Good practices during cetacean sightings
There currently exist a legislation and a series of rules that regulate the navigation of vessels around cetaceans in order to conduct cetacean sightings in a respectful way and decrease the impact that this may cause on the animals. Here the conservationist organizations Cetàcea and Depana want to explain the good practices we carry out during the encounters with cetaceans.
The legislation (Royal Decree 1727/2007) states that there is a Protective Movable Space with a 500 metres radius around the group of cetaceans. Such area is divided in:
- An Exclusion Zone with a 60 metres radius from the group of cetaceans.
- A Restricted Stay Zone within 60 to 30 metres from the group of cetaceans.
- An Approach Zone within 300 to 500 metres from the group of cetaceans.
There are general protection measures:
- Physical contact between cetaceans and vessels or between cetaceans and people is not allowed.
- It is not allowed to feed the animals.
- It is not allowed to impede the free movement of the cetaceans.
- It is not allowed to pilot a vessel inside the cetacean group, especially between adults and their calves.
- Loud noises above and below the water surface are not allowed.
- It is not allowed to swim or dive within the Exclusion Zone.
There are complementary measures:
- In the unfortunate event of finding an injured or dead cetacean, we will notify the authorities. If the animal is injured, we will report its exact location by radio. If the animal is dead, we will try to mark its locations with any floating device (only if the appropriate material is available and the operation does not compromise the safety of the ship’s crew).
- We will notify the Maritime Rescue authorities if we carry out any of the above mentioned actions.
There is also a general code of conduct:
- The use of acoustic devices to detect or attract cetaceans is not allowed.
- Within the Protective Movable Space sailing speed has to be constant and not faster than 4 knots. The speed cannot be changed until the vessel comes out from the Protective Movable Space.
- When approaching a group of cetaceans, we should do it from the side (in a 30º angle) in a convergent course to the animal’s direction, never from the front or perpendicularly to the cetacean’s course. During the encounter we will keep a parallel and steady course to cetaceans’ path, avoiding abrupt changes in speed or direction.
- If we turn the engine off, we will have to leave it in neutral gear for a minute when starting it again. Changes in direction or speed will always be conducted in a slow and progressive way. Reverse gear and sailing in circles around the group of cetaceans is not allowed.
Lastly there also is a code of conduct by area:
- Exclusion Zone: Entering and staying in this area it is not allowed. If a group of cetaceans emerges within 60 metres from the vessel, we will change the gear to neutral or we will turn the engine off if necessary. We will not turn the engine on again unless we are certain that there are no cetaceans within 60 metres from the vessel. If dolphins or porpoises emerge within 60 metres from the vessel, navigation is allowed only if maintaining speed and course. We will turn any sounding device off.
- Restricted Stay Zone: We are not allowed to remain in this zone if we observe calves or isolated adults with calves. The maximum number of vessels allowed in this area is 2.
- Approach Zone: The maximum number of vessels waiting to enter the Restricted Stay Zone is 2, if the latter is already occupied by 2 vessels.
Additionally, the protocol developed by Projecte Ninam makes following suggestions:
It is important to keep in mind the aims of the encounter when planning it. It is crucial to identify the species and in the event of spotting a fin whale coming towards the bow of the vessel, the protocol suggests to move away from its course by tacking to starboard and stopping the vessel downwind of the animal.
Bearing in mind and always in accordance to the shrill noise regulations, the protocol advises to use the winch to make the animal aware of the position of the vessel. We will need a stop watch to record the diving pattern of the whale and, sail according to the legislation, in a parallel course and at the appropriate speed. Cetàcea has successfully followed fin whales at a speed of 3 knots, with a parallel course to the animal’s path. Ninam warns about the shortening of the diving periods for the whales and the abrupt changes in directions for the whales, as they may be signs that the presence of the vessel is disturbing the animals. If the fin whale is swimming on its side (clear mark on its jaw or pectoral fin visible), in a random course and diving pattern, may indicate feeding behaviour.
If we spot dolphins and these approach the vessel, Ninam advises to keep a steady course and a constant speed even if the animals come towards the bow of the vessel. Cetàcea and Depana have obtained good results following dolphins at speeds of 3 to 4 knots.
Aiming to reduce the noise levels, we suggest to avoid conversations, or keep them in low voice if strictly necessary, during the sightings of cetaceans. Additionally, it is sometimes possible to hear the cetaceans whistles and other noises if listening carefully.
If dolphins leave the proximities of the vessel on several occasions, it may be a sign that the vessel is disturbing the animals. If they disappear for 2 to 3 minutes, this may be a consequence of deep dives and not of avoiding behaviour.
According to Ninam, fast swimming, synchronized breathing, breaching and definite or circular direction may be a sign of feeding behaviour in dolphins. In this instance they advise to enjoy the encounter and stay in the area sailing at low speed or even turning the engine off.
In areas where commercial whale watching is conducted, the environmentalist organisations request the encounters to be limited to 15 minutes of duration.