For Panama’s Fall Whale-Watching Season, Scientists Offer Tips for Safeguarding These Magnificent Creatures of the Deep

For humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins and coastal manatees, tourism is a mixed bag, making vigilance ever more important

Humpback Whale Leaps from Water, Panama
After a year of strict Covid-19 lockdowns which brought a severe economic standstill, Panama is awaiting the return of visitors and the restart of the tourism industry. Getty Images, Gerard Soury

In the Gulf of Panama, June to October is breeding season for humpback whales. More than 1,000 of these aquatic mammals, known as Megaptera novaengliae make an annual migration, traveling thousands of miles up from South American waters into the Las Perlas archipelago, a group of 39 islands and 100 islets, 29 miles off the Pacific coast, making Panama a premier site for whale watching. This is the time of year when travel articles and ads from whale-watching tours beckon locals and international visitors to the Panamanian coast to see these magnificent marine mammals.

Whale-watching tourism is a huge economic benefit to the country’s local communities, creating jobs and opportunity. For tourists, it is regarded as an activity that supports ecotourism, conservation and educational opportunities.

After a year of strict Covid-19 lockdowns, which brought a severe economic standstill, the country is awaiting the return of visitors and the restart of the tourism industry. The Foreign Ministry of Panama, the Tourism Authority of Panama (ATP) and even the Ministry of Environment (MiAmbiente) tweeted in anticipation for the start of season, as part of that effort.

But sustainability of this type of wildlife ecotourism depends largely upon the safety and well-being of the whales themselves, says Héctor Guzmán, a marine biologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). In 2005, Guzmán conducted extensive research to develop protocols for responsible whale-watching tourism and Panama became one of the first countries in the region to establish legal guidelines, prohibiting any activity that might disturb the whales and cause them to change their behavior. The Marine Corridor Commission, of which Guzmán is a member, oversees these regulations.


Héctor Guzmán
“We’re trying to improve the situation, but we also need more human power, resources, funds and time,” says the Smithsonian's Héctor Guzmán. Sean Mattson, STRI

“We do the research and provide the data, and we work on ways to protect the cetaceans,” he says. The guidelines are strict by necessity. No more than two boats may follow a group of whales. They must maintain a distance of 820 feet, while running parallel to the whales. Boats cannot move faster than the slowest animal in the group; and the time limit for following a group of adults is 30 minutes per boat and 15 minutes if there is a calf in the group. Swimming or diving near the whales is strictly prohibited.

In a December 2020 study, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Marine Science, Guzmán coauthored a report on the behavior of whales in the presence of numerous boats. Guzmán and his team—Arizona State University research students Arielle M. Amrein and Katie C. Surrey and professors Beth Polidoro and Leah R. Gerber—witnessed several alarming guideline violations. Boats followed too close for too long, and people jumped into the water to swim with the animals. These encounters, the researchers say, increase the chances of collisions, and can cause irregular behaviors in the whales, such as diving for longer periods or changing course to get away from the boats. Guzmán says that boats filled with tourists often chase groups with calves, which is even more concerning.

“The mother forces the calf to follow her, but the calf doesn’t have the strength yet to keep up,” he says. “One time, after being chased for a long time by tourist boats, the mother stopped and her calf climbed on top of her, and they just stayed there, exhausted, in front of us. It was heartbreaking. I wanted to shout at the tourists and guides that this was not a cute show for their videos and pictures, it was not a natural thing. They had caused it.”

On-going disturbances might have lasting impacts on the whales’ reproductive habits, affecting whale populations in the long-term. The noise from boat motors produces “acoustic masking” and inhibits whales from communicating effectively, which makes it more difficult for them to find mates, for mothers to communicate with their young, for locating food, and forces them to spend more energy to increase the volume or duration of their vocalizations. All of this increases their stress levels.

Dolphin and her calf
A bottlenose dolphin frolics with her calf in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Betzi Pérez-Ortega

Betzi Pérez-Ortega, a marine biologist and doctoral student at McGill University, also published recently in Frontiers in Marine Science; this collaboration with researcher Laura May-Collado and students Rebecca Daw, Emma Gimbrere and Brenan Paradee from the University of Vermont, looked at how boat density and noise affect another popular cetacean, the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Along the coasts of Bocas del Toro, dolphin-watching tours are popular in the appropriately named Bahía de los Delfines, or Dolphin Bay. Pérez-Ortega monitored the population of dolphins in the archipelago, particularly in Bahía de los Delfines and Bahía Almirante, looking at how boat noise affects their communications, and how the presence of boats causes them to alter their habits.

She installed underwater microphones, or hydrophones, to record the acoustic landscape of the heavily touristed areas of the Bahía de los Delfines and compared it to the Bahía Almirante, where boats transporting passengers or goods have little interaction with the dolphins.

“We started in 2004, when my colleague Laura May-Collado was doing her doctoral thesis in the area, and she noticed the amount of tourist boats coming into Bahía de los Delfines went from two to four a day, to more than 40 as tourism increased,” says Pérez-Ortega. “Bahía de los Delfines is the feeding and breeding area for dolphins, so tourist companies know that’s where to find them. Most tourist packages include dolphin-watching, regardless of tourist preference; all the boats go out at the same time in the morning, when dolphins are feeding, and suddenly there are 15 to 16 boats following the same group of dolphins. Within an hour there are about 40 to 50 boats. On long weekends I have counted up to 80.”

Betzi Pérez-Ortega
Betzi Pérez-Ortega inspects one of the recording devices used for monitoring dolphins in Bocas del Toro. Chelina Batista

The Panamanian guidelines for responsible dolphin- and whale-watching tourism are the same, but for dolphins, the distance that boats must keep from the group is about 325 feet. Still, tour operators often don’t know the guidelines or actively disregard them, and so tour boats follow dolphins too closely; many times chasing after them.

Because of these disruptions, the dolphins may be eating less. “These dolphins eat mostly sardines, which are small and low on calories, so they need to eat a lot to survive. If they’re being constantly interrupted, they are not getting enough energy,” says Pérez-Ortega. Their breeding habits might also be affected, which could diminish the populations.

Dolphins have adapted to the noise of boat motors by changing the frequency on their communicative sounds, the researchers say. But over time, there has also been a change to the modulation, which in captive and field studies has been shown to be associated with emotional states such as alertness and stress. “Dolphins rely on sound for every biological need, and when there are multiple boats, they appear to convey their state of alertness by modulating their social sounds,” says Pérez-Ortega.

The stress generated by these disruptions could eventually make them more susceptible to diseases, leading to chronic problems. “In our 17 years of research in Bocas we have been noticing an increase in dolphins with poor health, body conditions and some have shown the presence of tumors,” says Pérez-Ortega.

The threat could lead to populations of dolphin moving to unfavorable habitats, where they have less opportunity for food and safety. “We haven’t come to that, we still have time to make a change,” Pérez-Ortega says.

Although the archipelago doesn’t have a big shark population, which prey on dolphins, there are hammerhead sharks in the region, which could impact dolphin populations, weakened by the numerous incursions. The bays’ ecosystem, since dolphin control the fish populations, depends on a healthy, thriving community.

Populations of Panama's West Indian manatee, or coastal manatee, are also stressed by human activity.  Ana Endara, STRI

“Unfortunately, these species that we study seem to be in a long, natural conflict with humans,” says Guzmán, who faces similar challenges in his efforts to protect another aquatic mammal—the West Indian or coastal manatee (Trichechus manatus). Although they’re not pursued by tourists like whales or dolphins, manatees are still victims of human activities. Two of their biggest threats are collisions with speeding boats and habitat degradation and destruction.

Guzmán is one of the founders of Misión Manatí (Mission Manatee), a multidisciplinary effort to study this endangered species in the murky waters of the San San and Changuinola Rivers. His research involves the long-term acoustic monitoring of the population for identifying manatee vocalizations and capturing individuals for a few hours in a floating cage in the river, to examine their physical characteristics and get a more complete picture of the demographics of the population.

“We recorded a mother and her calf communicating, it sounds like any mother scolding their child and the child responding.”

“So far, we have acoustically identified nearly 80 different individuals and captured and released 14 animals, including a mom with two calves. We can now know more about each captured individual—size, sex, physical characteristics, if they have any scars, spots or stripes—and know where they are and how they use the habitat. This data helps confirm the need to further improve the protection status of the rivers.” In Panama, manatees have been legally protected since 1967, but their habitats don’t necessarily have the same protections.

Guzmán and his fellow researchers at Misión Manatí, engineers Fernando Merchán, Héctor Poveda and Javier Sánchez-Galán from Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (UTP), and Guillaume Ferré from ENSEIRB-MATMECA, use a monitoring system based on hydrophones to record hundreds of audio clips of the sounds and interactions of manatees in their habitats. Merchán’s team developed a series of algorithms to help process the data, making it easier to identify individuals by their distinctive vocalizations.

“We recorded a mother and her calf communicating, it sounds like any mother scolding their child and the child responding,” Guzmán says. But like cetaceans, manatees’ communications are disrupted by noisy boat engines.

Fishing nets are another abundant concern. The local groups that live around the San San and Changuinola Rivers depend on fishing, and controls are difficult to impose. “I once counted up to 17 fishing nets installed in the span of one kilometer. How is a manatee supposed to swim up and down the river like that? Many get stuck in them,” Guzmán says. Adult manatees are usually large and strong enough to drag the net until they can get free, but younger manatees struggle to untangle themselves and often drown. “It happens with whales too. I’ve seen humpback whales dragging nets tangled around their bodies, but if it happens to a youngling, they can’t free themselves as easily.”

What Needs to Be Done

For another study, Guzmán conducted surveys with tourists before and after they went on a whale-watching tour in the Las Perlas Archipelago. Working with Surrey and Amrein, along with lead author Susana Cárdenas and research assistant María Virginia Gabela-Flores from the Institute of Applied Ecology at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Guzmán wanted to assess tourists’ knowledge of whales and their conservation, find out what motivated tourists to go on these tours and what their expectations were, and determine effective ways to improve the experience both for visitors and tour operators while enforcing the legal guidelines and protecting the whales.

STRI's guidelines for Whale Watching
Educating visitors and tour operators about the legal guidelines for whale watching is key in helping to protect the endangered humpback whales. STRI

The survey revealed that tourists, who were well-informed and aware of the guidelines, were more likely to call out tour operators’ bad behavior, and even report them to authorities. But for these complaints to have an effect, authorities would need to do something about them; and since there is no consistent system in place to monitor these activities and enforce the regulations, tour operators rarely follow them.

The Ministry of Environment (MiAmbiente) will soon approve and publish in the official gazette the updated 2021 whale- and dolphin-watching regulations. Researchers remain concerned as to how the legal guidelines will be enforced.

Pérez-Ortega agrees that supervision is key; if no one is keeping an eye out for offenders, and if there are no legal consequences, the rules will continue to be broken.

Tour Boat Blocking Whales
A tour boat blocks the passage of two humpback whales, forcing them to change their course in order to avoid a collision. After studying the behavior of whales as well as the tourist practices, Smithsonian and Arizona State University researchers hope to provide scientific information that lawmakers and tourist companies may use to make whale-watching safer for the whales. Héctor Guzmán

However, vigilance requires funding. To send government agents out every day during whale- and dolphin-watching season could prove too costly. But Pérez-Ortega notes that authorities wouldn’t even have to be on watch every day; at a minimum, patrols operating at random times, two or three times a week, could change the behavior of boat captains and tour guides, unaware of when authorities might show up. “People even behave when they see Smithsonian research boats, they know we can tell on them. It’s funny but true,” she says.

She and Guzmán also agree that educating tourists and tour operators is essential. Wildlife tourism shouldn’t just be profitable, it must also be informative and aid in conservation efforts.

“We organize training workshops for boat captains and tour operators, but each year the group changes. A lot of new people came into the business to make a living, especially after the pandemic,” Pérez-Ortega explains. “Many are self-taught, and they don’t think that they’re doing anything wrong. They’re not intentionally trying to do harm, but it’s up to us to teach them how to do it right.” Ideally these courses would be mandatory for newcomers, but that requires still more funding.

“Most live on the day’s earnings; to make them come to a three-day training course, during which they won’t be making any money, is a lot to ask,” she says. The National Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT) and other NGOs often help with funding to cover the cost and provide meals to people who attend training. 

Citizen Scientist Poster
A STRI program encourates whale watchers to participate as citizen scientists to share their photographs to help monitor the whales. STRI

Pérez-Ortega is also committed to working with communities. She is a research associate and president of the Panama branch of Panacetacea, an international non-profit organization dedicated to the study and conservation of cetaceans. The group also develops educational and outreach activities with coastal communities, increasing awareness and promoting the protection of marine ecosystems and species, while empowering the people and creating jobs. 

“Héctor Guzmán works a lot with policymakers, and we try to work with educating the people, so that, when policies are put in place, people already know what it’s about and why it’s important,” she explains. “In that sense, his work and ours complement each other.”

Meanwhile, Misión Manatí is ambitiously working on developing a smart hydrophone, to send a signal in real-time whenever a manatee is nearby; they want to equip the hydrophones with antenna that would poke out of the water and relay the signal, and ideally activate a siren to alert any boats in the area of the presence of manatees, warning them to slow down.

“We’re trying to improve the situation, but we also need more human power, resources, funds and time,” Guzmán says. “It’s discouraging sometimes, but we have good tech people working with us, trying to make things happen.”

In 2014, Guzmán worked with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to create regulations for ships navigating in and out of the Panama Canal, which has successfully helped reduce collisions between vessels and humpback whales on their migration route. He also guided and led a multidisciplinary effort to expand the limits of the marine-protected area of Coiba Cordillera in the Panama Pacific, which was signed this year by the president.

These are major steps in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go to implement and improve conservation efforts. In the meantime, the whales, manatees and dolphins need humans to have their back.

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