To expand on this subject, DIAaDIA interviewed Isis Pinto, manager of Science and Communities for the MarViva Foundation, who explains in this issue everything about the cetaceans - whales and dolphins-- that live in Panamanian waters.
Where are the sites in Panama that tourists can visit to see these mammals?
These marine mammals reach all Panamanian waters (Caribbean and Pacific). Not many sites are recognized for offering this activity, and the best known are at Bocas del Toro, Iguana Island and Coiba National Park.
Every year an estimated 16,000 visitors return to watch dolphins in Bocas del Toro. Isla Iguana is another spot where tourists watch dolphins, a service offered by about 15 boatmen. Also, in southern Veraguas approximately 27 boatmen already offer this service.
What is the route the whales take to arrive at Panama?
Whales coming from the North and South vary their routes depending on the groups. It is precisely for this reason that there are efforts in Panama to identify the routes the cetaceans (whales and dolphins) travel, to establish management measures to protect them.
How long do they stay in Panama and during which months?
The whales migrate in certain periods when the waters at the poles become very cold and lack food. They migrate towards tropical waters that are warmer and have food available to feed their young for a while until they gain enough fat and have learned to defend themselves for the return trip to waters of the North and South. In Panama we can see the whales from June to November and February to April.
What characteristics do the Panamanian seas have that attract the cetaceans to use them as rearing grounds for their young?
The waters are warm and have enough food.
What is the weight and size of the animals?
The weight and size vary depending on the species. To give some examples, the humpback measures 16 meters long and can weigh up to 48 tons, the orca whale-- considered a dolphin-- can be 10 meters long and weigh 7 tons, and the bottlenose dolphin can reach up to 4 meters long and weigh 150 kilograms.
In Panama, all of the species that arrive to our waters have not yet been identified; however, we know which are the most common: Pacific speckled or spotted dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, screw or rotator dolphin, humpback whale, Orcinus orca whale, short-finned pilot whale, among others.
If whale-watching ecotourism is promoted in Panama, how is it done?
Panama is not known as a place to watch whales, like other countries such as Argentina, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Costa Rica, among others.
But in practice, the service is offered informally, creating a need to train boatmen to offer responsible whale watching tourism, in a way that doesn't risk the lives of either tourists or cetaceans.
In fact, in 2007 the ARAP released Resolution No. 1, by which "whale watching in the jurisdictional waters of the Republic of Panama is regulated."
The MarViva Foundation began a community training project in 2011for 27 tour operators in the Gulf of Chiriquí on responsible whale watching. The project also aimed to inform residents of coastal communities of this economical alternative for sustainable use of marine resources, in Montijo, Bongo, Pilón and Santa Catalina, in the province of Veraguas, and Boca Chica, Pedregal and Remedios in the province of Chiriquí.
Which is the best place for us to see these mammals, and what else is offered at this site?
In all of Panama's waters. For example, in the Gulf of Chiriquí we can watch whales and dolphins, as well as observe a variety of natural and cultural beauty local to the area. Currently, local guides are trained to offer this service responsibly, since the tourists that visit are interested in spotting cetaceans (whales and dolphins).
What are the costs to see these animals?
Prices vary depending on the distances, oscillating between 50 and 100 dollars per person, depending on which site is chosen.
What are the rules to prevent accidents and a negative impact on these animals?
Panama has regulations on whale watching that set guidelines to conduct this activity responsibly, such as maintain a distance of 100 to 250 meters from the animal or group of animals, keep the boat behind or to one side of the animal or group, never intercept them from the front, do not separate mothers from their young or surround them, observe for 30 minutes or less and then leave the area, keep the boat's engine at a low speed (7 km/h), do not make noise, do not feed them, do not try to swim with them, receive instructions from the guides on the mainland before boarding the boat so that the tour is conducted in a responsible manner, without disturbing the species, and no more than two tourist boats should be watching the same group of cetaceans.