Whales and Dolphins Inspire Costa Rican Tour Operators to Flip for Sustainability

By Yessenia Soto

From January to March and from September to October, the warm waters of the southern Pacific region of Costa Rica are host to special visitors: the humpback whales that need this key habitat to mate and rest during along their migratory route. Several species of dolphins are also present year-round to delight visitors.

Hundreds of Costa Rican and international tourists with hopes of seeing a whale or a dolphin flock to Bahía Ballena, a key cetacean habitat located in the corner of the southern Pacific in Ballena Marine National Park. Local tour operators stand at the ready to help visitors spot the creatures during the whale “high seasons”.

Between 1998 and 2006, Costa Rica had an average annual increase of 74.5% in whale and dolphin watching tourism, the largest growth rate seen among Latin America countries (Hoyt, E. y Iñiguez, M. 2008) that also offer this pastime. With this boom came increased concern about the negative impact it could have on marine ecosystems and the species themselves.

Research confirms that marine tourism is indeed having a considerable environmental impact, mainly because tour operators often fail to follow existing regulations. “A single boat with tourists that does not follow the basic standards for responsible observation can negatively affect animal groups in the short term,” explained Andrea Montero, a researcher with the Keto Foundation, a Costa Rican non-profit that studies the biology, management, and conservation of marine and coastal resources.

Keto carried out a study on the behavior of the pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuate) in the dry seasons of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006, in two areas of the Osa Peninsula where there is intensive dolphin-watching: Drake Bay and Isla del Caño. The results showed that the dolphins reacted negatively to boats that were not complying with national regulations for cetacean watching. Montero adds that the animals were less likely to exhibit feeding and resting behaviors when tourism vessels were present.

Based on these findings, researchers suggested working with local community members to help them continue earning income from cetacean watching without harming these majestic creatures or their habitat.

“When we approached the community, we found a group of highly environmentally aware entrepreneurs who were willing to make changes and build capacity,” explains Catalina Molina, coordinator of Keto’s sustainable tourism program and director of the project “Promoting Responsible Marine Tourism through the Development and Implementation of the Sea Star System in the Southern Pacific Region of Costa Rica,” the successful initiative that began in 2009 and is positioning Bahía Ballena as a pioneer community for responsible marine tourism in Costa Rica.

Spearheaded by the Keto Foundation with support from Conservation International and the Rufford Foundation, the project is developing a training program that teaches businesses to implement a series of best practices for sustainable marine tourism. To enhance the effectiveness and credibility of these practices and to add value to the participants’ efforts, Keto created the Sea Star System.

The Sea Star System is the first national verification program designed exclusively for responsible marine tourism. Participating businesses agree to comply with 51 criteria for responsible marine tourism. These criteria, which were designed with the participation of members of the Tour Operators Association in Ballena Marine National Park and technical support from Keto, were developed within the framework of existing national legislation, mainly the Regulations for the operation of activities with cetaceans in Costa Rica.

To comply with these criteria, participating tour operators make simple changes that can have a significant impact on their land-based and administrative operations as well as those at sea: improving their boats and equipment to ensure minimum impact with regard to water pollution, physical damage to reefs, and sound emissions that affect cetaceans; meeting strict standards for quality and safety; training their guides and boat captains in customer service, handling vessels, and their relationship with the marine ecosystem; and supporting community conservation projects.

Tour boats must also follow specific rules during their excursions, such as traveling at an average speed of 3-4 miles (5-7 km) per hour in the presence of a cetacean, maintaining a prescribed distance between the boat and the animal, never touching the animals, moving away when they notice any stress or change in the animal’s behavior, abandoning the area when there are three boats around a whale or a group, and not staying longer than 15 minutes when the animals are resting.

Once the tour operators are trained and have made the necessary improvements, they can apply for a verification audit to evaluate their work on land and sea. At the end, they are given an overall score and each business receives one, two, or three stars from the Sea Star system according to their performance, with three stars being the highest mark.

Bahía Aventuras is one of ten marine tour operators in Bahía Ballena that is currently participating in the program. Owner Walter Brenes explains that he has always had a conservation ethic in his work, but understands that obtaining Sea Star System recognition will also provide added value. “There is a clear trend in the tourism sector today to give priority to businesses with these kinds of distinctions,” he said. For this reason, he is also working to earn certification from Costa Rica’s Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST) program.

Some entrepreneurs are motivated to go beyond earning their certification. Marlene Badilla of Dolphin Tours of Bahía Ballena, who has worked as a community promoter for the Sea Star System since the beginning of the project, says that they see themselves as an example for other businesses and communities in the country.

In tandem with the project, a group of tour operators formed the Tourism Operators Association in Ballena Marine National Park to provide a platform to improve the management of marine tourism in the area by obtaining support for marketing, training, and making improvements in the park and the community. A group of nature guides has also created an association to raise their profile, get training, diversify their activities to encompass more than marine tourism, and to support conservation through their work.

Even though the operators do compete with one another, Molina emphasizes that the group has set up a valuable communications channel to alert participants about when and where a whale or a group of dolphins can be seen, so they can all take advantage. Similarly, when someone fails to comply with the program’s best practices, this too is pointed out to the group.

Up until now, the biggest challenge for participating tour operators has come from other businesses and some tourists. “It is difficult when boats from outside our area come in and do inappropriate things in front of our tourists,” said Badilla, as they then pressured to do the same, such as getting too close to the animal or remaining longer than the time allowed. Instead of giving up, guides are redoubling their efforts before and during excursions to inform and educate the tourists about the sustainable practices they are carrying out.

Keto’s first stage of work has nearly finished in Bahía Ballena. Once a tour operator obtains its Sea Star rating, it must conduct a performance evaluation semi-annually and have an external inspection each year. The organization now hopes to focus on promoting the program and adapting it to other marine protected areas and interested communities such as Drake Bay and Manuel Antonio National Parks and the Térraba-Sierpe National Wetland, all located on the Pacific coast, as well as to other marine tourism activities such as tour fishing, mangrove tours, and kayaking. Keto is also open to partnering with other NGOs and institutions to expand the Sea Star System into other countries.

Molina says that Keto hopes to conduct needed parallel monitoring and evaluation activities over several years to determine the effectiveness of these best practices on cetacean populations. But for now, the focus remains on continuing to improve business practices and keeping the cetaceans from displacing to another region. This season, tour operators in Bahía Ballena are proud to say that they have spotted whales and dolphins on most of their trips.

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