Dolphin watching, selective perception and sensory limitation: Are we helping or hurting the dolphins?


Can something as innocent as Dolphin watching harm the environment? The answer is a surprising yes. It can devastate the very dolphins that we have come to love. How can this happen in such an enlightened age? The answer lies in the way we perceive our environment.

From San Diego in the US to Kaikoura in New Zealand, dolphin watching is touted as one of the greatest adventures in ecotourism. The international ecotourism society defines ecotourism as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” It seems like the perfect, guilt free, adventure.

A pod of dophins

Dolphin watching is not benign

A team of international scientists, led by Lars Bejder studied the long term impact of tour operators on the sustainability of the bottle nose dolphins. They studied a 36 square kilometre area in Shark Bay, Western Australia, over a period 13.5 years. They found that as long as there was a single tour operator there was no major impact on the dolphin population. But once the number of operators increased to two the dolphin population declined by 15%, such a decline can devastate small local populations of dolphins – like Hector’s Dolphin in New Zealand. Dolphin watching is not benign – why?

Dolphin Culture!!?

Once you dive underwater our vision, which is great on land, becomes very poor. Marine animals have evolved over millions of years to overcome this sensory limitation by adapting to sound – sonar imaging. They use sound to communicate. They are also social animals that propagate their culture through songs. Humpback whale populations in different areas have their own songs. In Bermuda, humpback whales change, on average, 37% of their song each year, too rapid a rate to be explained plausibly by genes. It took 15 years to change the entire song. However, off the east coast of Australia, the entire song changed within two years to match that found off the west coast, apparently triggered by the movement of a few individuals from the west to the east. The dolphins also use the songs to find and pair with a mate.

The greatest disturbance to whales and dolphins is the noise created by our ships and tour vessles. It lies in the same frequency range as the dolphin and whale songs. It disrupts their ability to communicate, mate and propagate their culture and population.

Our Sensory Limitation

Because we don’t live underwater and can’t hear the songs of the dolphin, we discount the impact that we have on their environment. It is an anthropocentric view resulting from the limitations of our senses.

Most of us are desperate to believe that ecotourism is safe and good. This leads to a selective perception bias – we let our expectations influence our perceptions.

It is not that we should stop dolphin watching altogether, we should evaluate very carefully when, where and under what circumstances should we implement ecotourism.

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