|The spinner dolphins in Lovina (Mustika@JCU)|
BBC Earth correspondent Lesley Evans Ogden interviewed me last December in San Francisco during the 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals. The interview is now at the BBC Earth website here. I copy and paste the part that has my research below, but the article covers many other aspects of whale watching from other researchers, so it's a really good read.
Putu Mustika, an adjunct researcher at James Cook University in Australia, and co-founder of the non-profit Cetacean Sirenia Indonesia, has also been exploring how dolphins react to being closely watched by humans in boats. It is a research area she was alerted to by journalists concerned by the practice of boats chasing dolphins.
For the spinner dolphins she studies in Lovina, North Bali, there is, as yet, no formal protocol for marine mammal watching. As a result, it is not uncommon for there to be more dolphin-watching boats than dolphins.
"In peak season, there might be 80 boats around the dolphin, and other times, 30 to 40," she says.
So while those on boats watched the dolphins, Mustika watched the boats, recording human behaviour as well as the response of the dolphins. She also surveyed the attitudes of the boat operators, who claimed, anecdotally, that the number of dolphins in the region has declined since dolphin tourism began.
Often these speedy tour boats herd and divide up social groups of dolphins, like marine sheepdogs. Yet tourist satisfaction, she found in her surveys, was highly influenced by boat speed.
"Of course they want to see a lot of dolphins, but what is more important is that they see them without them being harassed," says Mustika, explaining that many of these tourists are highly educated Westerners, who find wildlife harassment repugnant.
As yet, her research has not translated into guidelines, though many of the tour boat operators have agreed to keep their distance and reduce their speed. There is an emerging understanding that without respect for the dolphins, "you won't be able to see them anymore", she explains.
Most of the tourism operators are fishers by trade, but 40% of their income comes from this sideline business. That means that if the dolphins disappear, so too does this source of income.