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Costa Rica

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Extent of whale and dolphin watching

With coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world with more marine territory (574,725 Km2) than terrestrial area (51,100 Km2). While the Pacific coast is characterized by several gulfs (like Papagayo, Nicoya, Dulce), bays and peninsulas (Santa Elena, Nicoya and Osa), the Caribbean coast is more uniform.

As many as 34 species of whales and dolphins and whales have been reported in Costa Rica’s waters1-3, supporting a recent rise in commercial watching activities since they first started in the early 1990s4-6.  Every year the coastal Pacific waters of Costa Rica host two different humpback whale populations from Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  However, other species, such as the common bottlenose dolphin and pan-tropical spotted dolphins can also be viewed during whale or dolphin watching tours, which are predominantly boat-based in Costa Rica.

Target species, peak times of year and locations

Whale watching activities along the Pacific coastline are focused on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Whale watching originally developed in the Pacific coastal communities in the South of the country (Dominical, Uvita, Drake Bay, Caño Island, Golfo Dulce). However, in recent years, commercial whale watching has been extended to central coastal communities (Manuel Antonio, Quepos, Jaco, Montezuma, Curu, Tambor, Tortuga Island, parts of the Nicoya Gulf, etc.) as well as a few in the north (Cuajiniquil, Gulf of Papagayo, Tamarindo, El Coco, Sámara, etc.). During the Northern Hemisphere winter (December to March), humpback whales that feed on the Northwest coast of the United States migrate to Costa Rica’s tropical waters to mate, give birth, and nurse their young. Meanwhile, from July to mid-November, humpback whales that feed in the Antarctic Peninsula and southern Chile make the species’ longest recorded migration to breed in Costa Rica’s warm waters. Each year in September, the community of Bahía Ballena organizes a whale festival, during which the price of tours is reduced and many boat owners that do not normally offer commercial tours engage in whale watching activities.

Common targets for dolphin watching activities along the Pacific coast are the Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata) which are both found in coastal and oceanic waters year around.  Various sites on the Pacific coast also yield more opportunistic encounters with False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens), Rough-toothed Dolphins (Steno bredanensis), Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) and Bryde’s Whales (Balaenoptera edeni). Spinner Dolphins (Stenella longirostris) and Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) are sighted in offshore waters of Osa and Nicoya Peninsula.

On the Caribbean coast, bottlenose dolphins are easily observed along the entire coastline. A small isolated resident population of Guiana Dolphins (Sotalia guianensis) is present in the coastal waters near the southern town of Gandoca-Manzanillo, the only location in the country where this species can be reliably observed. False Killer Whales (Pseudorca crassidens) and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (Stenella frontalis) are also sometimes observed opportunistically in Caribbean coastal locations. 

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Species

County/region

Towns or harbours

Platform (motorized boat, swim-with, aerial)

Peak time of year to observe

Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni)

Southern Pacific

Bahía Ballena, Uvita, Sierpe, Drake Bay

Motorized boat

Variable

Humpback whales

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Pacific coastlines

Bahía Ballena, Drake Bay, El Coco, Golfito, Port Jiménez, Gulf of Nicoya, Quepos, Sámara and Sierpe. Dulce Gulf,  Sierpe, Puntarenas, Tambor, Cuajiniquil, Gulf of Papagayo

Catamaran, Motorized boat

December-March/July-mid-November

Common Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)

Pacific and Caribbean coastlines

Dulce Gulf, Sierpe, Quepos, Gulf of Papagayo,  Gandoca, Bahía Ballena, Drake Bay, El Coco, Golfito, Gulf of Nicoya, Port Jiménez, Quepos, Sámara and Sierpe in the Pacific.  Gandoca and Manzanillo in the Caribbean

Catamaran, Motorized boat

Year Round

Pantropical Spotted Dolphins (Stenella attenuata)

Pacific coastlines and Caribbean

Dulce Gulf, Sierpe, Quepos, Papagayo Gulf, Bahía Ballena, Drake Bay, El Coco, Golfito, Port Jiménez, Puntarenas, Quepos, and Sámara and in the Pacific. 

 

Limón, Moín, Gandoca and Manzanillo in the Caribbean

Motorized boat

Year Round

Spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris)

Southern Pacific

Uvita, Sierpe, Drake

Motorized boat

Year Round

Rough-toothed Dolphin (Steno bredanensis)

Pacific coastlines and Caribbean

Caño Island, Quepos on the Pacific and Limón and Moin in the Caribbean

Motorized boat

Occassional in coastal areas

Killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Pacific coastlines and Caribbean coastline

Caño Island, Bahía Ballena, Drake Bay and Dulce Gulf in the Pacific. Gandoca and Manzanillo in the Caribbean

Motorized boat

Uncommon and variable

Guiana Dolphins (Sotalia guianensis)

South Caribbean coastline

Manzanillo, Punta Mona, Gandoca, Sixaola

Motorized boat

Year Round

 Additional information about whale and dolphin watching in Costa Rica can be found on the GoVisitCostaRica website and on the government conservation areas website website.

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Regulations and guidelines

 The first regulation in Costa Rica for whale and dolphin watching activities was established in 2005 (DE-32495, which is a section of the Fisheries law (N° 8436). These regulations were implemented following the first evaluations of the impacts of whale and dolphin watching in Costa Rica (see below).

The regulations stipulate that whales and dolphins should be approached at low speeds, from behind and at an angle of 45° and parallel to the direction of movement of the individual or group of whales/dolphins. The minimum approach distance for dolphins is 50m, and 100m for whales. The observation time should not exceed 30 minutes. A total of two boats are allowed to observe a group at the same time. In the context of tourism, feeding, swimming and diving with dolphins and whales is strictly prohibited in Costa Rica’s coastal waters. More details about safety requirements in vessels, research and filming permission, can be found in the regulations themselves by following this link

Since 2006 several non-governmental environmental organizations formed the ¨Coalición Costarricense por las Ballenas¨ or Costa Rican Coalition for Whales. They offer presentations and workshops to raise awareness among tour operators and the general public in order to promote more responsible whale watching. Participating NGOs’ training for whale watching guides and captains includes elements of quality, safety and education for passengers. For example, in the community of Uvita in Osa, the NGO, Fundacion Keto is implementing a programme to promote good practice in marine tourism (called Sea Star System). Likewise, Fundación Promar has developed a model for Sustainable Marine Tourism with training for operators to promote responsible whale watching and diving/snorkeling and mangrove tours.  The Asociación Ambiental Vida promotes educational activities for local children focusing on conservation of dolphins and whales.  

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Research on whale watching in Costa Rica

Few studies have focused on the impacts of whale watching activities in Costa Rica, apart from that upon which the 2005 regulations were based.  A study in Drake Bay and Caño Island found that pan-tropical spotted dolphins demonstrated potentially negative reactions, like behaviour changes, increased diving intervals and evasiveness when regulations were not followed by the captains5. Another study included recommendations to improve the whale watching regulations6,7.   

Research that is currently underway, but not yet published, includes a community participatory project with whale watching operators in Osa on the Pacific coast, and an acoustic monitoring project in a humpback whale watching area involving NGO and university collaboration (May-Collado pers. Comm.) 

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References

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  1. Rodríguez-Fonseca, J and A. Fischel-Quirós. 2007. Impacto socioeconómico del Turismo de Observación de Cetáceos en Costa Rica. Informe Técnico FP-04-07. PROMAR/WSPA, San José, Costa Rica. 37 p.
  2. May-Collado, L., Gerrodette, T., Calambokidis, J., Rasmussen, K. & Sereg, I. Patterns of cetacean sighting distribution in the Pacific Exclusive Economic Zone of Costa Rica based on data collected from 1979-2001. Revista de Biología Tropical 53, 249-263 (2005).
  3. May-Collado, L. J. et al. in Advances in Marine Vertebrate Research in Latin America: Technological Innovation and Conservation   (eds Marcos R. Rossi-Santos & Charles W. Finkl)  293-319 (Springer International Publishing, 2018).
  4. Hoyt, E. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits. 1-256 (International Fund For Animal Welfare, London, 2001).
  5. Montero-Cordero, A. & Lobo, J. Effect of tourist vessels on the behaviour of the pantropical spotted dolphin, Stenella attenuata, in Drake Bay and Caño Island, Costa Rica. Journal of cetacean research and management 11, 285-291 (2010).
  6. O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H. & Knowles, T. Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits; a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. (Yarmouth MA, USA, 2009).

Further reading

BIOMARCC-SINAC-GIZ. 2012. Cetáceos. Estudios científicos de hábitat marino costero y situación socioeconómica del Pacífico Sur de Costa Rica.  San José-Costa Rica. 39-44 págs.  

BIOMARCC-SINAC-GIZ. 2013. Cetáceos. Estudios científicos de hábitat marino costero y situación socioeconómica del Pacífico Norte de Costa Rica.  San José-Costa Rica. 151-158 págs.  

Gamboa-Poveda M. and L. J. May-Collado. 2006 Insights on the occurrence, residency, and behavior of two coastal dolphins from Gandoca-Manzanillo, Costa Rica: Sotalia guianensis and Tursiops truncatus (Family Delphinidae). International Whaling Commission. SC/58/SM4.

Martínez-Fernández, D., Montero-Cordero, A. & D. Palacios-Alfaro. 2014. Áreas de congregación de cetáceos en el Pacífico norte de Costa Rica: recomendaciones para la gestión del recurso. Rev. Biol. Trop. Vol. 62 (Suppl. 4): 99-108

Martínez-Fernández, D., Montero-Cordero, A. and L. J. May-Collado. 2011. Cetáceos de las aguas costeras del Pacifico norte y sur de Costa Rica. Revista de Biología Tropical. 59 (1): 283-290.

May-Collado, L., M Amador-Caballero, J. J. Casas, M. P. Gamboa-Poveda, F. Garita-Alpízar, T. Gerrodette, R. González-Barrientos, G. Hernández-Mora, D. M. Palacios, J. D. Palacios-Alfaro, B. Pérez, K. Rasmussen, L. Trejos-Lasso, J. Rodríguez-Fonseca. 2017. Ecology and conservation of cetaceans of Costa Rica and Panama. In: Advances in Marine Vertebrate Research in Latin America. Technological Innovation and Conservation. Eds. Marcos R. Rossi-Santos & Charles W. Finkl. Springer International Publishing.

Palacios-Alfaro, J.D., D. Martínez-Fernández, C. Sánchez-Godínez, R. Venegas-Li. 2012. Distribution and behavior of humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae Borowski, 1781) (Breeding Stock G), in southern Pacific of Costa Rica. SC-64-SH16. International Whale Commission (IWC)'s Scientific Committee Documents. 8p

Rasmussen, K., Calambokidis, J. and Steiger, G. H. 2011. Distribution and migratory destinations of humpback whales off the Pacific coast of Central America during the boreal winters of 1996–2003. Marine Mammal Science. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2011.00529.x

Rodríguez-Fonseca, J. 2001.  Diversidad y distribución de los cetáceos de Costa Rica (Cetacea: Delphinidae, Physeteridae, Ziphiidae y Balaenopteridae). Rev. Biol. Trop. 49. Supl. 2: 135-143.

Rodríguez-Fonseca, J., P. Cubero-Pardo, G. Palacios-Martínez, P. Ramírez-Hernández and M. Hernández-Blanco. 2010. Memorias del Plan Piloto para un Modelo de Turismo Marino Sostenible (TMS). PROMAR/TNC/HSI. San José, Costa Rica. 27 p.

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