San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Pelagic Park’ Would Help Save Spinner Dolphins

Part two in a two-part series on Costa Rica’s spinner dolphins.

The most hightech, large-scale fishing in Costa Rica’s oceans is commercial tuna fishing.

From hardworking crew and helicopters to radar and satellites, these operations take catching fish very seriously.

They drop enormous nets bigger than a city block into the sea to catch vast quantities of an assortment of marine life. They are after mostly tuna, among the most valuable fish of any denizens of the deep.

When fishing boats find a big group of spinner dolphins, they find some of their ever-present sidekicks: giant yellowfin and bigeye tuna. Mostly seen only below the surface, the tuna would not be so easy to locate without the help of the dolphins, which must surface regularly to breathe. The giant tuna pack together around the dolphins that find their food for them. Here, offshore of southern Costa Rica’s OsaPeninsula, the big tuna and the spinner dolphins are always together.

I reckon the dolphins think: “Now that the  moon is full, the current is from the southwest at two knots and the wind is calm, a bigspaced swell is coming in from west-southwest, it rained last night and the layers of water temperatures changed a lot, it’s a sunny day, almost high noon, and I think I know where all those other dolphins are going, and the orcas will not hunt today, and the tuna boats will be busy for a few hours – hope my friends and family make it out! – we should go hunt the south end of the Osa drop-off upwelling.”

And I reckon the tuna are thinking just one thing: “Follow the dolphins.”

Follow the dolphins. Just as the seabirds, the sailfish and the marlin, the sharks and the whales, the sportfishing captains and the commercial tuna-fishing fleets do. Follow the dolphins; they have the best actionable ocean intelligence. The dolphins have the network. They are always with the food.

In the Osa drop-off upwelling, where dense, cooler and nutrient-rich water is pushed toward the ocean surface, the tuna, birds and other marine life are nearly always with the dolphins. All a commercial fishing fleet has to do is find the birds on a special radar, send up a helicopter or two to check it out and call in coordinates, start corralling the dolphins with the helicopter and explosives dropped from the helicopter, put down small, fast chase boats to further corral the dolphins, use the ship to corral the dolphins even more, and then put down a very big net around the dolphins and associated marine life with the help of a special net boat.

If you do this, you get a lot of tuna in the net below the dolphins, and it’s worth a lot of money.

Sadly, this kind of bonanza is unsustainable. The longer-lived, more slowly reproducing spinners will probably die out before the tuna are exhausted, perhaps giving the tuna a chance to recuperate, because once the dolphins are gone, no one will be able to find the tuna. But how will the tuna find food without the dolphins?

Fishing industry insiders have told me that dozens of spinner dolphins are killed every day by busy boats. They die most frequently when their narrow, smiling mouths get stuck in the holes of the nets. Hundreds more must be manhandled by diving crews and thrown out of the nets daily, lest the nets are damaged.

Other Osa dolphin species, such as bottlenose and spotted dolphins, are somewhat likelier to swim out if a small piece of one end of the net is put down for a while, a procedure known as a “backdown.”

Backdowns do not help Osa’s spinner dolphins, however; they stay in the net.

Tuna fishermen say the spinners are tontos, stupid, because they do not swim away from the ship and out of the net. They seem unable to stop surfing the ship’s waves. The same trait the tourist boats love dooms the poor spinners.

Time for ‘Pelagic Park’

The blue-water pelagic (open-ocean) ecosystem domain of the Osa’s spinner dolphins is probably the most productive ecosystem in Costa Rica, perhaps in the tropical marine world. According to former members of Jacques Cousteau’s legendary conservation ship, Calypso, and the BBC’s top “Blue Planet” underwater cameramen, offshore Osa is the richest tropical blue water they have seen anywhere on the planet (see sidebar).

The dolphins’ domain is an area between five and 20 nautical miles from Caño Island Biological Reserve. The reserve’s waters currently extend only about two nautical miles; this is not enough to protect large animals such as dolphins and tuna. To protect large marine animals, you need a Corcovado or Amistad-sized park at sea.

For many years, around the world, protected marine areas have proven to increase catches in surrounding areas. With a big enough pelagic park, or better still, parks and corridors, tuna-fishing boats could make money in the long term, not just short.

An astounding number of big, amazing  animals live in the Osa drop-off upwelling area and would be protected along with the spinners. Fin, sei, Bryde’s, humpback and blue whales and orcas frequent this little upwelling. Sailfish, marlin, tuna, manta rays, whale sharks, turtles, beaked whales, pilot whales, pseudorcas, bottlenose dolphins and spotted dolphins are found here in some of the highest concentrations in the world.

A special area of the Osa drop-off upwelling, the clearest waters in Costa Rica, would be an excellent place to prohibit commercial fishing, save the spinners and allow boaters and divers to see and snorkel with dolphins and other amazing marine life in the big blue.

Many people in Costa Rica, including yours truly, already benefit greatly from tourists visiting the giant dolphin pods and other marine life congregations off the Osa. But the commercial fishing fleet will end it soon for us all if some sort of pelagic park is not created.

The spinners are dying. There seem to be a lot fewer little spinners now then there were in the past. The pods no longer stretch to the horizon in every direction.

A park is the only solution. Just as Costa Rica has demonstrated to the world the value of protecting functioning terrestrial ecosystems, we can show the world the same goes for the ocean. Costa Rica needs to make peace with the ocean as well as the rain forest. It’s time to set aside a meaningful, not miniscule, part of Costa Rica’s biggest ecosystem: the open ocean.

Spinners to Hit Big Screen

Perhaps no other ocean mammal packs so close together in such vast numbers and in such clear waters as the spinner dolphins of Costa Rica.

So, when France’s Galatée Films heard about these amazing creatures, it wondered how well they would look and perform on the biggest screens in the world, filmed with the best cameras in the world. Were the spinner dolphin groups big enough to fill an IMAX screen?

Could they hold their own with the most spectacular bigscreen ocean footage ever captured in a movie? Would they help the mission of the film and inspire the world to conserve the oceans?

The production team spent years scouring the globe for spinner dolphins on a grand scale. It went to Hawaii and Polynesia, Brazil and elsewhere, and still no spinner dolphin shots were worthy of Galatée’s upcoming movie, “Oceans.”

The film was originally conceived by Oscar-winning veteran producer Jacques Perrin with spinner dolphins in mind. His team had already scored the best shots ever of myriad ocean creatures and phenomena around the planet. But perhaps spinner dolphins no longer existed anywhere in big enough numbers to fill the big screen. Maybe there would be no spinnersin the movie.

Still, Galatée sent scouts around the globe to check again. The scouts came up with the ffshore Osa. Last year, former Cousteau underwater cameraman and top “Blue Planet” underwater cameraman Didier Noirot came with project coordinator and diving security chief Nico Ghersinich and decided Costa Rica’s spinner dolphins had the right stuff. Yours truly was hired as chief dolphin and pelagic ecosystem guide for the duration of the project, and some excellent shots were taken back to Paris (TT, April 13, 2007).

This year, Galatée came back in force with more people, more cameras, more boats and more money.

A giant pole cam containing a huge special camera was affixed to a large yacht. Another camera was pushed by a diver. Another massive camera was towed in a giant torpedo. A special boat named Thetis came with an impressive gyroscopically stabilized crane that provided the steadiness to film jumping dolphins with a giant camera from a moving boat.

We spent close to 200 hours with the spinners, and they delivered a wish list of dream shots   o some very serious filmmakers, from spectacular shots of countless dolphins flying into the setting sun, to filming – from underwater – one spinner dolphin jumping 10 times, to great numbers of dolphins swimming through enormous bait balls of tiny fish, with shredded scales glistening in the water like stars. The team shot dolphin sex, surfing and spinning, and filmed interactive close-ups of playful, smiling spinner dolphins.

Sadly, the best cameras in the world also filmed dead dolphins and other dead marine life in the wake of commercial tuna boats and helicopters. Now, Costa Rica’s dolphins and their plight are poised to swim into international consciousness on IMAX, big screens and DVDs sometime in 2009. What will the world think?

Hopefully by then Costa Rica’s dolphins will be spinning in a marine park, like they do in Hawaii and Brazil.

Postproduction on the film will continue for the next few months. Costa Rica could still write itself a happy ending, instead of a tragic one, to go with the dolphins dancing in the sunset.

The country known for peace can still show the world it can make peace with nature. A new blue-water “PelagicPark” would help save the spinners and make everybody feel warm and fuzzy inside as they walk out of movie theaters around the world.

For more information about “Oceans,” see

–Shawn Larkin


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