WHALES AND DOLPHIN WATCHING IN PUERTO RICO
Puerto Rico (USA)
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth territory of the
United States with a strong Spanish history. It is located about 1,000 miles (1600
km) southeast of Miami between the Dominican Republic to the west and the US Virgin
Islands to the east. Slightly smaller than Jamaica, it is 110 miles (153 km) from east
to west and 35 miles (58 km) wide. With its old volcanic mountains long given over to
agriculture, Puerto Rico has a small array of nature reserves. Less than 1 percent of the
island today is virgin tropical rain forest, though it is possible to see some examples of protected
forest, including the 28,000-acre (11,000- hectare) El Yunque rain forest near San Juan, the
capital. San Juan alone has a metropolitan area that covers 300 square miles
(115 sq km). For many visitors, particularly from the United
States, Puerto Rico provides their introduction to the Caribbean. It is easily
accessible to North American and European visitors on non-stop flights. It has a vast and
varied tourism infrastructure with every kind of accommodation and tourist facility. As of
1997, the Puerto Rican tourism industry was exceptionally buoyant and it led the Caribbean in
number of tourist arrivals (3.4 million — up 8% on the previous year) and total
expenditures ($2.1 billion USD). It was third in cruise passenger arrivals, with 1.2 million
passengers, up 21% on the previous year. Some 22% of all tourist arrivals to the Caribbean go
to Puerto Rico. With such a huge percentage of the Caribbean tourism market, tourism is a big
part of the Puerto Rican economy, but manufacturing for export (textiles, clothing,
electrical and electronic equipment, chemicals and pharmaceuticals) dominates the economy,
followed by agriculture. The Puerto Rican GDP, at $48 billion USD, is more than three times
that of the Dominican Republic, which has the second highest GDP in the Caribbean. Only a few years ago, commercial whale watching
was not thought to be possible or at least practical from Puerto Rico. Although
it was known that some humpback whales were wintering off the west coast of Puerto Rico,
it was a comparatively small portion of the numbers found north of the Dominican
Republic. Moreover, it was felt that the typical Puerto Rican tourist would be too busy shopping,
going to the beach, or doing other things, and certainly would not want to venture out in a
boat in possibly rough seas to try to find whales. On top of that, Rincón, the main town,
has a poor harbour for launching boats larger than 20 feet long (6 m). But in the mid 1990s, whale watching suddenly
started to take off from the west coast of Puerto Rico. Diving and other small
boats were used out of the ports of Mayagüez and Aguadilla, as well as Rincón. Unfortunately,
the whale watching was ad hoc,
sometimes without adequate safety provisions and
completely unregulated. Reports of whales would lead to tours being instantly
offered and boats would steam out to find some whales. By 1996, it was felt that the whale
watching was a little too opportunistic, and in order to regulate the fee-charging boats as well
as private charters and other boats, there should be regulations. A local NGO, the Puerto
Rican Ecological League of Rincón (Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña de Rincón) played a
primary role in working for the protection of the humpback whales and for the improvement of
the educational provisions. Enacted on 27 June 1997, these regulations (see below)
have placed whale watching on a sounder basis, recognising that the humpbacks on their
mating and calving grounds need to be protected too. Since the guidelines were passed,
however, only one boat operator has officially applied for a whale-watch permit — the
Viking Starship (see below). Instead, the local captains offer diving, fishing, and
sightseeing tours — which might include whales. There are six or seven dive operations in Rincón
and Aguadilla that are among those boats which in the winters of 1998 and 1999 have
continued to do this 'incidental whale watching'. This may in effect help to regulate
the intensity of whale watching in this area, but it would be best if there were a more
forthright approach to whale watching. However, it must be taken into account that the permits,
particularly for smaller boats/operations, can be difficult and time-consuming to obtain, with
various certifications and inspections needed, as well as comprehensive insurance. The
effect of the regulations, in Puerto Rico, may be to restrict whale watching to operations
with substantial backing, using mainly larger ships.
Puerto Rico: Whale watching regulations
These regulations come from the Government of Puerto Rico, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Translated into English by Rebecca Tozer (Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña de Rincón) (Carlson 1998).
Appendix 3 Special Rules for the Observation of Humpback Whales
Under article 11, clause i of law number 70 enacted on May 10, 1976, the regulations that are in force to regulate the management of vulnerable and endangered species in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are amended and added as Appendix 3 of the law. Rules for the protection of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and other cetaceans that are vulnerable and in danger of extinction and to regulate the operations of passenger boats for the observation of these marine mammals.
This rule is adopted with the purpose of protecting the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and other cetaceans that are vulnerable and in danger of extinction in the territorial waters of puerto Rico. It is publicly known that the activity of humpback whale watching in the northwest area of Puerto Rico has developed and peaked in the last few years, which could threaten the presence of this marine mammal and other marine mammals in our waters. In addition it can interfere with the behaviour and natural life cycles of these marine mammals.
II. Application and Management
These rules are applicable in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico and its adjacent islands during the entire year.
In addition to the provisions in section 12 of this ruling, it will be illegal for any person to engage in the following activities:
a. To provoke the whales to change their natural direction, or to provoke the separation of the whales from their group, that might cause them to get lost, or to separate
a mother from its calf as a result from interference.
b. To feed the whales.
c. To enclose or trap the whales in between boats or crafts impeding their path.
d. Observing the whales from jet skis.
e. Observing whales from airplanes at less than 1,000 feet from sea level.
f. It is prohibited to approach a mother and calf.
g. It is prohibited to swim or dive near the whales.
IV. Minimum distances for the observation of whales from boats
a. The minimum distance for observing the whales will not be less than 1000 metres. The motor of the craft will remain in neutral as long as the minimum distance is maintained.
b. The approach will always be done from the posterior (rear) or by the side of the whales, in parallel position to the last whale and/or slower whale of the group allowing for an area of 180 degrees in front of the whale(s).
c. Swimmers and divers can get within a minimum distance of fifty (50) meters.
d. Scientific investigators, with federal and state permits in non-commercial vessels will be able to approach the whales at a distance less than the one stipulated as long as they comply with the established rules in their permits.
V. Measures for Management
a. One boat is permitted to remain a distance of 100 meters (not less than 100 meters), and not more than two boats at a distance of no less than 400 meters at the same time.
b. The time limit is no more than 30 minutes per boat.
a. Every owner or operator of commercial boat(s) that is dedicated to transporting passengers in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico with the purpose to observe the humpback whales and other cetaceans that are vulnerable or in danger of extinction must solicit a permit from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. The owners or operators of private boats that observe the whales as a pastime are exempt from this requisite, but must obey the rules of the law. The applicants for this permit must provide the following information:
b. A copy of their license or permit issued by the Public Service Commission
Service to transport passengers (or for the transportation of passengers).
c. A copy of the license issued by the Coast Guard of the United States of America certifying the vessel fit to transport passengers.
d. Fill out the application for the permit to observe humpback whales. This permit is good for one year only.
Any person that violates any of these rules according and included in this appendix will be penalized under section 18.00 of the Regulations to Manage the Species that are Vulnerable and Endangered in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This regulation will be enacted immediately, conforming to the section 2.8 a) (1) Law number 170, 12 August 1988, as amended.
Approved in San Juan, Puerto Rico, today, the 27 of June 1997.
Acknowledgments: Carole Carlson, Hector Colón and Rebecca Tozer (Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña de Rincón), Antonio Mignucci, Mignucci 1989, Mignucci-Giannoni 1998, Erdman 1970, Taruski and Winn 1976, Harry Ruiz, Joan Pavesi, CTO 1997.
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