has studied and worked with whales and dolphins since 1985. She is
co-founder of the Talamanca Dolphin Foundation (TDF) in
Costa Rica. TDF is a non-profit, community-based
organization dedicated to education, protection, research
and responsible eco-tourism with the dolphins of the
Talamanca Coast, and the first dolphin program in the
|Photo by Long Island
University Dolphin Research Project.
|Dolphin research boat
|Author with villagers
Some of the local women studying English
photo credit- Craig Derby
Foundation officers and boat captains' meeting
Guyana (on the left) and bottlenose dolphins interacting
When the mysteries of life reveal themselves, how do we respond?
Here is one village’s story.
Unusual things have been going on in the waters of the
Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge along the southern Caribbean
Coast of Costa Rica. A new species of dolphin for Costa Rica-- the
Guyana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis) previously known among
scientists as Tucuxi-- was identified there in 1997. On top of that,
it was observed to consistently interact socially and sexually with
a second distinct species of dolphin, the Bottlenose (Tursiops
truncatus). The Bottlenose seemed to travel close to shore to
encounter the Guyana dolphins in their more limited coastal home
Additional research showed that social/sexual behavior was
significantly more frequent in mixed-species groups and in groups
larger than four dolphins. Foraging was more frequent in
single-species groups and in groups smaller than five dolphins.
Additional studies have confirmed that both species varied in how
they used the habitat in the refuge, but when in mixed-species
groups, both spend most of the time interacting with each other.
The most recent study has produced a new surprise. When these
particular Guyana and Bottlenose dolphins come together to socialize
they each change their own distinct language, and adopt an
intermediary language they can both understand. When Bottlenose
dolphins swim together with their own species, they emit longer,
lower-frequency, modulated calls. In contrast, Guyana dolphins
usually communicate with each other using higher frequency whistles
that have their own particular structure. When the two dolphins
gather, they produce quite different calls. The calls became more
homogenous, according to May-Collado (BBC-Earth News 2010/09/30).
Could this be a third language? Or could it serve another intended
function such as one species trying to get the other to back off?
Yet, with discovery is there also responsibility? There is another
interesting part to this ongoing story that addresses that question.
This is the story of how these dolphins were discovered, and how a
community of people responded.
The village of Manzanillo is located at the end of the road, within
the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, on the southern Caribbean
Coast of Costa Rica. The predominantly Afro-Caribbean residents
historically lived by hunting turtle, hand-line fishing, harvesting
coconuts and selling coconut oil. Only a few adventurous outsiders
visited this remote region.
In 1997 Ann DiBerardinis and Shawn Larkin, who had each built a
small home in the area with their families, decided on a whim to
investigate the waters near the village. They had had some inspiring
experiences with dolphins and whales in the past, and wanted to
check out a partial bay not far from Manzanillo. Several local
fishermen had related that they sometimes saw dolphins there.
However, little was known about these animals, and there was no real
interest in them.
Accompanied by a few others and a very special boat captain, they
set out. From the first day, they found dolphins . . or the
dolphins found them! These enthusiastic explorers wanted to learn as
much as they could about these animals, and began systematically
observing and recording the dolphins’ behavior and other data. They
noticed that they were seeing an unusual number of smaller
dolphins-- too many to all be calves of the larger ones. Digging out
their books they discovered that most of the small dolphins were
actually a different species! They had the identifying
characteristics of the little-known Guyana dolphin, formally known
as Tucuxi before 2007, not yet known to exist in Costa Rica. The
other species was Bottlenose, and the two were observed together
The Guyana dolphin resembles a Bottlenose dolphin but is smaller.
It is light gray to bluish-gray on the back and pinkish to light
gray on the belly. There is a lighter area between the flippers and
the dorsal. The dorsal fin is triangular and may be slightly hooked
at the tip. The beak is moderately slender and long. Body size of
the Guyana dolphin reaches 210-220 cm. The bottlenose is light gray
to bluish-gray similar to the Guyana dolphin. But its dorsal fin is
higher and more falcate, and has a slightly shorter beak than the
Guyana dolphin. The Bottlenose is also larger at 190-390 cm long.
News of finding the dolphins regularly drew a few dismissive jokes
and laughs in the village, but spread quickly outside of the
community. Newspaper articles brought additional attention to these
reports. Some curious visitors asked to accompany the researchers on
their daily excursions, and several biologists visited to verify the
claim of a new species. The boat captains soon realized that these
visitors were willing to pay for their “dolphin excursions”! That
was something new.
The captains still didn’t understand the nature of dolphins, or
how to operate their boats in a respectful manner. A few raced into
the middle of the dolphins to try to get them to “bow ride”. This
did not produce the intended result, and only made the dolphins
disappear. That wouldn’t work.
The ad hoc discoverers realized they now had a responsibility to the
dolphins—a responsibility to protect them, and to involve and
educate the local boat captains in respectful boat management while
observing the dolphins. It was a big commitment. Ann and Shawn
decided to create a non-profit organization to clarify and formalize
these goals. In 1998 the Talamanca Dolphin Foundation (Asociación
pro Delfínes de Talamanca) was established as a non-profit
organization registered in Costa Rica. Its mission was, and
still is, to increase awareness, knowledge and protection of the
dolphins of Gandoca-Manzanillo, and promote
responsible marine eco-tourism. This was to include goals of
research, education, protection, and the promotion of responsible
marine eco-tourism and involvement of the local community.
They foresaw that interest in the dolphins could bring needed
income to the community. The boat captains and others would then be
personally invested in the protection and welfare of the dolphins.
It would be a win-win. Ann, Shawn and Vanessa Schot were
enthusiastic about providing education, training and resources that
would make the Manzanillo boat captains the most knowledgeable and
successful dolphin guides in the area.
Through this passion powered pioneering effort TDF became the first
dolphin organization in Costa Rica. Through volunteer effort,
personal resources, small donations, basic fees from participating
students and interns, not to mention the continued cooperation of
the resident dolphins, more was accomplished in subsequent years
than was ever imagined. Lessons were also learned. In the process
the founders remained aware of the agreement they had made with the
dolphins at the beginning: If they would be themselves and continue
to bring joy and awe to observers (helping the community in the
process), they would do their best to help and protect them. It has
worked quite well up to now. But new threats to the safety and
welfare of the dolphins continue, and a new wave of passionate and
committed workers is needed. There is a solid foundation for new
workers to build upon.
Since 1998, the Talamanca Dolphin Foundation has conducted
educational/training programs for local boat captains, international
student groups, visiting tourists, Costa Rican and Panamanian
naturalist guides, environmental conferences, indigenous groups and
local school children. It has provided information and film clips
for newspapers, documentary film producers, a variety of magazines,
and Costa Rican guidebooks. It has mentored and shared knowledge and
experience with a similar dolphin organization in Suriname, South
Field research has been conducted over the years with the support of
TDF and participation of college students, academic interns, marine
scientists, and interested local people. Information gained from
these studies has produced reports to the Ministerio de Ambiente y
Energía (MINAE), the government agency overseeing the
Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge. It has also been used in local
and international newspaper and magazine articles; been published in
scientific journals; been included in educational pamphlets, visitor
guides, and information for guided Dolphin Tours; has established an
ongoing photo-ID catalogue of over 70 individual dolphins of the
area, aiding in establishing residency and longevity patterns; and
has established important baseline data for future scientific
Some of TDF’s successful protection projects included: promoting
more knowledgeable and respectful dolphin-watching practices;
helping eliminate unlawful fish netting in the area for a period of
time; participating in a coalition to stop irresponsible offshore
oil exploration; and contributing to a community wastewater
treatment program that significantly reduces ocean contamination.
However, illegal netting and other threats continue to be a problem
at certain times of year and the need for vigilance, public
awareness and enforcement of laws remain critical issues in
protecting the dolphins and other marine life.
Community involvement in the Foundation paid off in a number of
ways. Dolphin Tours in Manzanillo soon became the most popular
guided tour in the area. It attracted a consistent stream of
tourists and significantly contributed to the economic base of the
community. Local people realized a personal stake in protecting the
dolphins. Local businesses and boats began to proudly display
dolphin images. Through their profits boat captains were able to
upgrade their boats, allowing them to be ready for future demands
for boat service, such as saltwater sport fishing.
But the most dramatic demonstration of the locals’ personal
investment in the welfare of the dolphins came in 2003. The
community and TDF members adamantly protested and stopped one
research project proposed by outside biologists. These biologists
sought permission from MINAE to include, as part of their study,
extracting plugs of tissue from the dolphins by firing a dart from a
modified rifle into their side. These tissue samples would then be
used to determine DNA. Community dolphin guides and others feared
that such an activity would either drive the small resident
population of Guyana dolphins away, and/or change their level of
trust and tolerance with local dolphin-watching boats. It certainly
would not be protecting them. The research permit was denied by
MINAE based on the strong community protest. The people had defended
Some activities can take longer in an organization like the
Talamanca Dolphin Foundation because some decisions are dependent on
community understanding and support. But, the benefits can be worth
it. Continuing educational programs can remain a priority.
Scientific studies can more effectively be translated to
non-scientists. Community members can learn new skills and take
advantage of the growing tourism industry. There is local control
over what type of tourism to attract. New opportunities for learning
are present. The non-profit status has the potential for special
funding. Dolphins can continue to help and bring joy to people as
people help to protect them. Who knows what the future will bring?