- With increasing number of tourists and motorboats joining dolphin tourism in Goa, the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins and the finless porpoises are facing unprecedented stress.
- This is adversely affecting their essential behaviour and social activities.
- Conservationists and managers want to bring regulation to dolphin tourism so that there are licences and prescribed guidelines for operators.
With the beginning of the New Year, thousands of tourists from all over the country and the world are pouring into Goa. The party capital of India is on a high, building up to the Carnival. However, it is not as if all denizens of Goa are happy about it. With motorboats whizzing over their heads, the excessive activity is causing stress to the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins (Sousa plumbea) and the finless porpoises (Neophocaena phocaenoides), found in the Goan waters.
One after another, boats filled with loud and boisterous tourists send them into a tizzy. With all their energy spent on finding safety, experts and conservationists say that these animals are too tired to hunt for food, socialise, mate, or escape propellers of fast-moving boats.
The Indian Ocean humpback dolphins Sousa plumbea do not venture out more than 500 metres from the coast and prefer being in shallow waters – up to 50 feet in depth – making Goa an ideal habitat for them. Hundreds of motorised fibre-reinforced plastic boats make their way to the shallow waters to spot dolphins, much to the amusement of tourists.
“Our first trip starts early in the morning – around 7.30am, and is the longest one of the day. It takes at least 90 minutes and up to two hours to spot a pod of dolphins,” said Thomas Silveriaa, a boat operator at Sinquerim beach in North Goa. “Once we spot them, we never let them go out of our sight for the entire day. We keep telling the next boat where the pod is.”
Reclassified to endangered
Taking cognizance of their decreasing numbers all over the world, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), this year, reclassified these dolphins from ‘near threatened’ to ‘endangered’. “The factor primarily responsible for the decline is incidental mortality in small-scale coastal fisheries, but the loss, degradation and pollution of habitat in numerous coastal areas is a contributing and increasing factor. The threats have not been mitigated anywhere in the species’ range, even though threat levels are increasing virtually everywhere,” read their justification.
The Indian Government has listed these dolphins under a group of animals for which it is providing special support for conservation. However, the responsibility of protecting these dolphins seems to have fallen between the cracks of the Goan bureaucracy, leaving these creatures vulnerable.
More boats, less dolphins
Sinquerim Bay is where the Mandovi river meets the Arabian Sea. With a length 4 km and an average depth of 5 m, it is one of the most preferred places for dolphin spotting in Goa. Swarms of boats leave the bay every minute. Once they spot a pod, they rev up their engines to chase them. Once closer, they circle around the dolphins and go as close as possible. Some 148 boats operate out of this bay, says a member of Sinquerim-Candolim Boat Owners Association. “During peak season, as many as 100 boats are out at the same time. The pressure to spot dolphins is very high during these times as customers get very angry otherwise,” said Dominique Fernandes, an owner of two boats. “Until a short while ago, we had a money-back policy if we did not spot dolphins. But it has become too difficult to follow that,” he added.
At a cost of Rs 300 for a 45-minute trip into the sea, there is no dearth of tourists wanting to take a boat ride to see the dolphins. Official data shows that the overall number of tourists coming to Goa increased from 1.38 million in 2001 to 6.33 million in 2016 — an increase of 360 percent.
“In 1997-98, I don’t remember seeing more than a couple of boats taking tourists to spot dolphins. With more and more tourism coming, the numbers have increased dramatically,” said Goa-based marine ecologist Aaron Lobo. “However, the quality of tourism is very low. It is not around learning about the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins. People just want to see them jump and go back.”
Dolphin spotting became a business only around 12 to 13 years ago, say fishermen. “Before that, fishermen only took those who were seriously interested in seeing the animals. It was more opportunistic,” said Silveria.
According to Dipani Sutaria, who studied the issue in 2004 and later in 2015, the dolphin numbers have been dropping since the time dolphin-spotting became a business. Sutaria is a member of IUCN cetacean specialist group, and an adjunct senior research fellow at James Cook University, Australia. “In 2001-02, the sighting rate was 0.236 groups/km for humpback-dolphins and the total number of individuals counted was 842. Some 75 percent of these dolphin groups were sighted between Terekhol and Vasco, closer to the river mouths and 60 percent of sightings were in water depths of 6 to10 m. The only other species sighted was the finless porpoise,” she said.
“In November 2016, a quick coastal survey over three days between Telekhol and Madgaon, reported 27 groups with a sighting rate of 0.151 groups/km, a surprising drop in encounter rate. To ascertain this drop in numbers would require larger survey effort to confirm,” Sutaria said.
Tourism disturbs essential behaviour in dolphins
In a 2016 study, the IUCN and WWF-India observed three types of behaviour shown by boat operators: path cutting, chasing and circling of dolphins. More than 70 percent of the time dolphins were forced to change the direction in which they were swimming.
“When boats approached a group or individual dolphins, they were observed to dive deep and resurface at a distance away from the huddle of dolphin-watching boats,” read the study titled ‘Promoting Sustainable Marine Tourism in Goa’. The report says that disturbances had an impact on the natural behaviour of dolphins. “Several studies have shown that such boat disturbance leads to alteration or cessation of essential behaviour such as foraging, resting and socializing, and these changes could reduce the overall fitness of animals encountered on these dolphin-watching trips,” it added.
“Most boats in Goa have very high bows. Which means, they cannot even see what is in front of them and chances of them inadvertently running into a pod of dolphins is higher,” said Puja Mitra, founder of Terra Conscious. Her organisation is working proactively with various government agencies and international organisations to protect the natural habitat of dolphins. The organisation also offers ethical boat trips to spot dolphins.
When it comes to regulations for conserving dolphins, there is confusion regarding who is responsible for what within the Goa Government. While the Captain of Ports takes care of the licensing of boats, the Department of Tourism registers them under ‘water sports’. The forest department, whose responsibility it is to protect vulnerable and endangered species, comes into action only when the dolphin is dead and stranded on the shorelines.
“Unlike tigers, dolphins live in an unprotected area. We cannot take legal action against boat operators. We cannot impose speed restrictions or demarcate areas where they can and cannot get in to. However, we are working with the tourism department to sensitise them,” said Ajai Saxena, the principal chief conservator of forests for Goa.
The department began gathering data on the number of dolphins that have been left stranded only in July this year. “Yet, we cannot say how many were caused by tourists. Some could be natural deaths, some could be hit by big ships in high seas,” he added. In January, the department is releasing a poster to explain the do’s and don’ts to tourists and boat operators when it comes to interacting with dolphins.
Currently, dolphin spotting is categorised as water sports, rather than a controlled activity by the forest department. “I agree that dolphin spotting should not be considered a water sport. We are taking initiatives to ensure that there is an overall improvement in protecting them,” said deputy director of the Goa tourism department Brijesh Manerakar.
Shouldn’t kill the golden goose
Officials from Goa’s tourism department say there are nearly 1,500 boats in Goa that come under ‘water sports’. However, they have no clue how many are exclusive for dolphin-spotting. “Though dolphin-spotting is a popular activity with tourists, we cannot say for sure how many boats are specifically used for this,” said Rajesh Kale, director of tourism. “We conduct sensitisation courses for boat operators. I don’t think they are causing any harm to dolphins.”
Dolphin-watching tourism in Goa plays a vital role in the state’s tourism economy and provide various means of livelihoods for the local community, but there is a need to manage and establish a responsible tour operation mechanism, read the WWF-IUCN report. “Many operators are also migrant employees from other parts of the country, which means they are insecure about their jobs. They should be empowered to stop unruly tourists who not only litter our oceans but also force them to go closer to dolphins,” said Mitra.
Other conservationists say that an unregulated sector is difficult to reign in, yet have hopes for Goa. “Whether it is dolphin spotting in Goa or Chilika Lake in Odisha, the ad hoc development of tourism around these animals quickly becomes an unregulated, free-for-all commercial activity. Since Goa is a small state with a fairly homogenous population I feel that it is still not too late to set things right,” said wildlife and conservation filmmaker Shekar Dattatri.
According to globally accepted norms set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the USA, no vessel is supposed to get nearer than 50 yards or 45 m from a dolphin. Approaching dolphins from the front or back will force them to change their direction and thus the norms suggest that boats must approach them from the side.
The IUCN-WWF report dedicates a chapter on recommendations to make tourism sustainable, including policy changes, surveillance, capacity building of boat operators, research and monitoring, and mitigation measures. “The trips can be re-branded as ‘wildlife experiences’ offering content and information on the marine species, conducted in accordance with accepted guidelines, enhancing the quality and priced at par with international standards,” read one of the recommendation. This, they argue, would increase the earnings of boat operators and reduce the number of trips they go on. “This would reduce the ecological impact of these trips and increase its revenue,” added the report.
Currently, dolphin trips are conducted either by associations located in jettys or by shack owners, thereby making it difficult to monitor and regulate. The report recommends that a Dolphin Boat Association be set up. Licenses issued should be subject to the applicant having obtained the necessary training and knowledge needed to conduct such wildlife trips sustainably.
“We can learn much from the way whale shark watching is done in Donsol in the Philippines,” Dattatri added. “By stringently restricting the number of boats on the water at any one time and by training the staff on the boats properly, they have ensured that tourists can watch the whale sharks with the least amount of disturbance to them. It’s a win-win situation, that doesn’t kill the ‘golden goose’.”