Humpback Whale Observation
The Dominican Republic (DR), which occupies half of the island of Hispaniola, has the largest whale-watching industry in the Caribbean. Whale watching in the DR was first established in 1985 from the town of Santa Barbara de Samaná (from here on referred to as Samaná). At this time, an expatriate tour operator, began to take mostly foreign tourists out to see the humpback whales that visit Samaná bay between January and March each year to mate, give birth, and nurse their young. Many more tour operators followed, and in a short time Samaná became the a whale-watching hub, both for day tours in Samaná bay, and as a harbor visited by some of the longer live-aboard tours that take visitors out to the offshore marine mammal sanctuaries of Silver Banks (established in 1986) and Navidad Banks (established in 1996). These two sanctuaries, along with the nearshore area of Samaná cover a total area of 25,000 square km and are jointly referred to as the Marine Mammal Sanctuary of the Dominican Republic.
We follow the Rules
In its first few years whale watch tourism in the Dominican Republic was not regulated. In 1992 two non-profit organizations were concerned that boat behaviour was causing disturbance to the whales, and they cooperated to draft voluntary whale watching guidelines. Although these were adopted by the boat owners’ association in 1994, compliance was low. As such, the Ministry of Environment, the Ministry of Tourism, the whale-watching boat owners association, the Dominican Navy, and El Centro para la Conservación y Ecodesarrollo de la Bahía de Samaná y su Entorno, a local marine conservation non-profit all came together to form a co-management system for whale watching in Samaná Bay. This system included measures for permitting operators, monitoring boat behavior, surveillance, enforcement and self-sustaining finance for administration and personnel costs.
The regulations established in 1998 have been revised on a few occasions; the most recent revision was on May 2018.
They now entail the following key measures:
- No more than three boats may watch a whale group at a time;
- Boats waiting must maintain a distance of 250 meters from the whales
- Vessels must maintain a minimum distance of 50m from adult whales and 80 m from a group with a calf
- A vessel may spend a maximum of 30 minutes with one group of whales if other boats are waiting
- Vessels may travel no faster than 9km/hr (5 knots) once in the sanctuary, or whenever a whale is observed outside the sanctuary
- Vessels must depart the Sanctuary by 16:00 each day
- Swimming with whales is prohibited in Samaná Bay
- All passengers on boats less than 10 m length must wear life jackets all times
- A maximum of 43 permits for WW are awarded in Samaná
- All boats engaging in whale watching must pass inspection by Navy officers and Ministry Environment experts (e.g. hull integrity, VHF radio and other safety measures on board)