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Golfo Dulce

 

The first Whale Heritage Area in Latin America

Surrounded by the lush rainforest of Costa Rica’s pacific coast lies Golfo Dulce, a tropical fjord-like embayment, renowned for its rich marine and terrestrial biodiversity. The waters of Golfo Dulce, which are recognised as an Important Marine Mammal Area (IMMA), are home to a wide range of resident and migratory cetacean species including humpback whales, pantropical spotted dolphins, and a highly localised population of inshore bottlenose dolphins.

Conservation efforts are at the forefront in this region, with organisations like Osa Conservation, CEIC and Osa Ecology, playing pivotal roles in fostering sustainable practices, contributing to globally important research and educating the community about the importance of marine stewardship.

An estimated 60–80% of the local economy around the area is in ecotourism and many residents make their living in marine activities, including whale watching, dolphin tours, kayaking, snorkelling trips, and sport-fishing. In particular, the collaborative whale watching industry demonstrates a dedication towards responsible practices on the water, ensuring that visitors can experience the wonders of seeing cetaceans in the wild whilst minimising disturbance.

Golfo Dulce became a designated Whale Heritage Area in September 2023.

KEY FACTS

Location

    • Region – Latin America
    • Country – Costa Rica
    • Area/State – Osa Peninsula
    • Area size – 750km2

Cetacean species

      • Common bottlenose dolphins
      • Humpback whales
      • Pantropical spotted dolphins
      • False killer whales
      • Bryde’s whales
      • Killer whales
      • Rough-toothed dolphins

    The Destination

    Location

    Golfo Dulce is a picturesque tropical fiord-like bay situated on Costa Rica’s South Pacific coast, surrounded by lush mountainous rainforest. Covering a length of approximately 50 km and a width of 10 to 15 km, it spans a surface area of 750 km2. Freshwater flows into the bay from four major rivers, along with several smaller tributaries, and mangroves fringe its edges. Golfo Dulce is designated a marine protected zone as part of the Piedras Blancas National Park. The surrounding towns that are situated in the WHA include Canaza, Punta Banco, Pavones, Langostino, Matapalo, Mogos, Zancudo, Golfito, Rincon, Playa Blanca, and Puerto Jiménez.

    Cetaceans regularly seen

    In Golfo Dulce, various cetacean species are seen, including common bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales, pantropical spotted dolphins, false killer whales, Bryde’s whales, killer whales, and rough-toothed dolphins.

    Two distinct populations of humpback whales, North Pacific humpback whales and Southern Hemisphere humpback whales, seasonally migrate to breeding grounds in Golfo Dulce. This is the only place in the world where two distinct populations of humpback whales migrate to the same location to calve their young.

    The cetaceans within this WHA possess distinctive characteristics. For instance, the bottlenose dolphin population here represents an “inshore” ecotype, exhibiting a highly localised distribution with a total population of less than 500 individuals along the entire Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama. Moreover, in Golfo Dulce, dolphins are regularly observed swimming in close proximity to visiting whales, and they display fascinating behaviour by interacting with (“harassing”) venomous sea snakes; a behaviour noted in a few other areas of the world but not to the extent observed in Golfo Dulce.

    Things to do

     

    • Take a whale watching tour with a local and responsible tour operator.
    • Join the festivities at one of Golfo Dulce’s festivals, celebrating cetaceans and the marine environment off this biodiversity rich coast.
    • Take part in a litter pick with one of the local NGOs or tourism companies to play your part in keeping the area pristine for people and wildlife alike.

    Achieving Whale Heritage Area status

    Each Whale Heritage Area has a unique route to meeting the Wildlife Heritage Area criteria. Check out some of the highlights from Golfo Dulce Whale Heritage Area:

    Encouraging Respectful Human-Cetacean Coexistence

    The NGO Osa Conservation plays a pivotal role in fostering cooperation and adherence to regulations. Through annual meetings in Puerto Jimenez and Golfito, featuring presentations and guest speakers, Osa Conservation reinforces the rules and regulations governing cetacean watching in Costa Rica. Additionally, the NGO conducts specialised workshops in cetacean watching exclusively for fishermen in the Golfo Dulce area. By engaging with local stakeholders, Osa Conservation contributes to a culture of conservation and sustainable practices.

    Collaboration between whale and dolphin watching operators in the region is strong, with approximately 95% of local operators belonging to a WhatsApp group, where sightings and important information are shared regularly, and operators provide feedback and reminders on best practices to one another during tours.

    The implementation of national regulation guidelines has led to the development of a National Virtual Course by the National Institute of Learning of Costa Rica (INA). This course covers cetacean species in Costa Rica, their behaviour, and the national regulations for cetacean watching. It is pending approval to be mandated for all boat captains and guides working in the cetacean-watching industry nationwide. The national guidelines are also being developed into billboard posters to be positioned at public docks to raise awareness of the safe protocols to be adhered to around cetaceans – something that is already gaining positive feedback from operators in the region.

    Among the local operators, Changing Tide Tours holds Responsible Whale Watching certification from the WCA and is also certified as Responsible Tourism Towards Animals by FAADA.

    Celebrating Cetaceans

    Events are held in the Golfo Dulce WHA that enables locals and tourists to understand and connect with the marine environment and their local cetaceans on a deeper level. The Golfito library, Osa Ecology, and Open Mind nursery in Golfito organise a variety of cetacean-themed education and entertainment activities for children and adults throughout the year. These activities include virtual story time, book readings, workshops, and art programs. The goal of these activities is to promote the value of books, enlighten children about cetaceans, and strengthen bonds between families and the environment. In addition, from December 2024 the Golfo Dulce WHA will host an annual music and wellbeing festival, during which Osa Ecology will organise a ‘Healing Whale Song’ tent, featuring recordings of whale songs from local whale watching companies and NGO’s. These efforts help raise awareness about the importance of conserving the marine area around the Osa Peninsula.

    In September 2023, the first annual Whale Festival was held to celebrate cetaceans at Golfito. The events include live music by Costa Rican artists, food, and whale and dolphin decorations. Educational stands provided information, played recordings of whale song and dolphin clicks, and encouraged involvement in the planning of and family participation in future WHA activities.

    Local artists such as Tony Reyman and Alejandra Rojas, as well as volunteers from a visiting student group, have painted various beautiful marine- and cetacean-themed murals around Golfo Dulce, which are a source of community pride and demonstrate the cultural significance of whales and dolphins in the area.

    Working Towards Sustainability

    There is a strong commitment to environmental stewardship within the Golfo Dulce WHA. Several beaches are certified with the Blue Flag accreditation through the Costa Rica Tourism Board (ICT) and local travel agency ‘Osa Wild’ has been given 5 green leaves (the highest award) for sustainable tourism by ICT.

    Local WCA Responsible Whale Watching certified operator Changing Tide Tours incorporates sustainability into their business, educating guests on responsible sunscreen choices and eliminating single-use plastic cups, encouraging the use of reusable water bottles instead. Changing Tide Tours also have a long-standing collaboration with local non-profit Osa Ecology, in which a red mangrove is planted for every person who attends a tour with them.

    The local town hall in Golfito has implemented an innovative initiative, ‘trueque limpio’, where residents can exchange recyclable goods for fresh fruits and vegetables. This monthly event occurs at the Golfito public boat dock and periodically in the towns of Puerto Jimenez and Pavones, fostering a culture of recycling and sustainability. Throughout the year, various entities, including the Golfito town hall, Osa Ecology, Playa Blanca Local Association, Osa Conservation, Open Mind nursery, Puerto Jimenez Local Association, and ASCONA, organise beach clean-ups and sign painting campaigns around Golfo Dulce. These initiatives not only keep the coastline clean but also instil a sense of community pride and encourage eco-friendly practices among locals and visitors alike.

    Developing Research, Education and Awareness Programmes

    The Golfo Dulce WHA serves as a hub for groundbreaking research and education. Dedicated organisations, including Cetacean Institute of Costa Rica (CEIC), Osa Ecology, Raising Coral, the University of Costa Rica, and Osa Conservation, continue to gather data to help understand the local cetacean populations, marine environment and how these are impacted by human activities. Their efforts span a wide spectrum, from tracking cetacean movements and behaviour to assessing coral reef health and quantifying noise pollution.

    Notable examples of research undertaken in the area include CEIC’s continual data collection on lacaziosis-like disease (LLD), a fungal disease that appears to be effecting several of the local “inshore” bottlenose dolphin ecotype, of which there are only 500 individuals in the population along the whole pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama. Their research has played a critical role in highlighting the potential detrimental impacts of proposed development projects, such as a marina or tuna farm, on these cetacean populations. Local marine biologist Pilar Bernal’s recent master’s thesis, in collaboration with CEIC, examining the multi-year maternal lineage of the resident bottlenose dolphins has also helped to further our understanding of resident bottlenose dolphin social dynamics. Changing Tide Tours and CEIC also offer local students the opportunity to intern or collect data for their thesis free of charge.

    These collaborative endeavours underscore Golfo Dulce’s significant efforts towards cetacean research and environmental monitoring both locally and globally. The knowledge gleaned from these studies empowers conservation initiatives, promotes sustainable practices, and deepens the community’s appreciation for the interconnectedness of marine life.

    Key Information

    Who is leading the process locally?

    The Steering Committee members are:

    • Phoebe Edge (Programme Director)
    • Geinier Barquero – (Osa Ecology)
    • Carlos Perez Reyes (INA)
    • Juan Diego Pacheco Polanco – (CEIC)
    • Lenin Enrique Oviedo Corr – (CEIC)
    • Brooke Bessesen (Researcher)
    • Pilar Bernal (Researcher/Educator)
    • Helen Solis Hernández(University of Costa Rica)

    Actions and Recommendations

     As part of the designation process, the Independent Review Panel (IRP) set out a series of actions and recommendations for the area to complete before or by the end of Year 1 of WHA designated status.

    Recommendation 1

    Regulation

    Self-regulation by operators is not seen to be an effective way of managing negative impacts. The judges suggest that developing an initiative such as forming an official whale watching association would help with this, so there is more control of the activity within the site.

    Recommendation 2

    Permits

    No permit system exists that manages and limits licences for cetacean interactions. The judges recognise that this is an issue at a national level and the site does not have the power to change this themselves. However, the judges suggest that steps could be taken to balance this or improve this by developing a “carrying capacity” study to determine (and limit) the number of boats that can operate in the area without compromising the welfare of cetaceans.

    The judges noted the positive engagement with “illegal” whale watching companies. While it is very encouraging that all whale watching companies are cooperating and collaborating, steps should be made to organise themselves together with the authorities, in order to change help validate or “legalise” those with illegal status. Otherwise, it causes issues in relation to promoting best practice as a Whale Heritage Area.

    Recommendation 3

    Education and awareness

    There are no historical and/or contemporary practices involving cetaceans which are of cultural significance to people. The site has some events, and they are currently developing a festival, but there is a lack of cetacean-related works of art (especially public artwork), music, dance, theatre, visual arts, and in literature. The judges suggest considering options such as inviting a local or national artist and paint cetacean murals, or something along those lines.

    Recommendation 4

    Governance

    The judges requested a management plan identifying key objectives, logistics, activities, timelines, and measurements of progress. Specific areas and topics that should be incorporated into the management plan include, general environmental sustainability, the concern for zoonosis causing the skin disease in dolphins, the regulation of the whale watching activities with a limit of annual licenses, and the definition of which boats can exercise the activity together with the recognition of the environmental authority.

    Images credits: First header (Pacific Ecology); Second header (Pacific Ecology); “Things to do” image (Dave Hamilton); Third header (Haakon S. Krohn, via Wikimedia Commons); Fourth header (public domain image, via Rawpixel); “Who is leading the process locally” image (Dave Hamilton).  Gallery: First (humpback whales, Dave Hamilton); Second (student participants, unknown); Third (dolphin mural, Tony Reyman); Fourth (cleanup, Osa Ecology); Fifth (dolphins, Dave Hamilton); Sixth (educational outreach, unknown).