Will tourists scare away Bocas’ dolphins?
September 03, 2012
One by one, boats carrying tourists break the silence in the mangrove-surrounded Dolphin Bay in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province
One by one, boats carrying tourists break the silence in the mangrove-surrounded Dolphin Bay in Panama’s Bocas del Toro province. Some gently coast in; others roar full throttle to the spots where the bottlenose dolphins jump from the water.
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.
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.