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Dominican Republic

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Extent of whale and dolphin watching

The Dominican Republic (DR) has the largest whale-watching industry in the Caribbean1. At least 252 humpback whales have been identified at Samaná bay, northeast of the Dominican Republic2. Whale watching in the DR was first established in 1985 from the town of Santa Bárbara 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 and give birth. Many more tour operators followed, and in a short time Samaná became 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 later extended to include Navidad Banks and Samaná Bay.

These sanctuaries cover a total area of 32,913 km² representing the most extensive conservation area of the DR and jointly referred to as the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic (MMDR). The MMDR has a sister sanctuary agreement with the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary off the Northeast coast of the US to protect North Atlantic humpback whales on both their feeding and breeding grounds, homogenize conservation policies and information exchange and technology transfer through an agreement with the French minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition, signed in 20173. A similar agreement is planned with the Sanctuary of Agoa, French Antilles in the Caribbean. The MMDR has also exchanged experiences with Bequia (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), and in 2013 a delegation from SVG visited Samaná to learn about whale watching ecotourism and the value of the humpback whale4.

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Target species, peak times of year and locations:

Whale watching generally takes place between January and March each year, catering predominantly for international tourists. Tourists have the choice between live-aboard tours to Silver and Navidad Banks (over 100 km offshore), which can be expensive, or the more easily accessible and less expensive day tours in Samaná Bay. These can fall into one of three categories:

  • Tours on fiberglass vessels with outboard engines called yolas. At a minimum length of 7 m and at a maximum of 9 m, with a maximum capacity for 10 passengers, these trips used to be informal, with no fixed departure times, and no formal guides or interpreters5.
  • 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 (>18m).
  • A dedicated whale watching tour with trained naturalists on board, a strong educational element and interpretation during whale encounters. Previously only one company in Samaná offered this type of tour, but currently all companies have certified guides.
  • Additionally, it is possible to observe whales from a land observatory at Punta Balandra, Samaná, which has been operating since 2011 for free6.

Operators tend to be licensed by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, and are often engaged through tour companies or cruise ships as part of pre-packaged tours.  

Since 2009, cruise ships have been visiting 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 excursion5. The number of foreign visitors to the Dominican Republic has increased steadily between 1993 and 2018. Whale watching by national and foreign tourists is also increasing, with 57,708 tourists recorded in 2017 (the most recent year for which a full dataset is a available), of which 49,670 were foreign tourists and 8,038 national tourists.



Towns or harbours

Platform (motorized boat, swim-with, aerial)

Peak time of year to observe

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)


Samaná Bay, Silver and Navidad banks



Common Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)




Year round – but trips usually limited to January-March

Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus)


Estero Hondo

Land-based viewpoint

Year round

Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus)


Las Terrenas

Land-based viewpoint (Underconstruction)


Year round

Marine Mammal Sanctuary – Number of tourists in Silver Banks and Navidad Banks









































Note: Table completed in September, 2018.

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Regulations and guidelines

The Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, the whale-watching boat owners association (ASDUBAHISA), the Dominican Navy, and El Centro para la Conservación y Ecodesarrollo de la Bahía de Samaná y su Entorno (CEBSE), a local marine conservation non-profit, have all joined forces to form a co-management system for whale watching in Samaná Bay. This system includes measures for permitting operators, monitoring boat behavior, surveillance, enforcement and self-sustaining finance for administration and personnel costs7.

The regulations, which were established in 1998 and have been revised on a few occasions, now entail the following key measures8:

  • All tourist transport vessels and private vessels can observe whales under the regulations established by resolution 0030-2017 of the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. In the case of private recreational boats, only two permits per day will be issued
  • No more than three boats may watch a whale group at a time;
  • Boats waiting must maintain a distance of 250 m from the whales;
  • Vessels must maintain a minimum distance of 50 m from adult whales and 80 m from a group with a calf;
  • Once the observation distance has been reached the engine should be placed in neutral. It is prohibited to turn a vessel’s engine off while observing whales;
  • A vessel may spend a maximum of 30 minutes with one group of whales if other boats are waiting;
  • Vessels may travel no faster than 9 km/hr (5 knots) once in the sanctuary, or whenever a whale is observed outside the sanctuary;
  • Vessels must depart the Sanctuary before 16:00 each day;
  • Swimming with whales is prohibited at Samaná Bay;
  • All passengers on boats less than 10 m length must wear life jackets at all times;
  • A maximum of 43 permits for WW are awarded in Samaná Bay and 3 in the Silver Bank9;
  • All boats engaging in whale watching must pass inspection by Navy officers and Ministry of Environment experts (e.g. hull integrity, VHF radio and other safety measures on board).

Once permitted, a vessel is issued a flag that allows it to be identified as an officially recognized whale watching boat.  Permit fees are used to help fund the administration and running of the co-management system, which requires monitoring and surveillance. Monitoring is conducted by government appointed inspectors/observers who accompany tours on licensed vessels and are mandated to report any infractions to the Navy. A Ministry of Environment/Sanctuary Administration vessel also patrols the whale watching area, and this vessel, as well as the Navy, has the right to issue sanctions.

The growth of the industry is controlled through the number of permits that are issued each year. In 2018, 56 permits were given to boats in 2018 in and 3 for Silver Bank9. Some of the boats have “regular” permits that allow them to whale watch continuously, while some have “rotative” permits which are shared by various boats and allow them to whale watch only one day at a time each.  As a result of issuance of authorizations, the maximum number of 43 botes/lanchas for whale watching operating in Bahia de Samana is maintained.

The key relevant provisions of the Silver Bank Regulations include:

  • The Port Authority of the Dominican Republic may not grant dispatches to any vessel wishing to visit the Silver Bank Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic (henceforth referred to as the Sanctuary) without a permit issued by Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of the Dominican Republic (henceforth referred to as the Ministry).
  • This entrance permit is independent of any safety or navigation documents required by the Ministry and Dominican Law. All vessels must comply with the navigation, safety and security regulations of the laws of the Dominican Republic, as well as, the safety and operating requirements set-up by the Ministry.
  • The Ministry will issue a maximum of four commercial permits at any one time to help protect the whales and their environment. The Ministry reserves the right to increase the number of commercial permits and limit the number of other vessels, e.g. research, educational, private, etc., present at the same time as the commercial operations are working in the Sanctuary.
  • It is prohibited to throw waste overboard, burn garbage, discharge pollutants, use explosives or any electrical equipment that will affect the environment.
  • Approaching whales or conducting whale watching activities with vessels more than thirty feet long is prohibited.
  • The maximum speed for any vessel within the Sanctuary is ten knots.
  • All vessels (over thirty feet) must remain moored within the designated area.
  • Commercial vessels are permitted to have two tenders (no more than twenty-six feet)) to operate whale-watching activities. The maximum capacity of each tender is twelve passengers. All tenders must utilize low emission engines and carry marine communication and safety equipment.
  • Tender operators must have knowledge in approach techniques, whale behavior and have a thorough understanding of the Sanctuary Regulations prior to operating any tender within the Sanctuary.
  • All large vessels (more then 30 feet) must comply with the safety standards required by their country of registration. A complete first aid kit, oxygen, currently inspected safety equipment, communications equipment and fire fighting equipment.
  • Each tender must have specified first aid equipment, flotation and communication equipment.
  • The use of scuba tanks It is regulated within the designated diving area, during emergencies, ships maintenance and when checking the mooring equipment. Scuba diving is not permitted any of these times, when marine mammals are present.
  • All diving without a special permit issued by The Ministry must only occur when marine mammals are not present.
  • The use of scuba tanks and rebreathers or any autonomous diving equipment is permitted throughout the Sanctuary when sanctioned by the Ministry.
  • Researchers, professional film crews and photographers must have a special permit to work anywhere within the Sanctuary. An application must be submitted to the Ministry explaining the project in detail prior to issuing a permit. A fee may apply. Any operator who knowingly allows a researcher, professional film crew or photographer to work within the Sanctuary without an authorized permit issued by the Ministry will be responsible for any fees and or fines required. The operator also risks losing their permit to operate whale watching excursions.
  • Persons using sea kayaks, sailboards, kite board or any other flotation equipment must stay within the confines of the designated mooring area. Jet skis and Kayaks are prohibited.
  • Vessels and tender operators are responsible for any actions of their crew and participants and must assure they abide by the rules and regulations of the Ministry.
  • The operator must present a thorough orientation of the guidelines and regulations of the Sanctuary to all participants prior to any whale watching activity. All participants must perform a mock “soft-in-water” encounter prior to any aquatic activities or interaction with any marine mammals. Quiet entries, hand signals and exiting the water should be practiced at this time.
  • It is prohibited to touch, chase, swim after or free dive during “soft-in-water” encounters. Moving to another position and limited free diving is permitted with the guidance of the tender operator. Mask, fins and snorkel must be used on all “soft-in-water” encounters.
  • Water activity is prohibited during rowdy groups, breaching activity, fin slapping, lob tailing, tail slashing or any other type of aggressive surface activity. If any of these behaviors begin during a “soft-in-water” encounter, all participants must exit the water immediately until the behavior ceases.
  • Communication between tender operators is essential. When multiple tenders are interacting with the whales in close proximity to each other (within 1000 feet), operators should contact each other by VHF and coordinate each tenders movements. Operators should not move or place their tender directly in front of another operator's tender with the intention of intercepting the whale they are interacting with.
  • Only one tender should interact with any whale or whales at any given time. Under special circumstances multiple tenders may interact with a whale simultaneously during “soft-in-water” encounters or when following surface activity. The original tender operator will communicate the best approach with all approaching tenders and control the in water activity.
  • Avoid approaching any calf light gray in color with an extreme dorsal fold. If a mother with a light gray calf approaches the tender, engines must be shut down with no attempts of “soft-in-water” encounters.
  • Avoid close proximity to rowdy groups, competitive groups or surface-active groups. The whale watching regulations must be prominently displayed where passengers have easy access.
  • When wind conditions are a steady 20 knots communication between all vessels operating whale-watching excursions must be made prior to any activities to determine whether conditions are safe enough to operate. When wind conditions are a steady 30 knots all whale-watching activities must be suspended.

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Research on Whale Watching in the Dominican Republic

Research on whale watching in the DR to date has focused primarily on the management of the industry7 as well as tourists and their perceptions than on possible impacts of whale watching on the whales, although there has also been some research on whale populations2,10-13.

Few whale watching companies regularly include a strong educational element in their tours. The education of participants is widely recognised as one of the potential conservation benefits of whale watching14-19, and it has also been recognized as something that tourists value in a whale watching tour20-22. One study found that over 80% of interviewed tourists in Samaná Bay ranked the importance of public education on whale conservation as high or very high23. The study strongly recommended that practices in Samaná be adapted to ensure that every whale watching boat has an interpreter/guide present who can present basic information about whale behaviour, ecology and conservation needs23. In 2006-2007, a model of good practices was applied to whale watching by Programa Ecomar, through the introduction of elements of environmental education to the key players: captains and crew, tourists, young people, students and community in general24.

A study in 2017 reported that the WW industry in the DR has been a positive force for conservation and community economic development, and thus, the DR model of WW may serve as a good model for other Caribbean countries with WW industries. However, this study also concluded that these benefits cannot continue without addressing issues such as the need to increase the community's opportunities to learn more about cetaceans and their relationships to humans and the ecosystem and the need for the Ministry of the Environment to increase their transparency in terms of the use of fees in a way that is accessible to local people25.

Every year, prior to the beginning of the season, the Department of Ecotourism of the Vice Ministry of Protected Areas and Biodiversity holds training sessions for captains and WW operators, with the aim of strengthening education and regulation in the area of observation. The Association of Boat Owners of La Bahia de Samaná (ASDUBHAISA) has also strengthened the capacity of its members and captains of their boats with courses for first aid and basic navigation and maritime safety.

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Show / Hide References
  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. Reynoso, O. & Sánchez, P. Agregación de ballenas jorobadas (Megaptera novaeangliae) de la Bahía de Samaná, República Dominicana. Tesis para optar por el título de Licenciatura en Biología. Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (2013).
  3. Legal agreement: Acuerdo Interinstitucional de Cooperación Técnica entre el Ministro de Medio Ambiente de la República Dominicana y el Ministro Francés de Transición Ecológica y Solidaria. Signed in Paris. (December 12th, 2017).
  4. López, Yaniri. Por la conservación de las ballenas jorobadas. Listin Diario. (March 21st, 2013).
  5. Gleason, C. in Human-Wildlife Conflict: Complexity in the Marine Environment   (eds Megan Draheim, Francine Madden, Julie-Beth McCarthy, & Chris Parsons)  224 (Oxford University Press, 2015).
  6. Mejía, Odalis. Las ballenas jorobadas, ahora  vistas  desde  tierra. Hoy Digital. (January 20th, 2011).
  7. Whaley, A. R., Wright, A. J., de Calventi, I. B. & Parsons, E. C. M. Humpback whale sightings in southern waters of the Dominican Republic lead to proactive conservation measures. Marine Biodiversity Records1, doi:10.1017/S1755267207007518 (2009).
  8. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales. Resolución 0030-17: Que promulga el procedimiento de autorización para observación de ballenas de los Bancos de la Plata, La Navidad y la Bahía de Samaná. (October 2nd, 2017).
  9. Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales. Autorizaciones Ambientales para Temporada de Observación de Ballenas 2018. (2018).
  10. Mattila, David K., et al. Population composition of humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, on Silver Bank, 1984. Canadian Journal of Zoology2, 281-285, doi: 10.1139/z89-041 (1989).
  11. Mattila, David K., et al. Occurrence, population composition, and habitat use of humpback whales in Samana Bay, Dominican Republic. Canadian Journal of Zoology11, 1898-1907, doi:10.1139/z94-258 (1994).
  12. Betancourt, L. y A. Herrera-Moreno. Distribución y abundancia relativa de las ballenas jorobadas (Megaptera novaengliae) de la Bahía de Samaná. XII Congreso Latinoamericano de Ciencias del Mar, Florianópolis, Brasil, Abril 14-20, 2007. (2007).
  13. Betancourt, L., Herrera-Moreno, A. y Beddall, K.  Spatial distribution of humpback whales in Samaná Bay, Dominican Republic. Scientific Paper to the International Whaling Commission IWC, Panamá, June 11-29, 2012. (2012).
  14. Andersen, M. S. & Miller, M. L. Onboard Marine Environmental Education: Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands, Washington. Tourism in Marine Environments2, 111-118, doi:10.3727/154427306779436327 (2006).
  15. Hoyt, E. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits. 1-256 (International Fund For Animal Welfare, London, 2001).
  16. IFAW. Report of the workshop on the educational values of whale watching: Provincetown Massachusetts, USA. 1-39 (IFAW, 1997).
  17. Jacobs, M. H. & Harms, M. Influence of interpretation on conservation intentions of whale tourists. Tourism Management42, 123-131, doi: (2014).
  18. Stamation, K. A., Croft, D. B., Shaughnessy, P. D., Waples, K. A. & Briggs, S. V. Educational and conservation value of whale watching. Tourism in Marine Environments4, 41-55 (2007).
  19. Zeppel, H. & Muloin, S. Conservation Benefits of Interpretation on Marine Wildlife Tours. Human Dimensions of Wildlife13, 280-294, doi:10.1080/10871200802187105 (2008).
  20. Lück, M. Education on marine mammal tours as agent for conservation - but do tourists want to be educated? Ocean and Coastal Management46, 943-956 (2003).
  21. Lück, M. & Porter, B. A. Experiences on swim-with-dolphins tours: an importance–performance analysis of dolphin tour participants in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Journal of Ecotourism, 1-17, doi:10.1080/14724049.2017.1353609 (2017).
  22. Draheim, M., Bonnelly, I., Bloom, T., Rose, N. A. & Parsons, E. C. M. Tourist attitudes towards marine mammal tourism: an example from the Dominican Republic. Tourism in Marine Environments6, 175-183 (2010).
  23. Gleason, C. To Educate or Not to Educate:  How the lack of education programs on whale-watching vessels can impact whale conservation and tourism in the Dominican Republic. Tourism in Marine Environments, doi:10.3727/154427306779436336 (In Press).
  24. Herrera-Moreno, A. y L. Betancourt 2009. Experiencias de turismo sostenible en la observación de ballenas jorobadas en la Bahía de Samaná, República Dominicana. Encuentro Nacional sobre Mamíferos Marinos de República Dominicana, Santo Domingo, FUNGLODE, junio 29, 2009.
  25. Raschke, Bonnie Jean. Is Whale Watching a Win-Win for People and Nature? An Analysis of the Economic, Environmental, and Social Impacts of Whale Watching in the Caribbean. A Dissertation Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree Doctor of Philosophy, Arizona State University. (2017).

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