Melissa Pelaez was visiting Panama to do research on yellowfin tuna for her master's degree in aquaculture, the cultivation or farming of fish. One fine morning she and her University of Miami classmates set out from the Achotines Laboratory to catch adult tuna, which they planned to bring back to the station from the Pacific Ocean to breed.
But the fish weren't biting very well that morning, July 13, and after several hours Pelaez had caught only two bonitos, unappetizing baitfish. She was discouraged, hungry and lost in thought when she heard the ship's captain yell "¡Ballena!," Spanish for "whale." Far to her left there were splashes of water … and two humpback whales.
"I jumped to my feet, fumbling for my camera, with a burst of excitement replacing the hunger I had just felt," she wrote in a post about her trip.
Even though it was time to return to shore, the group followed the whales and eventually drew near. The whales began to surface and one of them suddenly leapt out of the water, or breached, which Pelaez managed to capture with her camera. It was the first time she'd ever seen whales of any kind in the wild, she later told OurAmazingPlanet.
"I had hoped to see dolphins at some point during the morning, but a whale – especially two humpback whales – was more than a privilege, it was a blessing from the sea," she said.
Pelaez plans to use her degree to go into aquaculture production and raise saltwater fish for food.
Populations of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were seriously depleted by commercial whaling but have been protected in most areas for the last 50 years, and most populations are growing.