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Chile

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Chile’s extensive Pacific coastline, stretching over 4,000km and featuring some truly remote and unspoiled scenery, provides a spectacular backdrop to whale and dolphin watching. The Humboldt Current Marine Ecosystem, which causes upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water, provides the basis for a rich and diverse array of whale and dolphin species from the country’s northern border down to Chilean Patagonia. The coastline from Patagonia down toward Chiles’s sub-polar southern tip is characterised by a network of islands, fjords and channels fed by freshwater flowing from the Andes. These rich and diverse habitats allow Chile to host nearly 40% of the world’s whale and dolphin species in its waters. A number of baleen whale species can be observed close to shore as they migrate between warmer breeding grounds to the north and rich Antarctic feeding grounds. The country’s waters also host resident populations of dolphins, including Peale’s and Commerson’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Burmeister’s porpoises and endemic Chilean dolphins. Commercial whale watching was launched in the 1990s and has become increasingly popular over time1.

Target species, peak times of year and locations

Most whale watching in Chile takes place during the Austral summer months between December and March or April, although in Arica, Chile’s northernmost whale watching location, tours are possible year-round.

Trips leaving from La Serena or Chañaral de Aceituno, on the Atacama desert coast, often combine desert wildlife viewing with penguin, whale and dolphin watching trips. Boat trips leaving from Punta Choros visit the Damas and Choros Islands, while those leaving from Chañaral de Aceituno visit Chañaral Island. Here it is possible to see fin whales and bottlenose dolphins almost year-round, while Risso’s dolphins and humpback and blue whales are more likely to be encountered between December and March.

Another well-known whale watching area is the Chiloé Archipelago. The islands in the archipelago provide some good opportunities for shore-based whale watching, with boat-based trips around Puñihuil, as well as Melinka Island, where the Gulf of Corcovado provides some of the best opportunities to observe blue whales anywhere in the world.

Further south, day trips leaving from Punta Arenas can take tourists into the Francisco Colaone Marine Park to see a number of dolphin species, as well as humpback whales, in the area’s vast network of channels and fjords. Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of Chile, is also the launching point for many live-aboard cruises into the Magellan Straits and to the Antarctic, where a number of whale species can be observed on their feeding grounds during the Austral summer (see the case study on the Antarctic for more details).

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Species

Towns or harbours

Platform (motorised boat, swim-with, aerial)

Peak time of year to observe

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus)

Isla Choros-Damas & Isla Chañaral, Puñihuil ( Chiloé)/ Melinka, Gulf of Corcovado, Moraleda Channel Refugio Island (Patagonian channels)

Motorised boat

Land-based

December to April

Fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus)

Choros-Damas & Isla Chañaral

Motorised boat

December to April

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Isla Choros-Damas & Isla Chañaral, Melinka, Gulf of Corcovado, Moraleda Channel Refugio Island (Patagonian channels) Strait of Magellan/ Punta Arenas

Motorised boat

Land-based

December to April

Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis)

Strait of Magellan/ Punta Arenas

 

Land-based platforms

December to April

Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus)

Arica

Motorised boat

year-round

Killer whales (Orcinus Orca)

Chiloé/Patagonian channels, Strait of Magellan/ Punta Arenas

Motorised boat

Kayak

 year-round

Pilot whales (Globicephala melas)

Arica

Motorised boat

 year-round

Common Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)

Arica

Isla Choros-Damas & Isla Chañaral

Motorised boat

 year-round

Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus)

Arica

Isla Choros-Damas & Isla Chañaral, Chiloé/Patagonian channels

Motorised boat

 year-round

Short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis)

Arica

Motorised boat

 year-round

Chilean dolphins (Cephalorhynchus

Eutropia)

Constitución coast,  Chiloé/Patagonian channels, Strait of Magellan/ Punta Arenas

Motorised boat

 year-round

Southern right whale dolphins (Lissodelphis peronii)

Isla Choros-Damas & Isla Chañaral, Chiloé/Patagonian channels

Motorised boat

 

 year-round

Peale's dolphins (Lagenorhynchus australis)

Chiloé/Patagonian channels, Strait of Magellan/ Punta Arenas

Motorised boat

 year-round

Commerson's dolphins (Cephalorhynchus commersonii)

Chiloé/Patagonian channels, Strait of Magellan/ Punta Arenas

Motorised boat

 year-round

 

Additional information about whale watching opportunities in Chile can be found on the following website:

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Chile’s national whale watching regulations were established in 2011 by the Tourism Division of the Ministry of Economy. The regulations stipulate some of the following points:

  • All marine wildlife tourism activities must comply with the safety standards set forth by the Maritime authorities;
  • Single-user motorised vehicles, like jet skis, are prohibited from use as whale or dolphin-watching platforms;
  • Whale watch operators are prohibited from feeding animals or forcing/enticing physical contact with whales or dolphins;
  • Operators are prohibited from generating loud noises to attract, harass, or elicit a reaction from animals;
  • Vessels must maintain a minimum distance of 100m from large whales, and 50m from small cetaceans (both of which are clearly defined in the legislation), with the exception of blue whales, from which a 300m minimum distance should be maintained, and southern right whales, which should only be observed from land-based platforms;
  • Vessels should maintain a steady speed and avoid sudden changes in speed or direction while in the presence of whales or dolphins, and when stopped, should keep the motor running in neutral;
  • Vessels should approach whales or dolphins from behind and to the side, moving parallel to the direction that animals are traveling;
  • In case of any behaviour change that indicates the animals are disturbed, the vessel should retreat to a minimum distance of 200m for large whales and 100m from small cetaceans, moving slowly and carefully to minimise further disturbance;
  • Whale watching operators and guides are obligated to report all whale and dolphin sightings to the Directorate of Marine Territories (DIRECTEMAR), who will maintain a database of cetacean sightings. 

These regulations are explained in an illustrated best practice manual produced jointly by WWF Chile and the Blue Whale Centre (Centro Ballena Azul). This manual is available in Spanish here.

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Research on whale watching in Chile has been limited to date. In 2007, research conducted from a land-based station used a theodolite to track common bottlenose dolphin movement and behaviour in the presence of whale watching vessels for comparison to their behaviour when no vessels were present. The study determined that dolphins were more likely to engage in higher energy behaviours (e.g. jumping, fast-swimming) in the presence of boats, and that this might ultimately have a negative impact on their energy budgets and long-term fitness. This effect was strongest when multiple boats were present, and when vessels stayed with the dolphins for extended periods2. Another study conducted in Yaldad Bay, southern Chile, also determined that boat presence correlated with faster swimming speeds in a population of Chilean dolphins3.

A 2010 review of tourism opportunities in the  Chiloé coastal region concluded that the area, and the Gulf of Corcovado in particular, had incredible potential for further development as a world-class whale watching destination. However, the review recognised that most whale watching offered at the time was run by local (fishing) communities, which was good for local income and community development, but also required further investment and development to attain international standards of sustainability, safety and comfort/service4. The review recommends conducting market-based research to ensure that the industry is able to attract clientele, and that the development of the industry is carefully managed using science to inform adaptive management and ensure that target whale and dolphin populations are not negatively affected4.

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References

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  1. Hoyt, E. & Iñíguez, M. The state of whale watching in Latin America. 60 (Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, IFAW, Global Ocean, Chippenham, UK, 2008).
  2. Yazdi, P. Impact of tour boats on the behaviour and energetics of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) off Choros Island, Chile (International Whaling Commission, 2007).
  3. Ribeiro, S., Viddi, F. & Freitas, T. Behavioural responses of Chilean dolphins (Cephalorhynchus eutropia) to boats in Yaldad Bay, Southern Chile. Aquatic Mammals 31, 234-242, doi:10.1578/AM.31.2.2005.234 (2005).
  4. Catalan, C. G., Hucke-Gaete, R. & Troemel, J. R. Whale-watching opportunities in northern Patagonia, Chile. Pacific News 35, 23-27 (2011).

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