Funding research through Dolphin Eco-Tourism

One of my first memories of dolphins was as a child, Conservation standing with my Granny on the veranda of her holiday home in Ramsgate, southern KwaZulu Natal. She had spotted dolphins frolicking in the waves and was jumping up and down in excitement shrieking with joy each time one of the sleek, silvery-grey, torpedo-like creatures cleared the waves.

Text and images by Angie Gullan – Founder Dolphin Encountours in support of DolphinCare.Org

This joy is often relived now with guests I take to meet the Dolphins of Ponta.

Later on in life I was to learn that dolphins were revered amongst ancient civilizations and to ‘swim with dolphins’ ranked top on bucket lists. I discovered that dolphins are highly intelligent and are, in essence, persons. I learned that they are befriend-able and if approached in the right way, with the right attitude, these sentient beings would never cease to amaze.

The coastal waters off the east African seaboard are home to populations of semi resident Indo-Pacific, inshore bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus). These gregarious dolphins are different from their larger and more robust oceanic counterparts Tursiops truncates, the common bottlenose dolphin, in that they freckle on their bellies and have a longer and more slender beak.

The Dolphins of Ponta are one such population. Some 250 individuals live within a complex cross border network which traverses the towering ‘duned’ coastline and surrounding reef structures that makes up the Ponta Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique and bordering the World Heritage site of iSimangaliso in South Africa.

Ponta do Ouro is home to the country’s first dedicated dolphin interaction and research project that was developed in the mid 90’s under the auspices of Dolphin Encountours. With the guidance of both scientific and spiritual advisers the special inwater program was developed to fund ongoing research through taking like-minded tourists to encounter dolphins in their natural environment.

The eco-tourism project served the growing need of people seeking to swim with dolphins as well as the need to assess the populations of marine mammals that frequented the area.

Priority number one was to create a safe space for human-dolphin encounters to take place and through the specially developed Dolphincare code of conduct this was made possible. Standard operating procedures were developed which included comprehensive pre-encounter briefings, snorkelling instructions and the collection of baseline data by means of a database that was compiled in collaboration with various institutes, mainly the Natural History Museum of the University Eduardo Mondalane in Maputo. As time passed we learned from the dolphins and were better able to understand, anticipate and distinguish different behaviours and postures, which offered a form of communication between them and us.

This understanding has led to some profound encounters with the Dolphins of Ponta. Some of these encounters leave one in a state of absolute bliss, finding both human and dolphin engaging in what seems to be a time of just being together.

If the situation arises a bout of seaweed interaction may take place and some energetic circle swimming will be had with people the individual dolphins know. They have been observed chasing sharks away from human swimmers and individuals have shown us the art of hunting and eating red-fang trigger fish. Mums and calves are observed in private time together where specific behaviours are taught and if something unusual happens to be in the area, the inquisitive dolphins will venture off to inspect, often leading us to wonderful sightings hidden down below.

Sadly the encounters sometimes leave us with a heavy heart as we realize and see first hand the impact human beings have on our finned friends. Mozambique’s pot of gold lies not only in tourism but in gas and oil exploration and industrial coastal development which will have adverse long term effects on marine mammals. Coastal tourism in Mozambique is growing exponentially and as its famed underwater kingdoms and fishing hotspots become accessible, more and more encounters with humans and their vessels are inevitable.

During the early 2000’s I was out guiding a dolphin session when we located two dolphins, one known to me as Spin. Spin was a young dolphin that enjoyed engaging with us. She was always the first on the bow and the first to initiate a circle swim.

On this day though, things were amiss. As the boat approached her, distressed vocalizing was heard and as I slipped into the water I could see why; the little dolphin was wrapped up in fishing line! I slowly unwrapped her, but found no way to remove the very large hook, which was by now deeply embedded in her belly. This was the last time I saw little Spin.

The DolphinCare.Org’s database comprises thousands of images, observational records, sound recordings and video recordings of semiresident dolphins and other marine mammals that frequent the area. Individual dolphins have their own files where relevant events are recorded with some of the individuals first being observed in the area when the project was in its pilot stage. Dolphin Encountours, the German Dolphin Conservation Society and volunteers primarily fund the project.

For more information on encountering the Dolphins of Ponta or finding out about how you can get involved and help the project please visit:

www.dolphin-encountours.com in support of www.dolphincare.org

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