Wildlife watching experiences are top on the list of things to pursue for many who travel the world. Sadly, a lot of land and marine wildlife is threatened by human activities. Whether it's spotting a tiger, an elephant or whales & dolphins, it's important to know a few things beforehand so that you can do so with a minimal impact and make the experience enjoyable for all.
Dolphins and whales, those mystical mammals of the sea - definitely are a sight to see. The word 'dolphin' comes from the Greek word 'delphis'. In Ancient Greece, dolphins were so revered that killing them was considered murder and apparently punishable by death. These large social animals have indeed fascinated many.
I guess many people are now aware that going to see dolphins and whales forced to perform tricks while being kept captive in a tank (e.g. in Seaworld) is not much fun for the animals themselves. It is known that whales in captivity have a shorter life expectancy and almost 3 times higher mortality rates than those in the wild. Many of us may remember Free Willy from our childhood. How happy were we when Willy the captive orca was released to the ocean? All of these beings deserve to live freely in their own home – the open ocean; they are not here for our entertainment. Going dolphin watching is one of the ethical ways you can see and spend time with these creatures. Below are some ways to ensure that your tour is really ethical. Make sure that it meets the following requirements:
· Certified tour operator
One of the first things is to find a tour guide or operator that is certified to carry out the whale and dolphin watching tour in the area. That way you can avoid the Illegal ones that add to problems and may disturb local wildlife for profit. As tourists we must be careful of this. A certified operator usually has a symbol on their boats and a legit website showing the credentials. Once you find such it is pretty much guaranteed the next steps will be followed.
· Boat engines are turned off or lowered when near
Dolphins are known to be extremely intelligent and sophisticated animals. They have sensitive hearing and echolocation skills. Loud sounds and boat engines might be unpleasant for them and they might swim away if they find the sound disturbing to their senses. The tour boats are generally small in size and guidelines recommend slowing down and not coming within 50m of whales. A good tour operator is aware of this.
· They do not feed the animals
Having minimal interference with marine life also means not affecting their feeding schedules and creating unnatural habits by feeding them yourself. A responsible tour operator does not feed or try to lure the dolphins with any feed. The animals will come to you at their own will. It so happens that dolphins like to swim by the bow of the boat. So if you're lucky they will come close!
· No forced interaction with the animals
It's good to remember that for this practice to be ethical, we do not force interaction with any of the animals. We remain passive and the dolphins come to us if they are comfortable. And they most often will as long as we don't do anything to scare them away. Ethical dolphin watching tours usually don't allow people to touch or swim with the dolphins. Some tours may include diving and swimming along with the marine animals but again, this should not be forced.
· They are careful not to trash
It wouldn't be very appropriate for your tour operator to trash the ocean, the home of dolphins, or allow people to do so. Even if you are carrying plastic bags or food packages on board, it is disposed off appropriately. A responsible operator cares for the ocean. In our case, the guides also picked out some floating trash from the water.
It's a plus if your operator and guides are knowledgeable and caring about the conservation of marine life. Whale and dolphin watching tours may also be carried out by research scientists and volunteers and these are trustworthy. It helps if you have some knowledge about the dolphin or whale species in the area beforehand. There are plenty of resources you could refer to online.
Note that your tour operator cannot guarantee that you will see any dolphins or whales. It depends on several things like the timing, season, location and duration of the trip. That's why it's good to choose an ethical dolphin watching tour where you can relax on board and wait for the animals to show up rather than a tour that makes false promises while disturbing marine life.
Our dolphin watching experience in Spring 2020 in the Canary Islands fulfilled all the requirements and we were very content with the experience. The trip was done by a licensed 'Blue Boat' operator. We spent a good 3-4 hours out at sea between the islands of Fuerteventura and Lobos where several pods of dolphin usually hang out. We didn't see anything for the first hour or so but when the boat slowed down and we remained calm, the first fins surfaced!
After that it was simply an amazing time observing different pods of dolphins swim together and swim right under the bow. I was able to also take these amazing photos that I can share with you! Dolphins are very photogenic. We saw at least three different species: the Common Atlantic dolphin (Delphinus delphis), the Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) as well as a Risso's dolphin (Grampus griseus) - the one with white markings. Sadly we didn't see any whale species, but that's alright, we were overjoyed with seeing so many dolphins!
Recommended tour operators in Europe: Canco, The Atlantic Whale and Dolphin Foundation.
Book a Wildlife Watching tour in Tenerife, Canary Islands.
More resources and information about marine life can be found on the WDC (Whale and Dolphin conservation). If you can't go on a tour anytime soon, watch some documentaries at home! 'Blackfish' shows the story of captive orcas, 'The Cove' is another film that exposes cruel acts that still take place against wild dolphins. Ocean Warriors, Let Us be Heroes tells us in general about saving the oceans and planet and also about the work of Sea Shepherd. Or read books about dolphins, I can suggest Voices of the Ocean by Susan Casey.
I recommend ethical dolphin and whale watching to anyone who would like to catch sight of these creatures. The experience is unique and powerful and it stays with you for a while. The ocean is a world in itself and we must know our boundaries. Choose your wildlife watching tours wisely!