The World Cetacean Alliance has formed a collaboration with the Azores Delphis Project, a research project that aims to improve understanding of how swim-with activities could affect the behaviour of common dolphins.
All words by Fadia Al Abbar, Laura Gonzalez Garcia, and Lorenzo Fiori.
“Swimming with dolphins” is often seen as a cliché bucket list activity – but as global demand for these close interactions rises , what is the effect on the dolphins?
There is evidence that “swimming with dolphins” can have a negative effect on the health of a dolphin population. For example, in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, a study found that swim-with tours have caused the local bottlenose dolphin population to decrease dramatically as a consequence of moving away from an area and due to high calf mortality rates.
The Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the few locations worldwide where tour companies offer swim-with activities. In São Miguel Island, common dolphins are known to be the most frequently approached by whale watching and swimming-with-dolphin activities. Previous research has also shown that dolphins actively avoid tourist boats and spend less time foraging when approached by vessels. However, these short-term responses tell us very little about the potential long-term effects for the dolphin population, as basic knowledge (e.g., numbers, habitat, movement patterns) on the Azorean common dolphin population is completely lacking.
Azores Delphis Project
In order to understand this population better, and to investigate how tourism activities affect common dolphins in the Azores, Ph.D. student Fadia Al Abbar, Dr. Lorenzo Fiori, and Dr. Laura Gonzalez Garcia founded the Azores Delphis Project. The Azores Delphis project aims to understand more about the São Miguel common dolphin population, site fidelity, and interaction with swim-with-dolphin activities.
The researchers use photo ID to identify individual dolphins in the pod. Drones are also used to gain a non-invasive perspective from above, allowing the research vessel to stay at a distance, and acoustics are used to record the dolphins’ vocalisations which provides insights to their behaviour.
The project started in 2020, during the pandemic, as a feasibility study. Following this, two fieldwork seasons have been completed, observingcommon dolphins in their behavioural state before, during and after interactions with swim-with-dolphin activities.
Whale watching collaborations make research happen
This project works in collaboration with local whale watching companies Picos de Aventura, Terra do Pico, and WCA Certified responsible tour operator Terra Azul (to learn how the Azores Delphis Project started, read this previous blog post). Whale watching companies have helped by providing vessels to conduct research on, as well as sharing information on the location of common dolphins at sea. Biologists and guides at sea, as well as lookouts on land searching for whales and dolphins for tour operators, have greatly contributed to the Azores Delphis Project.
All their efforts have been crucial to the success of finding pods of common dolphins for the project’s research. Finally, the collaboration of these whale watching companies highlights the importance of research on the effect of tourism activities at sea, and reinforces their interest in developing more responsible guidelines that help to minimise their potential impact on cetaceans and ensure the best welfare of the animals as well as the best experience for tourists.
Future of the project
Fadia will be analysing the data and publishing results for the next two years of her PhD. The results will then be shared directly with whale watching collaborators and local policy makers in the Azores.
By collaborating with the WCA, the Azores Delphis Project is also able to reach whale watching companies worldwide and use the findings to contribute to swim-with-dolphin welfare guidelines (including the next iteration of the WCA’s global best practice).
Find out more
Borecka, Nathalia. (2016). The Ultimate Bucket List Ideas to Inspire Your Next Adventure. Lonewolf. Magazine. Accessed on 29-3-2020 from: https://lonewolfmag.com/bucket-list-ideas/
Cecchetti, A., Stockin, K. A., Gordon, J., & Azevedo, J. M. N. (2017). Short-term effects of tourism on the behaviour of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) in the Azores. Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom, 98(5), 1187–1196. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0025315417000674
Cecchetti, A., Stockin, K. A., Gordon, J., & Azevedo, J. M. N. A. (2019). A first assessment of operator compliance and dolphin behavioural responses during swim-with-dolphin programs for three species of Delphinids in the Azores. Arquipelago, Life and m(36), 23–37.
Constantine, R. (2019). Investigating the Decline of the Bottlenose Dolphin Population of the Bay of Islands. (January 2010). https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.12213.63206
Tyne, J. A., Christiansen, F., Heenehan, H. L., Johnston, D. W., & Bejder, L. (2018). Chronic exposure of Hawaii Island spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) to human activities. Royal Society Open Science, 5(10). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.171506