History and context
The Dominican Republic (DR), which occupies half of the island of Hispaniola, has the largest whale-watching industry in the Caribbean1,2. Whale watching in the DR was first established in 1985 from the town of Santa Barbara de Samaná (from here on referred to as Samaná). At this time, an expatriate tour operator, began to take mostly foreign tourists out to see the humpback whales that visit Samaná bay between January and March each year to mate, give birth, and nurse their young. Many more tour operators followed, and in a short time Samaná became the a whale-watching hub, both for day tours in Samaná bay, and as a harbor visited by some of the longer live-aboard tours that take visitors out to the offshore marine mammal sanctuaries of Silver Banks (established in 1986) and Navidad Banks (established in 1996). These two sanctuaries, along with the nearshore area of Samaná cover a total area of 25,000 square km and are jointly referred to as the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic (MMSDR).
As of 2008, there were 33 whale-watching companies and 46 permitted vessels1 registered in Samaná, a town of approximately 100,000 permanent inhabitants. By 2012, over 40,000 people engaged in whale watching in the marine mammal sanctuary during the humpback whale breeding season3 with over 90% of all whale-watchers in Samaná being international tourists1.
Live aboard tours to Silver and Navidad Banks, over 100km offshore, are expensive and as of 2008 attracted only an estimated 500 tourists per year1. Tours in Samaná Bay, however, are more accessible, and can fall into one of three categories:
- Tours on small wooden or fiberglass vessels with outboard engines called yolas. At a maximum length of 9 metres, and maximum capacity for 10 passengers, these trips are informal, with no fixed departure times, and no formal guides or interpreters3.
- Marine tours that involve short interactions with whales, and then continue to take tourists to the local resort island of Cayo Levantado for lunch, shopping and beach time. These tours are offered on lanchas (9 -11 m) or barcos (>11m). These operators tend to be licensed, and are often engaged through tour companies or cruise ships as part of pre-packaged tours.
- A dedicated whale watching tour with trained naturalists on board, a strong educational element and interpretation during whale encounters. Currently only one company in Samaná offers this type of tour.
Since 2009 cruise ships have been coming to Samaná as part of wider Caribbean tours. Each ship brings hundreds of tourists, many of whom wish to engage in pre-arranged package tours that include a 2-3 hour boat excursion. This recent development has had an impact on the dynamics of whale watching tours that are offered3.