Bottlenose Dolphins in Panama Getting Bottled Up by Tour Boats

Bocas del Toro is a cluster of small islands on the Atlantic side of Panama, with a rich and diverse marine ecosystem. Until recently, the human presence in Bocas del Toro consisted of indigenous communities and a few banana plantations. People traveled by small handmade canoes, and lived in one-room wooden stilt houses.

A rapid tourism boom has changed that. Europeans and North Americans have established tourism businesses in Bocas del Toro—not always carefully. Within the last 20 years many of Bocas del Toro’s mangroves have been ripped out and a bustling tourist town has developed, with roads, tourist facilities, and shops.

One of Bocas del Toro’s most popular tourist activities is dolphin-watching. Every day, small speedboats with disproportionately large and noisy engines take tourists out to Dolphin Bay—where bottlenose dolphins come together to socialize and possibly teach their young how to forage. During the slow season, from 3 to 15 boats might approach a group of dolphins at one time. But during high season, locals have reported more than 100 dolphin-watching boats crowding around a single group of dolphins in the bay. In order to create ideal dolphin picture opportunities for the tourists, boats circle, drive through or over dolphin groups, and chase mothers and calves. Tourists even leap out of the moving dolphin-watching boats to swim after the dolphins.

Ashley Sitar, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University, on hand to conduct research in the area in the summer of 2013, asked locals and boat operators about the dolphins and tourism. She found that dolphin-watching boat operators in Bocas del Toro were unaware that Panama even had a dolphin-watching code of conduct, and knew little about proper watercraft operating procedures to avoid injuries to dolphins.

During July, August and September, Ashley observed the local dolphins without dolphin-watching boats present, and how they reacted when boats were around. She found that when dolphin-watching boats were present, the dolphins showed behaviors indicative of stress—such as slapping their tails on the surface of the water. She also observed evidence of physical run-ins with boats—sliced fins and gashes along their flanks from boat propellers. From 2012 to 2013, nine dolphins (out of a total population of 100–150) were killed in boat collisions.

 Tellingly, the stress behaviors were only observed when dolphin-watching boats failed to follow the Panamanian dolphin-watching code of conduct. Her study showed that when boats kept the right distance and behaved in a manner described and advocated by this voluntary code of conduct, dolphin behaviors were similar to those when boats were not present—that is to say, normal and unstressed.

The indigenous people have become financially dependent on dolphin tourism. But they also, in interviews with Ashley, expressed a strong connection with the dolphins and alarm over the current situation. Improved dolphin tourism—including training and education in proper boat etiquette around the dolphins—will help the community of Bocas del Toro benefit from the influx of tourists without harming the dolphins.