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History and context
Spinner dolphins are one of the more frequently observed species in the Red Sea, where they sometimes attract the attention of watersports vessels operating in the well-known dive resorts off the coast of Egypt. One such resort is Marsa Alam, where in the 1990’s dive operators first began to take notice of a predictable group of spinner dolphins frequenting Samadai Reef, about 6km offshore from the mainland resort. Further investigation revealed that these dolphins adhered to the same patterns as those of spinner dolphins studied in Hawaii: moving offshore at night to forage on prey moving up toward the surface with a diel migration, and retreating to the protection of sheltered bays or reefs during the day where they can rest and recover with little fear of predation1-4. The population of dolphins using the reef on a daily basis has been estimated to stable at roughly 200 individuals5,6. Photo identification studies show little exchange with neighbouring reef areas, and the dolphins demonstrate a clear preference for a shallow and protected area in the lagoon’s northern portion, that has come to be known locally as “dolphin house”7.
Up through the late 1990s the dolphins were viewed only as a bonus attraction to divers and snorkelers traveling to the site from Marsa Alam. However, between 1999 and 2003, word began to spread and several factors combined to drastically increase the number of snorkelers coming to interact with spinner dolphins on Samadai Reef7. Tourism boomed in Marsa Alam, which became less of a diving specialty resort, and more of a general marine watersport/snorkeling resort. Dolphins were approachable by snorkelers in relatively protected and shallow waters, making “swim with dolphin” experiences accessible even to those with little swimming and no diving experience. At the same time, word spread up and down the coast, and as specialised Red Sea tour operators became increasingly aware of the dolphins’ predictable presence in a scenic location, boat loads of hundreds of tourists started to arrive from neighroubring resorts as far north as Hurghada7.
By the summer of 2003, as many as 500-800 tourists were brought to swim with the dolphins in the resting lagoon at Samadai each day. Their contact with the dolphins was entirely unregulated, and many observers feared for the well-being and safely of the dolphins, the tourists, and the sustainability of the dolphin watching industry7. In 2003 government authorities took the bold decision to impose a complete suspension of all visits to the Samadai Reef and engaged in a consultation process to create a management system that would protect the dolphins while still allowing some level of tourism activities to occur on the reef, which hosts a few popular diving and snorkeling sites as well as the resting dolphins.