Dolphinwatching: benefits and risks

In the last decades, dolphin and whale watching based tourism have rapidly become really popular in the oceans all over the world (Hoyt, 2001), including the Mediterranean Sea. Although many studies have been carried out to understand the economic benefit of whale watching, very few studies have investigated the the short and long term effect on local target species in the Mediterranean and the human dimension of this kind of tourism. 

Main question 1: How does commercial and accidental dolphin-watching interact with dolphin populations and the ecological condition of the habitat where they live?

Dolphins can react to the presence of boats in various ways, that can depend also on local ecological conditions. We are studying the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins in the north-west of Sardinia, their home range and the ecological conditions within the population range with the aim to measure the consequences of commercial and accidental dolphin-watching. We also work in cooperation with the Blue Word Institute (Croatia) to compare data collected with the same protocol in two different Mediterranean regions.        

Reason: It is well documented that the fitness of individual Odontocetes repeatedly exposed to dolphin watching can be compromised and that this can lead to population level effects (IWC, 2006).  

Main question 2: Is a responsible dolphin watching experience able to improve peoples' awareness about the need to change daily behaviours with the aim to support the protection of dolphins and oceans? 

Reason: Many advocates and marine scientists agree that whale watching activities have the capability to improve the level of environmental knowledge of whale watchers and to encourage their pro-environmental attitudes (Zeppel & Muloin, 2008), if scientific knowledge is given to them by the local guides.  The aim of our study, carried out in cooperation with Prof. Giuseppe Malis (University of Cagliari) and the Blue Word Institute in Croatia, is to experimentally measure if dolphin-based tourism can motivate participants to support marine conservation (which ultimately should result in a conservation outcome - Peake et al., 2009).

The first results show that, after a dolphin watching tour, ran following the principle of ecotourism:

- There is an increased interest in 'learning about dolphin biology and/or ocean conservation'.
- There is an increased interest in 'learning what I can do to help support ocean conservation'.
- People become aware of the fact that there are guidelines for approaching cetaceans.
- After the tour, participants became significantly more sensitive about their sense of responsibility for marine pollution and marine protection.
- After the tour, participants are willing to pay an additional fee for dolphin watching tour to support marine conservation.
- Getting as close as possible to the animals is the first expectation of participants. When they receive explanations on the negative impact of the proximity of the boat on the dolphin welfare, the satisfaction of the experience increase regardless of the dolphins' proximity.
This last aspect is very important because it shows that with good communication on board, the implementation of mandatory rules for dolphin watching activities will not be perceived as detrimental to the success of dolphin watching companies’ business.

To learn more, read the paper published on the Journal of Ecotourism:

Sustainable dolphin watching tours as a tool to increase public awareness of marine conservation – a comparative analysis between two Mediterranean destinations and implications for management