Tour Guides Research While Whale Watching

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Rodriguez and Lugo are now working with Mexico's Secretary of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Fisheries to establish certain parts of the bay as conservation areas for the humpbacks. The government agency has yet to take any formal action.

Such conservation areas could possibly be closed to fishing nets and limited to a few tour boats each day. All watercraft traffic would be restricted whenever a mother and calf are present, said Rodriguez.

Urbán is hopeful that the whale fluke studies conducted by Wildlife Connection and a few other tour groups will help establish conservation areas to the benefit of both whales and Mexico's tourism industry.

"Maybe the protected area will be first and then it will be much more easy to regulate and coordinate the whale-watching activities," he said.

Dolphin Protection

In addition to whale research, Rodriquez and Lugo also document the behavior and habitat preferences of a group of about 100 bottlenose dolphins who live in the bay year-round.

Similar to the patterns on humpback whale flukes, unique markings on the dolphins' dorsal fins allow for individual identification. The fins are shaped like a human nose, said Rodriguez, who hopes to publish research on the social relationships among dolphins.

Currently, the team has documented the distribution and habitat preferences of the dolphins, information they hope the government will use in the establishment of marine protected areas.

"To get a protected area for the dolphins established, knowing their distribution and habitat is enough," said Rodriguez. "Learning the social structure is a long-term research project that takes many years."

Ecotourism

Bahia de Banderas is Mexico's largest and deepest natural bay. It is nearly 20 miles (32 kilometers) across and has more than 40 miles (64 kilometers) of coastline dotted with condominiums, hotels, and golf courses catering to the more than two million vacationers each year.

The tourists, many from the United States and Canada, are attracted by the sun and sandy beaches. But increasing numbers are getting off their lounge chairs to see local wildlife.

The region teems with exotic animals ranging from the marine life in the bay to nesting sea turtles on the beaches and tropical birds in the lush forests on the surrounding hillsides.

Wildlife Connection is one of several outfitters that run boat trips out into the bay where tourists can watch humpbacks breach and bottlenose dolphins frolic in the waves. Like a few other groups, they market themselves as environmentally friendly.

"There have been criticisms of research as a thinly guised ploy for close access and tourism for many years in several locations throughout the world," said Bruce Mate, director of the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Program in Newport, Oregon.

Mate said that he was not familiar with Wildlife Connection, but that a good test of a group's legitimacy is to inquire about their published work.

Rodriguez and Lugo's work has been profiled in several popular magazines, including the Latin American edition of National Geographic magazine and a few scientific journals.

In addition, Rodriguez and Lugo gave two presentations at the May 2003 meeting of the Mexican Marine Mammalogists Society in Puerto Vallarta. One presentation was on humpbacks and the other on orca whales.

Rodriguez recognizes that Wildlife Connection's research is a work in progress, but hopes that over the long term it contributes to conservation of whales and dolphins.

"It's working step by step and the first thing that we need is to make an interchange of information between photo ID catalogues," she said.

Wildlife Connection also runs an adopt-a-whale program called Radar, which is named after the first humpback photographed and named by Lugo. Radar, whose tail has a pattern on it that resembles a radar weather screen, is now the most well-known whale in the bay.

The adoption program primarily interests school children, where Rodriguez and Lugo help set up "whale weeks" in which students learn about the humpback whale migration in the Pacific Ocean from the winter breeding grounds in the tropics to their feeding grounds off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

Over the long term, Rodriquez said she would like to establish a marine aquarium in Puerto Vallarta similar to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California where tourists could come and learn about the dolphins and whales that live in the bay.

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