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Golfo Dulce Whale Heritage Area
Golfo Dulce

Golfo Dulce Whale Heritage Area

Information

Celebratory events or festivals
Boat-based wildlife tours

Description

Golfo Dulce is a tropical fjord-like embayment located on the South Pacific coast of Costa Rica. It’s one of the few areas in the world where untouched rainforest habitat meets pristine beaches, and many threatened and endangered species call this region home.

Golfo Dulce is an incredibly important marine area where some species of cetaceans visit, while bottlenose and Pantropical spotted dolphins reside in these waters throughout the year. These playful creatures rely on the plentiful food sources and safety offered by the semi-enclosed gulf.

This area is also the only place in the world where both northern and southern populations of humpback whales come to have their calves. Given this unique opportunity, researchers began collecting audio and visual data, offering new insights into whale behaviour and population numbers.

The whale watching industry in Golfo Dulce has developed on the observation of these species of cetacean, and this has promoted an increase in ecotourism activities for more than 10 years.

Motivation

The Osa Peninsula and surrounding area is booming in eco-tourism and would be a great asset to further promote this area as a responsible tourism area, providing more work opportunities and education, while also decreasing threats to cetacean populations. The Golfo Dulce is classed as one of only a few tropical fjords in the world and is an area brimming with life. It has already been signed off as a sanctuary for the hammerhead shark as it also serves as a nursery site for them. It is hoped that with continual development threats, having the WHA status, more pressure can be put on the national government to improve the protection of this special site.

Programs like WHA and its related events and activities not only raise public awareness but can directly drive positive change through informed action by individuals on a personal level (caring for cetaceans through daily behaviours) and through political voice (voting and/or working together to establish legal protective measures). We not only plan to continue to encourage people to appreciate the beauty of cetaceans in Golfo Dulce, but also to strive to provide them with tools of empowerment. Governmental agencies and appointed marine managers will be better equipped to create a strong legal framework for cetacean conservation when supported by good science and strong community interest. Hence, we will strive to create bridges that connect scientists and small public organisations with local policy leaders so that key information can be readily exchanged.

Boundary Map

Species or habitats

Golfo Dulce is a rich and important marine area for whales and dolphins. There are 7 cetacean species recorded, including bottlenose dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, false killer whales and humpback whales. Occasionally other species are seen, such as Bryde's whale, spinner dolphins and killer whales.

Golfo Dulce provides a suitable breeding and calving ground for Northeast and Southeast Pacific populations of humpback whales. The calving seasons run from July to November (Southern populations) and November to March (Northern populations).

There are also year-round resident and non-resident dolphin populations. Bottlenose dolphins are more likely to be seen close to shore compared to the pantropical spotted dolphins.

Area Features

Bottlenose dolphins, pantropical spotted dolphins, humpback whales, false killer whales - Species

Stability

All cetacean species are protected, but according to Costa Rica’s national legislation, there are no specific protected statuses for the cetaceans inside Golfo Dulce. Five cetacean species are classified as “Near threatened” by the IUCN and two as "Data deficient" (false killer whales and killer whales).                                            

The bottlenose dolphin population is an “inshore” ecotype, with total numbers of less than 500 individuals along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama. Numerous individuals within that population exhibit cutaneous lesions suggestive of lacaziosis-like disease (LLD).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Threats

The threats faced by cetaceans in Golfo Dulce include global issues like climate change, in addition to localised threats such as water contamination and increasing boat traffic (noise pollution and risk of prop strikes).

The bottlenose dolphin population is an “inshore” ecotype, with less than 500 individuals along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama. Numerous individuals exhibit cutaneous lesions suggestive of lacaziosis-like disease (LLD).

Building development is a potential threat as there is a new marina proposed in one of the hotspot areas for humpback whales.

Actions taken for protection

There are several local or regional programmes or projects that are working to address these threats, including some carried out by research institutes, universities, or NGOs.

CEIC is continuing to collect data on LLD, mainly by photo id-ing. They have utilised their data to show the issues with developing a marina project or tuna farm in the Golfo Dulce. Raising Coral is focused on coral restoration work and is monitoring and highlighting changes in water temperature and quality. They plan to publish their latest findings later this year.

The University of Costa Rica is currently undertaking a noise pollution study in and around the Golfo Dulce. They plan to publish once they have finished.

Osa Conservation (non-profit) is currently collecting water quality study information. Boat tour company Changing Tide Tours and non-profit Osa Ecology are collecting spatial and behavioural data from boats and drones to better understand current cetacean positions and movements in comparison to the proposed new marina site.

Wildlife Watching Guidelines

Whale and dolphin watching boat tours are operational throughout the year.

There are national regulation guidelines for whale and dolphin watching. These guidelines are an official Costa Rica law (Number 32495) developed by: The President of the Republic, Ministry of Wildlife and Energy, Ministry of Public Work and Transportation, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. Regulations are based on the provisions of several articles, laws and international agreements. 95% of WW companies participate in the ongoing development and implementation of these guidelines.   

A minimum of 2 boats are allowed near a cetacean at any one time. Any other vessels must wait at least 200m in the distance until one of the closer boats leave. All boats must maintain a slower speed (max 4 knots) than the slowest animal in the group you are observing. A maximum observation time of 30 mins is allowed for a pod of cetaceans and 15 mins for one individual or calf. Must keep 100m distance for one individual dolphin and 150m for a whale. 50m distance for a pod of adult dolphins and 200m a group of whales.

Approach only through the posterior lateral part, and advance in parallel to the cetaceans, and always move away from a cetacean laterally and in line with the closest individual.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Fact 1

Migrant humpback whales from the Northeast and Southeast Pacific populations arrive in different seasons; the northern population migrates to the wintering grounds between December and April, whereas those from austral zones make their journey from June to October.

Fact 2

Tour boat observations have found that dolphins are regularly seen swimming near/around visiting whales. A scientific paper on these interactions is currently being prepared with the collected data.

Fact 3

Dolphins are also seen relatively frequently interacting with (“harassing”) venomous sea snakes, a behaviour noted in a few other areas of the world but not to the extent observed in Golfo Dulce.

Criteria

1. Cultural Importance Of Wildlife

1.1 Cultural heritage linking people to cetaceans demonstrates significant understanding and ongoing respect for cetaceans and habitats.

1.2 The presentation and interpretation of cultural heritage linked to cetaceans is respectful, sensitive, and benefits those living and working in the Whale Heritage Area.

1.3 Efforts are in place to continually revive, reimagine, and enhance the presentation and interpretation of cultural heritage linked to cetaceans and their habitats.

1.4 The community regularly monitors the impact of cultural heritage linked to cetaceans and takes action to strengthen that impact based on the latest evidence.

Criteria

2. Respectful Human-Wildlife Coexistence

2.1 The community collaborates to ensure the protection of cetaceans through research, nature conservation, regenerating biodiversity, and safeguarding individual animals from harm.

2.2 The community raises awareness about the protection of cetaceans and their habitats, including ways for everybody to help contribute to solutions.

2.3 The community influences the protection of cetaceans through strategies based on practical, scientific, or traditional knowledge.

2.4 The community recognises that there may be clashes of interests and values related to the protection of cetaceans and has strategies in place to resolve them as fairly as possible.

2.5 The community supports and implements sustainability and environmental initiatives that have a positive impact on cetaceans and the marine environment.

2.6  The community regularly monitors the health and protection of cetacean populations
and adopts strategies based on the latest evidence.

Criteria

3. Responsible Wildlife Tourism

3.1 The community has strategies in place to identify and raise awareness about exploitative, extractive, or consumptive captive or wild cetacean tourism attractions.

3.2  The community promotes responsible wild whale and dolphin watching experiences.

3.3 Responsible whale and dolphin watching guidelines are adopted within the Whale
Heritage Area and regularly updated to follow expert or science-based best practice.
These guidelines conform to international, national, or local legislation where it exists.

3.4 Efforts are made to enforce responsible whale and dolphin watching guidelines and
international, national, or local legislation where it exists.

3.5 Tourism and the behaviour of tourists are well managed to reduce negative impacts
on cetaceans and habitats.

3.6 The community plays a key role in designing and operating responsible whale and
dolphin watching experiences, which provide direct social and economic benefits.

3.7  The community monitors the impacts of tourism on targeted species and habitats
and regularly acts to reduce those impacts based on the latest evidence.

Management Plan

Management Plan File

Overview

Title
Golfo Dulce Whale Heritage Area
Level
Designated
Name Location
Golfo Dulce
Name Species Group
Cetacean
Country
CRI
Approximate size (sq km)
750
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