San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lack of Protection May Bust Dolphin Parties

When you stare out at the sea and see rollicking dolphins to the horizon at all points of the compass, you might think you are looking at a giant party. You might be right.

Some people are reminded of a vast crowd of people at an outdoor concert or dance; others of a favorite tropical beach town during carnival. To find out what inspirations strike you while floating around at a big dolphin party, you need go no farther than offshore of the Osa Peninsula, on the southern Pacific coast. But you’d better go quickly, because the party may soon be over.

Dolphins have great parties. When you get a thousand or so dolphins together, they do things they just don’t do in smaller groups. Things like everyone doing the same jump to the left with a little shimmy, all more or less at the same time. These ritualized movements, like human dances, are at the very least entertaining. But, as with human dances, there is usually a lot more going on than entertainment.

Long-lived, slow-reproducing mammals like the Osa’s resident spotted, spinner and bottlenose dolphins spend a lot of time in small groups about the size of small human villages. These groups hunt, eat, rest, socialize and travel around together.

With multiple species of dolphins, a mature female or perhaps a few older females may lead the dolphin pod. Since males are thought to be more likely to die in defense of the pod, the older females stand a better chance of living longer and passing on important information, such as where to get the good sashimi when the worst El Niño in a lifetime kicks in and the fish go somewhere else.

The older females probably also know how to find a good party. It’s a bit like rural human parents going to great lengths to provide their kids with opportunities to socialize. Valuable information swims around at parties: you might learn a new, more efficient recipe for procuring food, or you might learn a hot new dance move.

Perhaps the most important trait for dolphins and people is building alliances, and parties are fertile waters for networking and forging friendships. You are more likely to help the people you party with through the bad times. If you are at a party as a young adult coming from a rural environment, you might get lucky and meet a new and exciting friend who is not at all related to you.

Remote mountain towns in places such as the Alps, California, Peru, China or Costa Rica often have a big fiesta in one town at certain times of year. People come from surrounding towns and rural areas for party themes such as corn or oxcarts. Imagine: before modern transportation and communications, you needed to know only the time of year or moon and the place, and then you could start walking, riding, paddling or sailing with enough time to get there.

Scientists call cultures that fuse together in parties and then fission back apart into small clans “fusion-fission societies.”

Some towns get a reputation for a lot of partying. I think offshore Osa is like that for dolphins. It’s a hot spot for spotted, spinner and bottlenose dolphins, as well as pilot, humpback, beaked and sei whales. Dolphins have raging parties here, year after year, almost all year long. The three species party together sometimes, but usually parties consist of thousands of dolphins of the same species. The area where these three species like to party is really not that big, and seems to have characteristics that the dolphins find very enticing.

Clean, fresh water is like an addictive drug for saltwater dolphins and whales. Sometimes it seems like they cannot get enough. But with most of the non-frozen freshwater in the world contaminated with pollution, dolphins seem to flock to areas where the cleaner rivers and currents flow. The Osa sends a lot of relatively uncontaminated freshwater many kilometers into the Pacific every second.

Nutrients in the ocean-going freshwater grow and feed many fish, and dolphins love to eat a lot of fish. A strong current from offshore Panama blows into the Osa and brings additional nutrients via cooler water along the bottom. A series of giant, undersea cliffs where the ocean bottom drops from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand meters runs perpendicular to the prevailing current and causes a small upwelling, bringing water from the depths closer to the surface. This is excellent for fish, and thus for dolphin all you-can-eat-sashimi parties.

The current also brings in the offshore pelagic life zone along the surface, an ecosystem Costa Rica has yet to protect. Beneath this pelagic blue-water ecosystem, rich in microbial life as well as large creatures, lie great undersea cliffs and deep ocean bottom, dropping quickly to more than 2,000 meters in some places. These deep areas, thought to have possibly as many species as the rain forest, are two more ecosystems that are unrepresented in Costa Rica’s protected areas.

These oceanic life zones so close to land, as they are off the Osa, are a rare thing, and make the area that much more special. No other place in Costa Rican waters has all these special conditions for a most excellent dolphin party. Nowhere else in Costa Rica can you so reliably find more than a thousand dolphins together. Indeed, there are only a handful of places in the world where you can see this sort of magnificent wildlife spectacle in tropical waters.

This same offshore area is a prime mating area for olive ridley sea turtles, with hundreds a day frequently being seen as they meet each other floating on the surface. This life zone is always full of numerous species of marine birds: frigates, boobies, shearwaters, petrels, gulls and terns, to name a few. Large groups of sailfish or marlin, enormous schools of giant tuna, big sharks, hundreds of rays and incomprehensible schools of smaller fish are normal for these waters. This is also the best place in Costa Rica to see pilot whales, pseudorcas, orcas, beaked whales and all manner of dolphins.

Sadly, this completely unprotected area, accessible on a half-day trip from locations on the Osa, is more frequented by commercial fishing boats that break up dolphin parties and sometimes kill them, than it is by tourist boats observing one of the most incredible wildlife congregations on the planet.

There are more likely to be deep shrimp trawlers razing the bottom with nets like a bulldozer through a forest than there are research vessels full of scientists discovering countless new species on the unexplored ocean floor. You will see more long-line fishing boats than diving boats roaming Costa Rica’s clearest ocean waters offering the best chance of seeing whale sharks, mantas, sailfish, marlin, tuna, turtles and myriad marine birds. Costa Rica’s most important humpback whale birthing and mating area might have as many boats dragging nets as endangered great whales trying to avoid them.

If Costa Rica expects other countries to treat their visiting whales with respect, then we should respect our own whales and dolphins here at home. With one swipe of the pen, Costa Rica could help keep this crucial dolphin party going and save multiple unprotected ecosystems. Instead of short term fishing plunder, we could promote long-term, sustained ecotourism and bioprospecting wealth. Thanks to currents, the new ocean refuge would seed the rest of Costa Rica’s Pacific waters to the north with big fish, helping out even commercial fishing.

Many people from various Osa communities have pleaded for many years for this rich offshore area to be protected. A simple and effective boundary would be no commercial fishing anywhere in sight of CañoIsland.

There is no doubt that many future generations would give thanks and praise to hear how Costa Rica finally protected all its ecosystems. They might be happy about the money in their pockets, too. And the dolphins would no doubt appreciate someone stopping the commercial fishermen from busting up their party.


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