our present focus is the archipelago of Bocas del Toro
A high demand for dolphin watching in Bocas del Toro has resulted in several dolphin watching boats (~206 boats) engaged in prolonged, close, and aggressive encounters. These activities have affected the behavior and communication of the local dolphin population through: a) Multiple boats approaching a single dolphin group (up to 25 boats have been observed at one time). b) Close approaches to groups Independently of the presence/absence of calves. c) Changes in speed during the encounter and aggressive approaches that disrupt dolphin activities and separate members in a group. (Last year three collisions between boats and dolphins were reported and possibly are associated to this type of aggressive approach). d) Exposure to intense engine noise from multiple boats (all operators offer dolphin-watching tours within the same time period).
This situation could be improved by increased awareness of the legislation as well as through hands-on training programs for operators. The population of dolphins in Bocas del Toro is small (est. 100-150 individuals) and at least half of the population shows high site fidelity to Bocas Torito (Dolphin bay) where dolphin watching activities are concentrated (SC/64/WW2). Small, resident dolphin populations have been shown to be more vulnerable to intense watching activity because of their high site fidelity and strategies to avoid contact with boats. An increase in avoidance behaviors may reduce time spent in important activities such as foraging and resting possibly hindering their survival and fitness. This is of particular concern for groups with calves that are learning survival skills and are in need of constant nourishment.
Results based on: May-Collado, L.J. et al. 2013. Conservation Status of the Dolphins of Bocas del Toro. Panacetacea Public Report. May-Collado, L. J., Barragán-Barrera, D. C., Quiñones-Lebrón, S. G., & W. Aquino-Reynoso. 2012. Dolphin watching boats impact on habitat use and communication of bottlenose dolphins in Bocas del Toro, Panama during 2004, 2006-2010. Report to International Whaling Commission. Document SC/64/WW2. May-Collado, L. J. and D. Wartzok. 2008. A comparison of bottlenose dolphin whistle in the Western Atlantic Ocean: insights on factors promoting whistle variation. Journal of Mammalogy. 89:205-216.
How to do a high quality whale (dolphin) watching? Follow the following Panamanian conduct regulation:
Based on Law 13, 2005, Panama established resolution ADM/ARAP No. 01 in 29-1-2007 to regulate whale-watching activities and conserve cetacean populations. This resolution applies to all whale watching activities (scientific, commercial, educational). For commercial whale watching operators, the resolution specifies the presence of trained and certified guides that can provide information about the biology of the animals as well as instructions about the activity and its risks. Conduct guidelines for commercial whale watching boats include:
a) The number of boats allowed to follow cetaceans simultaneously (2). b) Boats have to maintain a 200m distance from each other and 100 m. from the target cetacean(s). c) In coming boats have to wait 30min after the previous one has left to approach cetaceans. d) Commercial whale watching boats should remain 300 m away from research boats. e) Boat should keep a distance of >100 m from dolphins and >250m from whales. Note: The distance for research boats is variable depending on the study. f) Speed of approach should be 7km/h. When following the target species, boats should not move faster than the slowest swimming cetacean. g) Approach and depart from a direction that is parallel and slightly to the rear of the cetacean. h) Avoid sudden or repeated changes in speed during the encounter. i) During encounters the engine should be kept in neutral when animals are within a 250 m radius. j) Encounter time cannot be more than 30 min, and 15 min for groups with mothers and calves. Note: this time varies for scientific projects. k) The disruption of behavior and any kind of harassment of cetaceans is prohibited. When animals show signs of disturbance, the boat should leave the area at a speed no greater than 7km/h. l) Failure to comply to this resolution will result in sanctions (Chapter VII, ADM/ARAP No. 01) Swimming with cetaceans is not allowed in Panama
Recommendations to reduce the impact
As all dolphin tours at Bocas del Toro occur during the same period of time, high traffic and competition among boat captains significantly reduces compliance of the resolution and undermines the goal of dolphin watching as a strategy to conserve these animals. Following are some suggestions that may help to improve the quality of dolphin watching in Bocas del Toro:
a.) Diversify tours by offering schedules that reduce the impact of multiple boats within the bay. b.) Create certification courses and workshops that properly train dolphin-watching operators. c.) Establishment an information center that enhances the recreational and educational experience of the tourists. The center also can work as a control center of boats allow at any given time within the bay. d.) Involvement of the scientific community in the educational process of the dolphin watching operators. e.) Encourage coordination between scientists and dolphin watching operators for opportunistic scientific data collection. f.) Request the Panamanian authorities to urgently implement ADM/ARAP No. 01 to protect this small population of Bottlenose dolphins.