Dr. Paul Forestell of the Pacific Whale Foundation shares nearly 40 years of international experience in the whale watching sector.
In August 2018, Oman’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), the Environment Society of Oman (ESO), Five Oceans Environmental Services (5OES) and the Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) collaborated to organise a two-day workshop on responsible whale and dolphin watching. The workshop was held in Muscat, Oman, and hosted by the MECA. The 26 invited participants included representatives of the ESO, 5OES, MECA, the Royal Oman Police Costal Guards, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth, the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Transport and Communication, the Port of Duqm, and Sultan Qaboos University, Marine Science and Fisheries Course.
The workshop commenced with a series of presentations on the history and context of whale and dolphin watching in Oman to date, the potential benefits of responsible whale watching, and a summary of workshops conducted for and with operators in 2013 and 2014. In presentations by ESO’s Suaad al Harthi and 5OES’ Robert Baldwin, participants were given an overview of how the Industry in Oman was started in 1998, at which time there was a single operator in Muscat, and has grown and spread over the past 30 years to include multiple operators in several different locations in Oman (see figure below). In 2008 the dolphin watching industry in Oman was estimated to generate roughly 1.24 million USD annually (Ponnampalam, 2011), a figure which is sure to have increased significantly as the industry has grown.
As a natural resource that helps to attract international tourism to Oman, whales and dolphins require careful study and protection. It is vital that the whale and dolphin watching industry, and those responsible for managing it understand the animals’ distribution and conservation needs, and take active measures to prevent the negative impacts that can occur when boats approach too closely, too quickly, or too frequently. Collectively the ESO and 5OES have spent over 20 years studying the over 20 species of whales and dolphins that occur in Oman’s waters, contributing to current knowledge and understanding of their ecology, biology and conservation needs. Some species targeted for tourism, such as the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and the Arabian Sea humpback whale are considered Endangered by the IUCN Red List for Threatened Species (Braulik et al., 2017, Minton et al., 2008), and require extra conservation measures.
Building on this body of knowledge, and keen to protect Oman’s whales and dolphins, MECA presented its plans to amend wildlife protection regulations to specifically include 20 species of whales and dolphins, and to better define the concept of ‘harm’ in these regulations to include touching, approaching too closely, or otherwise negatively impacting normal processes like feeding, mating or resting. MECA is also considering introducing a permitting procedure that would require whale and dolphin tourism operators to meet certain conditions and minimum standards beyond the (safety) requirements for more general marine tourism.
Target species and areas of whale and dolphin watching in Oman
Dr. Paul Forestell, Director of International Activities at the Pacific Whale Foundation shared the experiences gained from nearly 40 years of whale and dolphin watching in different Pacific locations. He described a common long-term trajectory for whale watching tourism industries as they develop over time:
Stages in development of whale watching (From Forestell and Kaufman, 1994, 1996)
Participants identified the phase of development for each of the dolphin watching areas in Oman, and discussed the roles of different stakeholders in these different phases of development. The objective in each case, is to find ways to maximise economic and other benefits for local communities and the country as a whole, while minimising the potentially negative effects on the whales and dolphins targeted for tourism. This balance requires some form of regulation and/or guidance from the relevant authorities.
While debating how to best achieve this balance in Oman, topics discussed included:
- The pros and cons of voluntary versus mandatory regulations;
- The challenges of enforcing regulations;
- The importance of consulting stakeholders such as tour operators and fishermen in developing and implementing regulations;
- The importance of training and awareness-raising in conjunction with, or prior to the introduction of (new) regulations;
- the use of Apps that allow tour operators or guides to log their tracks and observations, thus allowing tourism to contribute to scientific understanding of the target species;
- The importance of engine choice and maintenance of vessels used for whale and dolphin watching to minimise underwater noise and disturbance;
The final sessions of the workshop were dedicated to designing a road map toward more sustainable whale and dolphin watching in Oman. Participants agreed that the initial step for the development of responsible whale and dolphin watching guidelines is the formation of a national planning group/committee, most likely under the Ministry of Tourism. In the meantime, ESO and MECA can coordinate with MoTC on developing mutual awareness raising campaigns to target boat owners and operators, as well as continue with research and monitoring activities to better inform the industry.
Participants to the workshop included representatives of different branches of government, law enforcement, NGOs and universities.
The workshop paid tribute to Dr. Carole Carson, and Greg Kaufman, both of whom were involved in the initiation of responsible whale and dolphin watching in Oman, but sadly passed away in recent years.
Braulik, G., K. Findlay, S. Cerchio, R. Baldwin and W. Perrin, 2017: Sousa plumbea. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. e.T82031633A82031644. Downloaded on 10 December 2017., http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/82031633/0.
Minton, G., T. J. Q. Collins, C. Pomilla, K. P. Findlay, H. C. Rosenbaum, R. Baldwin and R. L. Brownell Jr, 2008: Megaptera novaeangliae, Arabian Sea subpopulation. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/132835.
Ponnampalam, L. S., 2011: Dolphin Watching in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman: Tourist Perceptions and Actual Current Practice. Tourism in Marine Environments, 7, 81-93.