SEVENSEAS Marine Conservation & Travel Issue 17, October 2016 - Page 112

aving knowledge on whale and dolphin populations in a certain area or country is not as obvious as you might think. Some

whales and dolphin populations remains understudied in some countries and Nicaragua (Central America) makes part of them. When I was talking to surfers living in San Juan del Sur, a known surfing spot along the Pacific Ocean, they were surprised to hear that dolphins were out there. They usually don’t see them during their surfing activities. Contrariwise, local fishermen are aware of their presence since they offer whale and dolphin watching tours in the area. What is the impact of such an activity on the whales and dolphins inhabiting the area? In order to unravel this fundamental question, it is important to generate some knowledge on more basic facts: which species of whales and dolphins occur in the area? How big are those populations? How are they distributed in the area and how do they use their habitat? What kind of behavior do they display in their natural habitat? Are they feeding, resting, playing or nursing? The answers to all these questions will help understand the potential impact of boat presence on whale and dolphin populations.

In order to generate answers to these questions decided to create in 2015 the « Cetacean Conservation Project of Nicaragua » that aims at gathering fundamental and essential data on whale and dolphin populations. This project is a scientific program run by young and motivated marine mammal biologists of the non-profit organization ELI-Scientific and consists of monitoring the Pacific Nicaraguan waters from January to April.

How do we gather such information? We actually don’t swim with the animals because we want to keep our degree of disturbance as low as possible throughout our scientific research. So how are we studying them? During our boat and land based surveys we are visually trying to detect animals and once we encounter a group on sea, we take their geographical position, evaluate their behavior and make photographs of them. Thanks to the photo-identification method, based on the capture of natural marks on dorsal and caudal fins of animals, we can recognize animals throughout our research. Photo-identification catalogues can be compared with other study sites and groups in order to identify the movement of the animals between countries for example.

What did we discover until now? During our first research efforts in 2016 we discovered that the country has an incredible cetacean diversity. We identified 6 different species: humpback whales, false killer whales, spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, rough toothed dolphins and we observed several turtle and bird species. We found out that humpback whales from both the Northern and the Southern hemisphere are coming to Nicaraguan waters. Recently, the NOAA fisheries officially recognized the Central American humpback whale population from the Northern hemisphere as threatened. Gathering data on this population will be essential for their safeguard by combining the scientific data with conservation efforts. Spotted dolphins seemed to appreciate the waters of Nicaragua, especially in San Juan del Sur, since we have re-sighted many of them during our first field season. The presence of mother and calves also indicated that the marine ecosystems are important nursing and calving habitat for the encountered whale and dolphin species.

Nicaragua is a developing country that doesn’t get a lot of attention for nature conservation despite its amazing biodiversity. Despite this obvious diversity, Nicaragua is undervalued in his magnificent nature and conservation measures are generally lacking. Coastal villages mainly live from fishing activities. Fish stocks are decreasing and fishermen try to find other economical solutions by offering whale and dolphin touristic trips. Since tourism is slowly increasing in an unavoidable way, we are working with fishermen in order to make this economic alternative a responsible and sustainable activity for the whole community. We plan to offer training on safe whale and dolphin watching practices to fishermen. This solution can also provide a substitute to turtle eggs hunting that is a common activity in Latin American countries.

The project was launched this year and we tried as much as possible to develop an educational program with local schools. We collaborated with schools in San Juan del Sur and Padre Ramos by giving weekly workshops for kids. They were very enthusiast to learn about their marine biodiversity. Some of them didn’t know the difference between fish and dolphins, learned that dolphins don’t lay eggs and that only male humpbacks sing! We try to make them responsible in garbage sorting and teach them the impact of pollution on marine wildlife. Our scientific team made a huge effort in translating and sharing their scientific knowledge and field experience into a “comprehensive language”. And we are working toward the strengthening of local connections in order to exchange our findings and keep track of cetacean sightings year-round. Step by step we are unravelling the basic questions on whale and dolphin populations in Nicaragua in order to better understand them and offer adapted management plans for their conservation.

You can help us by doing small things! How? Visit, share, like and follow us on our facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/ELIScientific, on Twitter : https://twitter.com/ELI_Scientific and/or make a donation on our crowdfunding campaign that you can find on our website (www.eli-s.com) or on Indiegogo. We would love to be able to make workshops and survey year-round but funding is an obvious limitation.

Photo 1 : Spotted dolphins swimming in groups off San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Photo 2 : Humpback whales raising his fluke before a deep dive

Photo 3: Green sea turtles mating

Photo 4: Bottlenose dolphins travelling synchronously

Photo 5: Landscape view of San Juan del Sur Bay

Cetacean research and conservation in Nicaragua By Joëlle De Weerdt

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