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Empowering communities through responsible whale watching

Miguel Iñíguez

Miguel Iñíguez

Miguel is WDC's research fellow based in Argentina.

Seeing whales and dolphins in the wild can be an unforgettable experience that benefits everyone involved: the watchers, the tour operators, the local communities and, of course, the whales and dolphins. But it must be conducted responsibly. I’ve been working with whale watch operators in El Salvador to ensure that everyone reaps the rewards and the whales and dolphins can live safe and free.

From fishing to whale watching

El Salvador’s marine protected area, Complejo Los Cobanos, is a sanctuary for marine life, from the critically endangered hawksbill turtles who use it as a nesting site, to the reef-building corals that can’t be found anywhere else in El Salvador. Once teeming with fish, these waters sustained the local fishing industry and coastal communities. But years of overexploitation and the effects of climate change have had a major impact, forcing fishers to hang up their nets and look for an alternative source of income.

El Salvador’s marine protected area, Complejo Los Cobanos
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Coastal and marine tourism can help coastal communities flourish.

Aware of the thriving populations of whales and dolphins in the area, these fishers set up whale watching businesses. They now offer visitors the opportunity to observe spotted dolphins, spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, but without a doubt, the species that most attracts locals and visitors are the gigantic humpback whales.

Spotted dolphin (stenella frontalis) Spotted dolphin in the clear waters of the Atlantic ocean. Canary Islands.
Spinner dolphins © Lindsay Porter
Humpback whale at surface with pectoral fins

Complejo Los Cobanos is the perfect location to spot whales and dolphins in their natural habitat.

A fantastic opportunity

Whale watching isn’t just an exhilarating, and sometimes life-changing experience; it's a lucrative industry bringing significant economic benefits for local people. With the latest figures showing over 13 million people annually embarking on whale watch trips and the Ocean Ambassadors report by our partners, Deloitte, estimating its contribution to coastal and broader economies at £3.1 billion per year– whale watching is big business! For coastal communities like those in El Salvador, whale watching has provided a lifeline, created jobs, and contributed to the development of local tourism infrastructure. The benefits ripple through the community leading to improvements in hotel infrastructure, health, transport, communication, access roads, souvenir shops, and restaurants, to name a few.

WDC researcher
Many whale species are long-lived and, if treated responsibly, may be viewed in the wild over several decades.

With great opportunity comes great responsibility

While whale watching offers many benefits for the former fishers, the community, and the economy, the experience provided by the tour operators must also prioritise the wellbeing of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, as well as the marine environment. Prolonged and often close-up encounters can cause distress to these sentient beings, and overcrowding, inappropriate vessel approaches, and even collisions can cause injury and sometimes even death.

Whale tail injured in collision with a vessel

Can you help protect whales and dolphins from harm?

Just like you and me, whales and dolphins are intelligent beings capable of experiencing pleasure and suffering pain, so being relentlessly pursued by boats must be terrifying. But that’s not the only reason we need guidelines. To save our planet we need a healthy ocean, and a healthy ocean needs whales – they are climate giants. The humpback whales in these waters are part of the Central America population and they migrate along the coast of Mexico to their feeding grounds along the west coast of the United States and southern British Columbia. As they travel, they help the ocean flourish, transporting nutrients across vast distances in their urine, poo, milk and when they shed their skin. With only 250 mature individuals remaining in this population and already threatened by entanglement in fishing gear and vessel collisions, it’s vital that whale watching activities don’t pose more risk to their survival.

Whales poo fertilises phytoplankton which remove carbon dioxide and release oxygen critical for life on Earth.
Whales poo fertilises phytoplankton which remove carbon dioxide and release oxygen critical for life on Earth.

This is where we come in

At Whale and Dolphin Conservation, we’ve been promoting responsible whale watching for 30 years and running training workshops for operators and onboard naturalists in the Azores, Central and Latin America, Iceland, Japan, Scotland, Sri Lanka, Tenerife, Thailand and the US.

In February, I teamed up with Vanesa Tossenberger from Fundación Cethus in El Salvador to host a workshop for the former fishers turned whale watch guides. Our aim, in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of El Salvador (MARN), Humane Society International Latinoamerica, and Fundación Cethus in Argentina, was to demonstrate how to conduct their tours responsibly. We wanted to make sure they could continue to earn a living while keeping the whales safe. And since the Los Cóbanos Complex protected area is at an early stage of development, it's a great time to set up rules for whale watching. By regulating the activity from the outset, we can minimise the impact on dolphins and whales, strengthen the coastal community, and enhance research efforts in the area.

Miguel presenting at El Salvador whale watching workshop
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I feel proud that I get to share the awesomeness of whales and dolphins with people all around the globe.

The workshop began in San Salvador with a theoretical session that focused on four core pillars: education, conservation, economy and research. We educated the tour operators about whales and dolphins, their habitats, and the threats they face. Stressing the importance of preserving the ocean as well as the whales and dolphins who call it home, we showed them how to run tours sustainably, benefitting both their businesses and the environment. We also emphasised the need for ongoing research to better understand whale and dolphin behaviour so they can detect any negative impacts early, allowing for prompt conservation measures.

Former fisher, now whale watching operator at WDC's workshop in El Salvador
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Former fisher, now whale watching operator at WDC's workshop in El Salvador

The participants took our advice on board and were enthusiastic about protecting the incredible beings they spend their days observing.

Practice makes perfect

After the classroom session, we headed out onto the water to put the theory into practice. With clear skies above, we hoped for sightings of whales and dolphins, particularly the majestic humpbacks. But we all knew that spotting them was not guaranteed. Then, suddenly, a group of spotted dolphins passed close to the boat. Travelling at high speed and moving from one side to the other, they were clearly on the hunt for fish. Though we didn't see any whales, the trip offered us a breathtaking glimpse into the rich biodiversity of Los Cóbanos.

Former fishers now whale watching tour operators taking part in workshop in El Salvador
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It was incredible to be able to get out on the water to give a first hand demonstration of how to conduct this practice responsibly.

We had engaging discussions about whales and dolphins, how to watch them, what to do and what not to do during whale watching, how to promote tours and how to take into account commercial and safety aspects. The workshop participants, many of whom were artisanal fishers, enthusiastically shared their experiences. It was evident that all participants saw nature tourism, including whale and dolphin watching, as a promising avenue for the development of their community.

This is quite the office!
This is quite the office!

Paving the way for a sustainable future

This workshop marked a significant milestone as the first of its kind in El Salvador, laying the ground for continued training of tour operators in the future. Responsible whale watching isn't just a short-term economic opportunity; it's a pathway to long-term sustainable development. The communities become empowered by learning about and addressing the diverse natural and cultural resources around them, and by learning about the threats that affect the different species, they become inspired to protect them.

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Eldinghumpback

The future looks bright for the tour operators, local communities and the whales and dolphins.

Now, the participants we trained have the ability and means to continue training future tour operators and, by prioritising conservation alongside economic gains, they can protect the magnificent whales and dolphins and their habitats for future generations to come. This workshop means that, together, we're not only creating unforgettable experiences for tourists but also safeguarding the ocean and the magnificent beings that inhabit them.

El Salvador whale watching workshop
A final group photo to conclude a very successful day.

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