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Sparkly eyes and faces beaming with joy

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All words by WCA Trustee Titia Sjenitzer. Header photo by Mercedes Reyes, owner of Whale Wise Eco Tours.

Majestic. That is the first word that comes to mind when I think about whales and dolphins. Like the lion is the king of the jungle, the whale is the queen of the ocean. Dolphins are universally associated with happiness. I will never forget the last night of a four-day sailing trip where many things had gone wrong; I was exhausted and thought I didn’t have the energy for another night of fighting the waves. The sun was setting, and my partner had just gone down to catch some sleep. At that moment, a pod of dolphins appeared and started a performance of elegant jumps and funny back flips. With the pink-coloured sky in the background, it was the most precious gift I have ever received. As if they came to tell me, “Come on, you can do this, it’s only one more night, the Norwegian coast is already on the horizon.”

The magic of seeing dolphins is also one of sharing. Another experience I had in my twenties showed that it’s not just me that feels this special connection. I was on an Amazon river cruise in Ecuador to see the iconic pink dolphins. What I remember most from this trip are the tour guides. Despite running this trip every single day, they were still jumping up and down at the bow of the boat as soon as the dolphins showed their pink beaks above the water. The guides’ faces were beaming with joy, showing the intense connection they felt with the animals and their eagerness to share that experience. This wasn’t unique to these tour guides. Since then, I have seen the exact same sense of joy and connection with cetaceans multiple times. Big smiles and sparkly eyes at every single encounter with these special creatures, including from people who see them almost every day. It doesn’t get old.

Is it their strength and elegance as they swim through the oceans, or the fact that they are highly intelligent, sentient and social beings that make us feel connected? Do we intrinsically know that they are an essential player in the ocean ecosystem, making them a key solution in the fight against climate change? Whatever it is, there is a natural respect and knowledge that we should celebrate and protect these special animals.

Photo by Mercedes Reyes.

Their magic doesn’t lie in the circus tricks they can do, jumping through hoops and rolling over on command. Their enchanting power comes from the vast distances they can swim, their role as keystone species of the ocean and their interactions with their pod. In marine parks where they live in captivity, they are denied everything that make them so special.

The true experience comes from wild encounters. The anticipation. The shared experience of spotting them, pointing to others where to look and sharing the moment of awe when they surface. The understanding of their size when you are bobbing around on a small boat. The connection they make with you, rolling on their side, checking you out.

However, it’s very important that these wild watching experiences are done with appreciation for the wellbeing of the animals. This means: respectful distance, only a few boats at the time, no loud engines near them and avoiding any other behaviours that can cause stress to the animals. As many operators of whale and dolphin watching tours are not yet knowledgeable enough about the needs of whales and dolphins and the principles of responsible tourism, this is a journey. And every journey needs people to lead the way.

Photo by Titia Sjenitzer.

I recently had the opportunity to join Mercedes Reyes on a tour with Whale Wise Eco Tours on the west coast of Tenerife. Mercedes has been an ocean heroine from childhood. When she visited Loro Parque at age 15 and saw whales and dolphins in small tanks, she left crying, and decided that she never wanted to go back there again and would dedicate her life to protecting the animals in the wild.

Over the past years, her efforts have been focused on achieving Whale Heritage Site certification for the waters around West Tenerife and the La Gomera Marine Area. The Whale Heritage Sites programme is an initiative by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA), which formally recognises and accredits outstanding locations around the world where communities celebrate, respect and protect cetaceans and their habitats. Tenerife-La Gomera was awarded Whale Heritage Site status in January 2021, thanks to the collective work of Mercedes and other local stakeholders.

As soon as I entered the marina with my friend, we were welcomed by a sign telling us that pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins are the most common marine mammals to be seen in these waters. There was also a warning for tourists to only go out with an authorised operator. On board, Mercedes explained the Code of Conduct that defines in detail how the boats are expected to behave near the whales and dolphins. For example: you must never come between a mother and calf; you should approach them from the side; keep a minimum distance, unless they choose to approach you closer; and stay back if there are other boats near the animals.

Photo by Titia Sjenitzer.

On the water, it became clear why all this was so important. As soon as the first pilot whales were spotted by one of the operators, several boats rushed to the exact same spot. The boats lined up according to the rules, in a V-shape, waiting their turn to get a closer look. Luckily, Mercedes knew there would be other members of the same pod around and where we would be likely to find them. Leaving the queue of boats behind, we set off for a more intimate experience. We ended up seeing four different subgroups of pilot whales: two pairs of males; a group of juveniles; and a group of mothers and calves. Turning off the engine, we watched the pilot whales from a respectful distance, while Mercedes and her colleague explained more about their group structure and behaviour.

One of the challenges for conservation projects is to get all relevant parties on board and find a way to deal with outsiders who don’t want to play by the rules. To achieve the WCA Whale Heritage Site certification, a powerful partnership was created that includes responsible whale watching tour operators, the local and national government, the University of Tenerife, and Turismo Tenerife. The residents of Tenerife also support the initiative and Mercedes has experienced a huge shift in the awareness of her fellow islanders about the cetaceans during her lifetime. “Before, many people hardly knew that we had these amazing animals swimming around in our waters,” she explains, “now, most locals know and care about the protection of them.”

Photo by Mercedes Reyes.

Working closely with the local and national authorities is essential to police the waters for irresponsible and illegal boat operators. More capacity from the national government to support the local Canaries oversight team is coming soon, helping to increase the surveillance. They have also tightened the law to make it easier to sentence those not abiding by the rules.

More efforts are planned to inform tourists directly. All the hotels have been informed and sent a list of legal operators; however, this doesn’t always reach the hotel guests. The tour operators hand out leaflets to browsing tourists, telling them to book with one of the listed operators that are authorised.

I, truly, have never met anyone who doesn’t want whales and dolphins to lead happy lives. However, it’s not always easy to know the right thing to do, whether you live near the ocean or visit as a tourist. Initiatives like the WCA’s Responsible Whale Watching Certification and Whale Heritage Sites programme help local communities and visitors to appreciate and celebrate our unique companions of the oceans, as well as supporting them to take responsible actions that will allow these wonderful animals to live a free and peaceful life.

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