Dolphin and Whale Magazine :  January issue 2011
Articles:    Home  Site Map  About Us   Projects    Magazine   Media    Photos   Programs   Blog    Contact Us   Table of Contents

Ann DiBerardinis

The Dolphins of Gandoca, Costa Rica 
by Ann DiBerardinis

Have fresh water and bottle nose dolphins created a third language to communicate?

Ann DiBerardinis
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 country.
Photo by Long Island
University Dolphin Research Project.
Dolphin research boat
Author with villagers
Guyana dolphins
Some of the local women studying English
Guyana dolphin
photo credit- Craig Derby
Foundation officers and boat captains' meeting
Guyana (on the left) and bottlenose dolphins interacting
Main Street
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 range .

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 almost daily.

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 America.

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 research.

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 the dolphins.

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?


 Membership - Click Here to Join   Table of Contents
Home  Site Map  About Us   Projects    Magazine   Media    Photos   Programs   Blog    Contact Us