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Ecuador

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Ecuador is one of the planet’s most biodiverse regions. Its unique geography, geology, topography and climate have earned the country a label of being megadiverse1, a title not many nations can claim.  Thirty different species of whales and dolphins have been documented in Ecuador’s waters, which range from the Pacific coastal regions to freshwater regions of the Amazon rainforest and the Galapagos Islands2.  Furthermore, with the first commercial whale watching tours being offered as early as the 1980’s, Ecuador has been a pioneer of whale watching tourism in Latin America3.

Commercial whale watching tourism has contributed significantly to local communities on the Pacific coast as well as in the Amazon.  It has brought improvements to their quality of life, as well as to the conservation of their natural heritage through eco-tourism.

Target species, peak times of year and locations:

Whale watching is promoted in four coastal provinces of Ecuador.  The main ports and islands where whale watching is offered include: Atacames, Súa, Muisne in the Esmeraldas Province; Pedernales, Manta, Puerto López, Isla de la Plata, Isla Salango, and Puerto Cayo in the Manabí Province; Atacames, Ayangue, and Monteverde in the Santa Elena Province; and Jambelí and Santa Clara Island in the D’el Oro Province.  Humpback whales are the main target species for whale watching. The species travels up from feeding grounds in Antarctica to mate, give birth, and nurse their young on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast between June and October4,5. Bryde’s whales, common dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, killer whales and pilot whales are also occasionally encountered during these tours.

Bottlenose dolphins are present throughout the year in a number of locations along Ecuador’s coast. These include Puerto el Morro and Playas de Villamil in the del Guayas Province.   River tours in Ecuador’s Amazonian rainforest can include opportunistic sightings of the boto or tucuxi river dolphins in the Cuyabueno Animal Reserve, and in the Napo and Cocaya Rivers in the Yasuni National Park.

Tourists participating in tours between the islands of the Galapagos may also opportunistically encounter Bryde’s whales, humpback whales, pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales or other species.

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Additional information about whale watching opportunities in Ecuador can be found on the following websites:


Species

County/region       

Towns or harbours

Platform(motorized boat, swim-with, aerial)

Peak time of year to observe      

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)       

Pacific Coast (Manabí, Esmeraldas, Santa Elena and El Oro)

Súa (Reserva Marino Galeras), Atacames, Muisne, Pedernales, Manta, Puerto López (Parque Nacional Machalilla, Isla de la Plata, Isla Salango, Santa Elena (Reserva Marina Puntilla de Santa Elena), Ayangue, Jambelí e Isla Santa Clara (Refugio de Vida Silvestre Isla Santa Clara).

Motorized boats

June - October      

Common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

Pacific Coast (Guayas)

El Morro, Playas de Villamil

Motorized boats

Year - round

Boto (Inia geoffrensis)

Amazon

Río Cuyabeno, Río Aguarico (Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno), Río Napo, Río Cocaya (Parque Nacional Yasuní)

 

 

Motorized boats, Cruceros

Year - round

Guyana dolphin (Sotalia fluviatilis)

Amazon

Río Cuyabeno, Río Aguarico (Reserva Faunística Cuyabeno), Río Napo, Río Cocaya (Parque Nacional Yasuní)

 

 

Motorized boats, Cruceros

Year - round

Bryde’s whales (Balaenoptera edeni)

Galapagos

Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristóbal, Isla Floreana, Isla Isabela

Motorized boats, Cruceros

Year - round

Killer whale (Orcinus Orca)

Galapagos

Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristóbal, Isla Floreana, Isla Isabela

Motorized boats, Cruceros

Year - round

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)       

Galapagos

Isla Santa Cruz, Isla San Cristóbal, Isla Floreana, Isla Isabela

Motorized boats, Cruceros

June - October      

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Regulations and guidelines

In 1979 Ecuador created its first protected areas, including the Machalilla National Park, which included both a terrestrial and a marine component. This emblematic park became the site of the first commercial whale and dolphin watching in Ecuador.

In 1990 Ecuador officially created the Galapagos Marine Resources Reserve, declaring the area as a ‘whale sanctuary’, while the rest of Ecuador’s waters became a ‘whale refuge’, banning all activities that might harm these marine mammals (Ministerial decree No. 196, published in Official Register no. 458 on June 14th, 1990).

2001 saw the foundation of Ecuador’s ‘Committee for the Management of Whale Watching’ together with the first draft of official whale watching guidelines (Reglamentación de Turismo de Ballenas en Ecuador - Acuerdo Ministerial No. 26, Julio del 2001).  This new committee comprised representatives of the Ministries of Environment, Defence, and Tourism, who worked together to formalise and implement whale watching regulations, which formally went into effect in 2002, and have undergone various updates since that time. The version in effect at the time of writing this profile is the version updated by Ministerial Decree no. 20140004, published in Official Register No. 278 on June 30th, 2014.  Click here to view these guidelines in their full Spanish text.

The main components of these regulations can be summarised as follows:

  • The regulations apply to humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, Amazon river dolphins (both Boto and Guiana dolphins), and all other species that are resident in, or migrate through, Ecuador’s waters, including the Galapagos, and are subject to maritime tourism.
  • Commercial whale watching tourism may only be conducted on authorised vessels with qualified guides, who have been certified by competent authorities. Where applicable, operators and guides must belong to government-recognised local communities with land-management rights.
  • Tourism vessels must follow all of the security  measures specified by the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Marine Affairs.
  • Vessels should only approach whales or dolphins from a position behind, and parallel to the individual or group, never head-on, and never circling or dividing a group of whales or dolphins.
  • Vessels should slow to a speed of 4kt/8kmph in proximity to whales or dolphins.
  • Appropriate vessel speeds and approach angles should commence within 400m of a group of whales or 200m from a group of dolphins, and should never exceed the speed of the slowest individual in the group.
  • Vessels should maintain a minimum distance of 100m from whales and 50m from dolphins, and always travel parallel to the direction of travel of the group being observed.  This minimum distance should be doubled for mothers and calves (200m for whales and 100m for dolphins).
  • In the event that a whale or whales approach a vessel, the captain should put the engine in neutral and wait until the whales move away.  In the case of dolphins approaching a vessel (for example to bowride), the vessel should maintain a steady speed and not change direction.
  • A vessel should not spend more than 25 minutes with a group of whales or dolphins before moving on to continue a tour. This time limit should not exceed 15 minutes in the presence of mothers with calves.
  • No more than three vessels may be present with the same group of whales/dolphins.  If three vessels are already present, additional vessels should wait at a distance of no less than 500m until the other vessels have left.
  • The following activities are strictly prohibited during whale watching tours:
    • Swimming or snorkelling with whales or dolphins;
    • Fishing and any other activities that are not compatible with whale watching;
    • Physical contact with whales or dolphins;
    • Any form of harassment or harm.
    • Feeding whales or dolphins;
    • Littering/leaving rubbish in the water.
  • The regulations can be enforced by the Ministries of Environment, Tourism, Transport and Public Works, and National Defence, in collaboration with the ‘Technical Secretary of the Sea’ (Secretaría Técnica del Mar).

In 2017, the Ministry of Tourism together with the Pacific Whale Foundation published a Guide for Whale watching in Ecuador. This guide is viewable by clicking here.  During this time 102 guides from all four coastal provinces where whale watching is conducted were also trained and certified.

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Research on whale watching in Ecuador

 

A shore-based theodolite tracking team created a ‘natural’ experiment to observe relationships between whale watching traffic and whale behaviour in 1998 and 1999 around Isla de la Plata in National Machalilla Park. This study was designed to measure short-term reactions of whales to the whale-watching vessel activity typically seen in this area for two reasons: (1) to identify the nature of whales’ avoidance response, if any, in order to draft whale-watching guidelines that help local mariners determine when they may be disturbing whales; and (2) to quantify the magnitude of any avoidance response, to examine how this relatively understudied population behaves around boats compared with whales in other whale-watching areas. Swim speed and path directness of humpback whales were measured in the absence of boats, and how those parameters changed when boats arrived was recorded. When whales entered the study area accompanied by boats, a record was made of how their behaviour changed after the boats left. Humpback whales reacted to the approach of whale-watching boats by increasing swim speed significantly, and adopted a much more direct path after boats left6.

A study conducted in 2014 examined the socioeconomic impact of whale watching in Puerto Lopez, in the Machalilla National Park.  The study revealed that in 2014, nearly 40,000 tourists generated nearly 3 million USD in direct (whale watching tours) and indirect (accommodation, transportation, meals, souvenirs etc) spending related to whale watching.  The study also showed that over a period of 7 years, between 2007 and 2014, the government invested over 30 million USD in infrastructure and tourist facilities (museums, board walks, tourist markets, bus stations, information centres, etc) in the park’s main Port, Puerto Lopez.7  It is hoped that this investment will stimulate further growth of tourism and benefits for the local population.

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