Responsible whale watching with WDC on La Gomera
10 April 2017 - 7:18am
In March, we organized a press trip with the Spanish tourism office to La Gomera, bringing five journalists to this small island for responsible whale watching! The Canary Islands are one of the world’s hotspots for whale and dolphin watching as there have been recorded sightings of 30 different whale and dolphin species – considering that there are about 87 species worldwide this is a huge variety in a very small area!
Some species are resident in the waters off La Gomera all year round, some are seasonal guests. MEER e.V. has been doing research about the species variety for many years and is a long-term partner of WDC. The permanent exhibition “Dolphins and Whales off La Gomera – Biodiversity in a changing World” was inaugurated in 2008 in Valle Gran Rey’s harbour district, Vueltas. Research findings and facts on responsible whale watching can be found there, as well as information about threats for whales and dolphins like ship strikes, underwater noise or pollution. WDC biologist, Fabian Ritter, guided the group through the exhibition and held a presentation afterwards, offering valuable information to the journalists for the next day’s whale watching trip!
At 9am the next morning, we climbed aboard the OCEANO Whale Watching vessel. OCEANO is an operator dedicated to responsible whale watching and evaluating sightings data for MEER e.V. on every tour. The journalists were able to watch the the scientific data gathering during the trip. First, however, we noticed some beer cans in the water close to the harbour. As pollution is a threat for whales and dolphins, my colleague, Ulla, took the cans out with a shrimping net! Sadly, OCEANO regularly has to collect litter spotted in the water during their whale watching trips.
Soon afterwards, we noticed a big group of Cory's shearwater (marine birds) hunting for fish. Big groups of fish also attract dolphins as well, so we had a closer look and were able to watch some spotted dolphins hunting for prey! In terms of responsible whale watching we did not want to disturb their hunting and left to look for some pilot whales. They are deep-sea divers and need at least 500m depth for squid-hunting. Three nautical miles off La Gomera’s shore, the sea gets very deep and pilot whales are common. Unfortunately we didn’t find them but soon after we noticed a big blow! Two big whales were coming to their surface to breathe.
As there were already two other boats close by, we refrained from having a closer look. Whale watching legislation on the Canary Islands allows three boats maximum per marine mammal group, asking one of the three boats to leave soon. Whale watching operators should also abide a 60m distance and only approach whales and dolphins from behind, not cutting off their direction of travel.
This is not always as easy as it sounds – we were able to experience this for ourselves shortly afterwards, when we met a big group of spotted dolphins. They were riding our bow wave and appeared to be really enjoying themselves a lot! Spotted dolphins interact regularly with boats and are well known for their playful behaviour. We turned off the motor and had a closer look. Their greyish skin has many small dots, which accounts for their name (spotted dolphins). The older they get, the more dots appear on their skin. Babies and youngsters do not have as many dots, so you can guess at least their approximate their age!
Spotted dolphins live in big groups. We had to estimate how many dolphins were in the vicinity for our data collection. The rule of thumb states that one third of the group is visible at the surface, whilst two-thirds are hidden underwater. My colleague, Ulla, took an underwater video with her camera from the boat, which yielded some stunning footage – so many dolphins below the surface!
Our biologist, Fabian Ritter, filled in the sheet, which contains GPS data, and information on species and number of dolphins, as well as other important information which is later added to a database. OCEANO fills in similar sheets every day, which assures year-round data collection. If you take a whale watching tour with a responsible operator, you will find an expert on board who is able to provide information on the sightings and will probably also collect sightings data.
Our whale watching trip was a big success. Everyone was happy about the amazing dolphin encounter! The WDC team also enjoyed seeing our vision put into practice in this region at least - a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free!