.

After donning some life-vests and getting comfortable in our seats, the motorboat headed west into the Pacific Ocean toward Isla de la Plata. Around the island of ‘La Plata,’ humpback whales migrate from the Bellingshausen Sea, west of the Antartic Peninsula, and head north to the warmer tropical seas of Ecuador to breed. As the boat motored toward the breeding grounds, 8 foot swells sloshed the boat while we rode the crests of each wave, dropping diagonally downwards once the waves passed under us. Watching the horizon line, I contemplated the clouds that covered the sky and the coastline as it wrapped around us to the north. Would we see any whales today? What would they do?

To the west, I saw Isla de la Plata slowly creeping over the horizon. Somewhere up in the sky, the clouds broke and the sun’s rays were able to come through, changing the hue of the ocean from a dark navy to a bright azure. I turned to Danielle, smiled, and gave her a thumbs up. I was starting to get excited. From her seat in the aft part of the boat, just above the outboard motors, Danielle concentrated on not getting sick. While she smiled and returned the thumbs up, I could tell she didn’t feel well, although she hadn’t reached the point of outright seasickness. She was staying together quite well and I was proud (if it hadn’t been for my father, who developed my sea-legs at a young age, I would have already been sending my grilled-cheese sandwich into the Pacific Ocean).

As boredom set in (the trip was approximately an hour and a half to the breeding grounds), I decided to stand up and ride the waves inside the boat using the railing on the roof to keep my balance. As we dipped and rose, I would raise my legs and lower them according to the rhythm of the water. And it was during one of the dips that I spotted the first whale as it rose from the water about a hundred yards from the boat. Just as we sunk with the wave, the whale breached the surface. I hit my head on the roof of the upper-deck when I jumped to try and see above the horizon line but it was too late–we were in the trough of the wave. When we rose up the crest of the next wave, I saw another whale breach, turn, and slam into the surface, splashing water 20 feet into the air. Like a child, I pointed and shouted with glee, “Alla!!” Everyone in the boat snapped to attention and turned their heads toward the direction of my finger. Unfortunately, there was nothing there and I believe there was a moment where everyone thought I was crazy. In the next moment, another whale broke the surface and everyone gasped and the electricity of everyone on the boat became excited.

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My first picture of a humpback whale.

While the boat made its way toward the two whales, the crew invited a few people to the upper-deck of the boat to get a better and less obstructed view of the whales. Danielle jumped at the chance, caught my attention of the offer, and asked me if I wanted to go up.

Of course!

Climbing the ladder to the upper-deck with the captain, we met our friend, Emilio the whale researcher, who was already snapping pictures with his DSLR camera. Later on, he would explain to me how they tracked the whales through photographs–each whale has a distinctive tail shape and identifiers which the researchers compare to a database to track the movements and migration patterns of the whales across the world. He would also go on to explain how incredible was the responsiveness and activity of the whales which persistently gave us a show for about 30 minutes.

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Humpback whales display a range of behavior when interacting with their environment or other species. This whale is breaching.

Eventually, the boat pulled to within 20 to 30 feet of the whales as the captain made every effort to stabilize the boat while following the whales. Constantly circling them, the boat took the waves at multiple angles which caused all sorts of stabilization issues, especially on the upper-deck. Sitting in the middle of the upper-deck, immediately behind the captain’s chair, I had to hold on with one hand while my other hand tried to take pictures and video. Danielle sat on the starboard side of the control station while another young couple sat on the port side.

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A humpback whale ‘spy hopping’ the surface of the water.
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A humpback whale coming to the surface for air, spouting, and diving again.
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For about 5 minutes, both whales were slapping their pectoral fins on the surface of the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was truly unimaginable. At times, I felt I could reach out and give the whales a high-five as they raised their fins in the air. I like to think they were waving to us in the same way that we were waving to them.

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The whales waving to us!

As the two whales breached the surface, turned, and slammed their backs into the mighty Pacific, I thought about how incredible it was to see such a magnificent creature who was probably as curious about me as I was about him/her. How strange it is that as humans we often forget that other animals are as individualistic and ‘human’ as we are. They have personalities, interests, intelligence, and cultivate the arts. They appreciate beauty (as Oscar Wilde defines it) in the same way we do, even if their sensory experiences are not the same as ours. What a private life a humpback whale must live as it swims the ocean alone–what experiences and what sights do these creatures keep to themselves, ones that only they will experience and no one else?

After about 15 minutes of sitting on the upper-deck/bridge, Danielle spun around and looked at me with a terror I will never forget.

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” she said with a hollow look in her eyes and pale face. I quickly notified the crew, helped her move across the deck, and down the ladder to the main deck where everyone else was located. Danielle would later inform me that most of the people on the lower-deck had become sick from the constant rocking of the boat as we floated and battled with the waves.

After the whales sank below the surface and departed, I climbed down the ladder satisfied. What an exhilarating experience! Next time, I will have to swim with them!

On the return trip, as the sun disappeared again and everything turned gray, I reflected on the experience and one of the most profound moments of that experience–one of the whales had jumped out of the water only 20 feet from the boat, rotated clock-wise onto its back, and I had locked eyes with it. How soft, curious, intelligent, and “human” that eye was as it stared back at me…

 

Day Three:

Arising well-rested on the third day, we prepared for our visit to Isla de la Plata. While the trip to the island was similar to the boat journey the day before, the waves were a lot calmer, the boat faster, and the other passengers a lot friendlier. Moreover, there were a couple of foreign tourists–a French marketing designer who lived in Thailand and a couple from Colorado. The marketing designer and I made small talk about each other’s adventures throughout Asia. I told him about our experiences in Myanmar with teaching, civil war, and the unique culture that existed there–how nostalgic I was to talk about Myanmar. He informed me that his girlfriend was from Myanmar and had lived in a small village in Shan state before moving to Thailand. I chuckled in my head, thinking about how large the world is, how distant different cultures, areas, and people are, yet how interconnected these relationships become as Danielle and I travel and meet more people.

Before arriving at Isla de la Plata, the captain went whale-hunting (metaphorically) and we cruised all around the island looking for any whales that were breaching the surface. Many times in the distance we spotted whales spraying water into the air from their blow-holes, but by the time we reached the area, the whales sank beneath the surface ignoring us. However, at one point I and some of the other passengers were allowed to ride on the bow while we cruised after the whales, allowing me the chance to gaze upon the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, uninhibited by other sights.

After an hour of whale-searching, the captain steered the boat toward Isla de la Plata. Pulling into the bay on the western side of the island, we hopped out and made our way ashore. Other than a small, open-air structure on the beach, no other buildings inhabited the island. Isla de la Plata is part of the Machalilla National Park system and one of the most well-protected ecosystems I have ever visited. Only 135 people are allowed to visit the island every day, and other than park signs, a small radio tower, and the building near the beach, no other structures exist on the island. Once everyone had put on their shoes, the guide led us on a 20-minute hike up the central area of the island to a lookout point where all of the trails on the island meet. Waiting for us at the trail-heads, the director of the island sat lounging on one of the benches, taking in the views and greeting people from the different tour groups. Our guide informed us that the director was there to ensure that no one hiked specific trails since, after conducting a thorough investigation of particular areas of the island, he had restricted access to protect the flora and fauna which was being destroyed. It was the first time I had experienced governmental restrictions in another country, not because of religious or safety reasons, but to protect the environment even though it meant a loss of visitors and money. In the face of economic exploitation and pressure from outside forces, the director had made the hard and right decision. One only has to look at the situation in the Galapagos Islands to understand the effects of human impact and destruction on a secluded ecosystem.

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A fishing boat taking a break in the calm waters of Isla de la Plata.

After our group voted on which of the two paths to take, the guide led us along speaking in English and Spanish. His knowledge of the area was extensive and he clearly was invested in the environment–often he showed more concern for our impact on the environment rather than the group’s experience. Even though this was true, he gave us many opportunities to interact closely with the blue-footed boobies and frigate birds that we spotted everywhere as we hiked along the trail. While some of the other visitors expressed their frustration, I was proud of the guide and his ability to balance our experience with the habitat of the island.

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The eastern coast of Isla de la Plata.
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A blue-footed booby up-close-and-personal. Blue footed boobies are only found off the western coasts of the Americas. Males strut their blue feet like a penguin, as well as sky-pointing, to woo the female.
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A frigate bird and her offspring wait in nests that are built on top of the trees rather than within them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, and sea lions all share the island.
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Male frigate birds inflate a scarlet, gular sac underneath its bill to attract female birds for copulation.
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A blue-footed booby protects its young by crouching over the baby as a falcon flies overhead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our third day ended in excellence–after touring the island, the crew took us to see sea-turtles, tropical fish, do some snorkeling, and we even went whale-hunting again. Many of the people on the tour went snorkeling, but Danielle and I opted out–the water was cold and we didn’t have a way to dry off once we were out of the water. While everyone did get to see the whales skimming the surface and breaching in the distance, we didn’t get to see them close-up like Danielle and I had the day before. Once we returned back to our apartment, we packed our stuff, took a taxi to the bus terminal, and waited for our 10-hour trip back to Quito.

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My last picture and last goodbye to Puerto López.

 

 

How to get there:

Our trip started in Quito so if you have questions or comments about how to get to Puerto López from another location in Ecuador or Peru, contact me at johnaustinpierce@gmail.com and I will supply you with the best information I have.

If you are planning to travel to Puerto Lopez by airplane, the closest airport to Puerto Lopez is Eloy Alfaro International Airport in Manta, Ecuador. From Manta, you can take a bus to Puerto Lopez which is only about 2-3 hours.

If you are planning to travel to Puerto Lopez by bus from Quito, the trip is a lot less convenient. However, you will save a lot of money traveling by bus and it is extremely exciting. There are two bus companies that have direct routes to Puerto Lopez: Reina del Camino (~$13) and Carlos Aray (~$12). There are a couple of different times the buses leave, as well as an overnight option. Most bus trips can take anywhere from 10-13 hours so be prepared for a long bus ride. If you take the overnight bus, they usually leave at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. although I have heard that sometimes they leave around midnight.

To check bus times and buy your tickets, you must go to the office located in Quito’s southern international bus station, Quitumbe. If you are traveling on the weekend, it is best to get your tickets a couple of days in advance although I have had many friends who have bought tickets the day they were leaving. However, they bought them early in the morning and waited all day in the terminal until their bus left that night.

To get to Quitumbe from anywhere in Quito, you must take a taxi or find the nearest Ecovía station. Once you find the nearest Ecovía station, wait for the buses marked ‘Quitumbe’ or ‘C-1’ on the placard in the window.

After arriving in Puerto Lopez, there are a couple of options regarding transportation. Most people take the auto-rickshaws (“tuk-tuks”) that are always found zipping around the village. Most charge a base price of $.50 per person unless you are traveling outside of town. If you want to travel out of town anywhere along the coast, north or south on Highway 15, you can take one of the buses located at the Puerto Lopez bus terminal. Once you get to the bus terminal, just ask the bus drivers or a local where the bus goes or tell them where you want to go and they will point you to the correct bus.

Agua Blanca

To get to Agua Blanca, you have two options. You can hire a taxi or auto-rickshaw which will charge you $15-20 to take you there and pick you up when you finish the tour. When we tried hiring a taxi, the man began at $25 but once we started negotiating, he only went down to $20. He wasn’t interested in going any lower than that. Other auto-rickshaws might be willing to take you and pick you up for less but you will have to search and negotiate a long time before you find one.

We decided on taking the Jipijapa bus from the Puerto Lopez terminal to Machalilla’s National Park Entrance for Agua Blanca. The bus ride cost us $.50 per person and we had to wait for the bus to leave at its scheduled time of departure (I think they leave every 30 minutes). The entrance fee to Agua Blanca is $5 but this includes entrance into the park, a museum visit, and a guided tour around Agua Blanca so we thought that was an incredible deal. However, if you take the bus, you must walk from the entrance of the park to Agua Blanca which is approximately 5 km (~1 hour walk). If you are patient and outgoing though, you can wait at the entrance for someone to come through and give you a ride to Agua Blanca. Lastly, if you choose this option, you must find a way back from Agua Blanca to Puerto Lopez. I would suggest waiting for a taxi that is dropping people off or taking one of the buses back to the entrance if it’s a weekend. You can also try to hitch a ride (make sure you offer to pay) with a family or others back to Puerto Lopez.

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