Everyone loves dolphins, right? These social animals have been known to save beached whales, become lifelong friends with one another and play with human swimmers. But dolphin watching tours are harming the Bottlenose population in Bocas del Toro…
Whilst we were in Bocas del Toro, Charlie and I went on a dolphin watching tour and it was all my fault. After two days of working from the decking of our wonderful hostel, a crafty local tour guide named Alexander managed to sell us a trip. He was offering a boat tour for $15, down $10 on the original asking price and would take us to a number of interesting points in the archipelago, including Dolphin Bay.
Charlie was immediately suspicious. “Will we get close to the dolphins?” she asked.
“Yes – I mean, no, no,” he said, sensing her hostility, “close enough to watch, but safe for the dolphins, and it’s very quiet…” This should have given the game away, but it was at this point that I stepped in, unhelpfully. “I’m sure that we probably won’t even see any dolphins, and if we do, it won’t hurt them if we are far enough away.” Reluctantly, Charlie accepted, money changed hands and the tour was booked.
This turned out to be a mistake. I’ve been to plenty of “Dolphin Bays” and “Shark Points” in my time and none of them ever actually had dolphins, sharks, or anything else much, leaving me skeptical of this kind of name. Dolphin Bay usually means “my grandad saw a dolphin here once thirty years ago” or “if you squint, that rock over there looks kind of like a flipper.” But this time it was different and that’s why you should always do your own research when it comes to wildlife tours. Dolphin Bay is home to a population of around 200 Bottlenose dolphins and tourists visiting by the boatload are all but guaranteed to see these amazing animals on any given day of the year. But should they?
How Dolphin Watching Tours Hurt Dolphins
According to recent studies, the rise in “eco” dolphin and whale watching tours is having a negative impact on the population of these marine mammals at a time when many are already on the brink of extinction. There are a whole lot of different types of “dolphin watching tours” ranging from those that keep a respectful distance and those that blatantly cause harm to the animals, by purposefully creating waves that they have to jump, for instance. Those leaving from Bocas have been known to fall into the latter category.
Dolphins are Killed by Motorboats Every Year
Every day of the year, five or more boats patrol Dolphin Bay simultaneously. When someone inevitably spots a dolphin, everyone guns their motors towards it, creating a halfmoon fleet that all but encircles the animals. The most immediate danger is collision. Estimates vary at the number of dolphins killed by motor boats each year, some sources say three, some sources say between eight and ten. With so many boatfuls of dolphin-happy tourists jostling for a good view, fatal accidents happen with alarming frequency.
Dolphins are Driven From Their Feeding Grounds
Dolphins are large mammals and they need to spend a fair amount of time hunting for fish in order to stay healthy. However, when tourist boats arrive in convoys of as many as 39, the dolphins expend a huge amount of energy trying to distance themselves from them. Scientists suggest that the amount of boats pursuing them is causing the Bottlenose dolphins to spend more time diving down deep away from the boats and less time foraging and socialising. By the time the boats have left them alone, the dolphins may be too exhausted to even feed themselves properly.
Panamanian regulations state that no more than two boats should approach dolphins, that they should maintain a distance of 300m, as well as allow dolphins to rest for 30 minutes between each interaction. However, these rules are neither being followed nor enforced.
An Eco-Tourist’s Dilemma
All these factors add up to a real dilemma for tourists. On the one hand, it could be argued that it’s better to watch them in the wild than to see them in captivity performing at water “shows.” On the other hand, we can all agree that harming an animal just so that we can watch it is cruel, especially with highly intelligent and social creatures such as dolphins.
There are ways that dolphin watching tours can have less impact. If companies agree to keep a safe distance from the animals, cut their engines when possible in dolphin territory and observe times and areas that they will not intrude on, then it’s possible that we could watch these animals, from a distance, without harming them. However, unless tourists start insisting on these terms, the companies have little reason to risk profits by instigating changes themselves.
If you really care about dolphins and don’t want to cause unnecessary harm to animals, there are several things that you can do to help. Firstly, if you are in Bocas del Toro, you can avoid boat tours that stop in Dolphin Bay. There are plenty of other tours to interesting islands and if you are lucky you might see a happier dolphin in a less harmful position.
Secondly, you can do what I didn’t and always do your research before agreeing to an animal tour. Don’t take a salesman at their word, look for independent reviews and scientific studies before handing your money to someone who may not have the animal’s best interests at heart. Share what you find out with your friends and on social media, so that they might make a more informed decision too.
I’ve seen dolphins on three occasions in Bocas del Toro. Once on a tour, once whilst taking a boat to a beach, and once in the early hours of morning from the land, from Al Natural nature resort. The third occasion was far and away the best experience. With no one close enough to pressure them, I got to see them play and socialise in a completely natural way for the best part of an hour. Yes they were further away, but I think that all of us would rather see a happy dolphin from a distance than a fearful one up close.
I think that this is a difficult issue, so I would like to hear your thoughts and suggestions! Our treatment of intelligent marine animals needs to get a lot better and hopefully after the controversy at this year’s TBEX we can start to agree on some real improvements.
If you would like to read more about the issues surrounding tourism activities that can negatively affect marine wildlife, I recommend heading over to Right Tourism.