Regulated Dolphin and Whale Encounters Mozambique

Dolphin Encountours Ponta do Ouro offer regulated dolphin and whale encounters in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) and highlight the importance of ethical marine mammal tourism in Mozambique. Vital codes of conduct must be followed to protect cetaceans in the region and spread awareness about these graceful creatures.

More than 300 individual dolphins in the Indian Ocean around Ponta do Ouro Mozambique have already been identified and catalogued by the Dolphin Encountours Research Centre.  Not only do they monitor dolphins full time but so too do they promote ethical swims with wild dolphins for conservation. Marine tourism in Mozambique is exploding. Wild dolphin swim programs are regulated by a responsible code of conduct.

Dolphins captivate humans with their beauty, grace, playful jumping displays, curiosity and superior intelligence. Ocean scientists are still unravelling facts about dolphins in the constant evolution of all species. The special human–dolphin connection dates back to ancient times as seen in artworks and etchings and some civilizations believed that dolphins symbolised a spiritual connection with their gods. Stories abound of dolphins rescuing individuals from sharks, aiding drowning sailors, and guiding boats through treacherous waters.

A pod of dolphins
Very social and playful mammals, bottlenose dolphins form friendships that last decades hunting, mating and protecting each other.

Angie Gullan, founder of Dolphin Encountours is one of the lucky ones who was deeply touched by her encounter with a mother dolphin and her calf in the warm Indian Ocean of Mozambique’s Ponta do Ouro in 1994. This transformative experience encouraged her to start her ecotourism and research center to attract tourists to swim with wild dolphins in a regulated manner. She aimed to contribute to the long-term conservation of all cetaceans in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR). The Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation and Resource Area connecting Mozambique to South Africa and Eswatini includes the first marine peace park in Africa, the Ponta do Ouro-Kosi Bay TFCA. 

In the early years, Angie focused on the development of long-term monitoring projects through DolphinCareAfrica, the research and conservation arm dedicated to regulations that protect dolphins from human impacts. Embracing the role of a citizen scientist, Angie collaborated with researchers locally and internationally to shape various projects, contributing to our understanding of these extraordinary marine beings. To this day, Dolphin Encountours is leading the way in ethical marine mammal tourism in Mozambique.

Ethical Marine Mammal Tourism in Ponta do Ouro

Main Dolphin Species in Mozambique’s Indian Ocean

Most of the dolphins are Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins and their inshore cousins are the Humpback Dolphins. Angie Gullan wisely catalogued the dolphins and led the process to educate all local operators, partners, and visitors about protecting all dolphins and other marine animals in their watery ocean home. No one is permitted to swim with dolphins unless on a permitted dolphin concession boat.

Bo was the first female dolphin to initiate a circle swim with Angie in March 1999 and is now in her 30s. Her name is short for bottle opener and she had four calves called Rocha, Bella, Blu, Bojangles, and another recent calf. The first ever male dolphin to be catalogued in 1997 was Rob, who has large white patches on one side. Since then, more than 300 dolphins have been recorded and are seen daily in the sea around Ponta do Ouro. 

dolphin swimming in Mozambique
Resident dolphin male Gambit (named after the late Gambit from ushaka).

They live in the coastal shallows of the Lubumbo Transfrontier Conservation Area that links South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland. They frequently cross between Mozambique’s southernmost marine protected area and the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site and travel as far down south as Sodwana Bay! Let’s take a closer look at the dolphin species in the region:

  • Spinner Dolphin: known for their acrobatic prowess, often executing 360-degree spins that inspired their name. They are slender and small, with a long, slender beak edged in black. In-water encounters are not attempted due to lack of habituation.
  • Indo-Pacific Spotted Dolphins: often spotted offshore alongside Spinners, develop a spotting pattern as they age. Elder dolphins can be identified by their white lips and a long, narrow beak with a dark cape above the eyes. In-water encounters are avoided due to a lack of habituation.
  • Humpback Dolphins: Shy and elusive, they have been recorded in the Reserve for the past decade. They are lighter grey, with a long elongated beak, a distinctive fleshy hump near a small dorsal fin, and broad flippers with a rounded tip. Calves are born light grey and darken with age.
  • Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins: Slightly smaller than oceanic bottlenose dolphins, they have a longer, pronounced beak and falcate dorsal fin. Freckling on their bellies increases with sexual maturity, and varying shades of grey coloration are observed. They have a cape running from behind the head, and some individuals have distinct dark eye patches. They live up to 45+ years in the wild and fully mature adults measure 2.5 meters in length and weigh 190kg.

Human beings are very good at invading the space of other species in everything they do: from land use practices and ongoing development to leisure activities in oceans, rivers, forests, game reserves, and mountains. The best way to interact with wild animals is to be respectful and to view them from a distance, without invading their space and their territory. When it comes to dolphins in their wild ocean space, swimmers and boats need to stop, wait, and allow the marine mammals to come to them of their own free will. Angie calls this ‘conscious interaction’ and it works well for both dolphins and people who want to experience something profound during close encounters with such intelligent beings. 

Edu-Tourism Helps Control Marine Tourism

Edu-tourism is taking off globally as tourist numbers escalate and the need for controls and protocols therefore intensifies. Edu-tourism is tourism associated with new learning experiences that combine education with leisure travel to exotic destinations. This can include ecotourism, cultural heritage, exploring rural farming and village areas, and student exchange programmes across borders. 

Guest snorkeling with dolphins in Mozambique
Bottlenose dolphins with snorkeler.

Education is imperative in Mozambique’s protected areas. Dolphin-swim activities in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) in Mozambique have increased and all marine and tourism operators are requested to comply with the code of conduct associated with ethical marine mammal tourism. Cetacean-based Tourism is part of this.   

Dolphin Encountours biologist, Diana Rocha, and founder, Angie Gullan, contributed to research into a need for more controls in Ponta do Ouro and published an article in the Springer Link journal

“Tour guides represent the forefront of responsible Cetacean-Based Tourism (CBT), client satisfaction and product development. How an operation and specifically the guide facilitates the activity can shape tourists’ attitudes and change their behaviour towards the environment, turning consumers into stewards of the environment.”

A successful guide training workshop for CBT operators in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR), Mozambique later helped to improve guide knowledge and set in place the need for compulsory guide training on visitors’ expectations, interpretive guiding, and experience brokering. Sustainable CBT can flourish in Mozambique, bringing much-needed environmental and economic sustainability to this developing country.

Angie and her team also proved that tourism could harm dolphin pods resident in the PPMR in both short-term and long-term periods. The outcome of meetings and workshops recommended time limits for boats and tourism operators in the bays near cetaceans and that everyone is trained in ethical marine tourism etiquette. In a nutshell, Diana Rocher and Angie Gullan co-authored a research paper called Effects of dolphin-swim activities on the behaviour of an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin population off the south coast of Mozambique:

a pod of dolphins jumping in and out of the water
Spinner dolphins in Mozambique!

“Swim-with-dolphin (SWD) activities are popular but can negatively impact target populations. It is important to consider the behavioural responses of dolphins, and quantify the impact on individuals and populations, as well as maximise opportunities for sustainable tourism that benefits socio-economic growth while encouraging pro-environmental behaviour. This is of relevance in developing countries, where ecological studies are scarce and tourism industries may have developed before science-based management measures were implemented.” 

They discovered that these dolphins changed their behaviour after having tourists swim with them. They tended to travel more but did not partake in rest, socialising, and foraging as they used to before tourism impacted them. This research called for time- and area closures, speed restrictions, and obligatory training programmes for all SWD staff. National regulations are urgently needed to minimise potential long-term negative effects on cetacean populations.

Swimming with Dolphins in Mozambique

The history of dolphin tourism in Southern Mozambique

  • Initiation (mid-90s): Dolphin swimming began in Mozambique during the mid-90s. South Africa had recently banned this activity, and the safe and secure bay of Ponta do Ouro proved ideal for establishing Africa’s first structured wild dolphin swim centre.
  • Eco-Tourism Development: Collaborating with researchers and garnering support from various individuals, a sustainable eco-tourism project emerged. This initiative adhered strictly to an area-specific code of conduct regarding ethical marine mammal tourism.
  • Addressing Exploitation: Recognizing the potential exploitation of dolphins, the DolphinCare Code of Conduct was introduced. The code aimed to limit traffic and educate swimmers through pre-sea briefing sessions. A one-boat policy was implemented and followed by operators.
  • Marine Protected Area Dream: The aspiration for a marine protected area took over 15 years to materialize. During this period, marine mammal tourism grew unsustainably, necessitating a focus on managing human-dolphin interactions.
  • Enforcement of Management Plan (End of 2011): The management plan for the Ponta Partial Marine Reserve was enforced towards the end of 2011. This led to a reduction in dolphin swim operators and the implementation of a code of conduct.
  • Evolution of Code of Conduct: The code of conduct has evolved over the years and is expected to continue adapting as tourism and development increase in the area.
  • Citizen Science Involvement: Operators, facilitators, and skippers are encouraged to become citizen scientists. This involves collecting baseline data and images of local dolphins, Humpback Whales, and other marine megafauna. Training for data collection and swim facilitation is available upon request from the team.

What is Over tourism?

Over tourism is an effect of the modern world with a growing population and a common penchant to travel and explore Planet Earth. The few Covid-19 years of lockdowns and tragedies have increased many peoples’ desires to leave home and do something exciting with their lives. Tourism is taking the world by storm but it has a dark side. There are quite simply too many people flying in jets, sailing in cruise liners, driving cars, and impacting the world in numerous ways.

two dolphins swimming next to each other
Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphin – Herme born in 2006!

Environmental and cultural impacts include the exploitation and overuse of natural resources, wildlife, and indigenous cultures. Over tourism occurs when there is an excessive influx of tourists to a destination which then causes a notable decline in the area’s quality of life or the overall visitor experience. Additionally, tourism significantly contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions, with transportation accounting for 90 percent of this. By 2030, a 25% increase in CO2 emissions from tourism is anticipated compared to 2016, reaching an estimated 1,998 million tons.

Tourism has many popular branches to it these days: adventure tourism, wellness tourism, ‘bleisure’ tourism, cultural tourism, and others. Some travellers or visitors may not always recognize their impacts when flying in jets, hiring cars, joining large tour groups and buying material possessions when on holiday.

It is therefore a relief that sustainable tourism in Mozambique is trending and eco-lodges are fast becoming the accommodation venues of choice. Ecotourism is the new buzzword as travellers seek immersion in nature, connection with exotic cultures, and ways to reduce their impacts on natural resources wherever they go. In a nutshell, ecotourism is about keeping the integrity of the environment intact for people and wildlife. 

Marine Tourism in Mozambique

Tour operators in Mozambique know that over tourism in the marine context is a real danger, especially in Ponta do Ouro. Mozambique needs tourism to boost its coffers but the negative environmental impacts of tourism cannot be underestimated.  If conducted correctly and ethically, swimming with dolphins can contribute to dolphin conservation and survival. However, marine tourism is growing at such a pace that many increasing threats to marine animals need to be managed. 

dolphin jumping out of the water in Mozambique
The acrobatic spinner dolphin – showing us how it’s done.

Swimming with Dolphins in Ponta do Ouro Mozambique is something everyone should try. It opens up hearts and minds to the connection of people with nature, promoting the values of global conservation. Marine tourism in Mozambique is exploding. Wild dolphin swim programs are regulated by a responsible code of conduct, through DolphinCareAfrica.

Travel to Mozambique and book your dolphin encounter with Mozambique Travel!