Will tourists scare away Bocas’ dolphins?
Sunday, September 09 2012 @ 08:17 pm EDT
Contributed by: Don Winner
As the boats come and go, Shakira Quinones hunches over a laptop, intently grips her headphones and listens to the dolphin chatter increase. “It’s like being in a nightclub,” the University of Puerto Rico graduate student says of the effect of underwater boat noise. “You try calling the attention of a friend on the other side but the person doesn’t hear you. You have to repeat yourself.”
Part of a team studying the bottlenose dolphins of Bocas del Toro, Shakira is working to understand the impact tourism is having on dolphins. At first glance, it might not seem that dolphins are at risk. Famously curious and sociable, bottlenose dolphins often appear as enthusiastic about showing off as the tourists are to watch them. Playful juveniles will sometimes swim behind circling boats and breach along the bow waves as onlookers cheer.
But boat noise “can potentially act like any other pollutant in rendering habitats unsuitable for dolphins,” says Laura May-Collado, a George Mason University professor who has led research on dolphins at Bocas since 2004. Building on that research, Shakira, who is focusing on dolphin groups with calves, hopes to determine how interactions with dolphin-watching boats affect the communication and behavior of bottlenose dolphins.
Isolated population? - During one low-season day, the research team documented 37 boats during a two-hour span, pointing to an uptick in the number of dolphin watchers. Visitors are virtually guaranteed to see dolphins on any trip to Dolphin Bay but that might be changing. “The dolphins used to be easier to find,” says Dalia Barragan, a graduate student at Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes. “They weren’t so evasive.”
Using a specially outfitted rifle, Dalia has taken skin samples from Bocas dolphins to determine the population’s genetic makeup. The goal is to determine if transient dolphins mix with the Bocas population and contribute to local reproduction. “If that turns out not to be the case, then a very strong management plan will need to be put into place or the dolphins could be finished,” she says.
Editor's Comment: To read more about the work being done by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, visit their website at http://www.stri.si.edu/index.php. I just spent a few days in Bocas a couple of weeks ago, and while there we considered taking this tour to Dolphin Bay. Before going, we asked another couple who had gone the day before it it was worth the trip. They said no, because there was only about five dolphins there, and "it wasn't dolphin watching, it was dolphin chasing." They said the boat operators would aggressively drive around to try to get the best view for "their" customers, who had paid a lot of money to see a friggin' dolphin. They got too close to the dolphins, there was no oversight or regulation, and basically they said it was not a good situation overall. So, we skipped it. I'm glad we did. Yesterday we went on a whale watching trip to Contadora and we saw literally hundreds of dolphins, we were the only boat there, and we were not chasing them, they were chasing us. We left that area convinced we had zero negative impact on the dolphins. Maybe they could institute some sort of controls or limits in Bocas del Toro to protect both the tourism industry and the dolphins themselves. Like maybe a reservation system with a limited number of spots in the boats. Or maybe bigger boats with more butts per boat. Or maybe clearly defined windows of operation? I don't know, I'm sure there are experts on this sort of stuff...