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Dolphin Tourism in Southern Mozambique

Dolphin Encountours was born on the 28 December 1994, the day founders Angie & Steve Gullan came face to face with Wild Dolphins. A mother and calf suspended in crystal blue hung motionless in the water…time stood still as tears flowed in acknowledgment and awe. Founders returned often to Ponta whilst scuba diving and soon saw the potential that arose for creating a sustainable and education wild dolphin swim program.

An initial baseline pilot study was undertaken to assess the frequency of cetaceans in the area and this was done by bringing regular tours to Ponta to look for dolphins. Early visits found guests accommodated in the rundown campsite chalets (there was nothing else) and encountours were facilitated out of the ‘luxury chalets’ that included pre-training in the way of a snorkelling course and dolphin friendly swim guidelines adopted from the International Dolphin Watch and adapted to the african coastline.

Everything had to be brought from Jozi  - there was simply nothing there. We be-chased a special tv with built in vHs tape player to show dolphin movies - In the wild with Robin Williams had just been released and was standard viewing one night. Books we had managed to accumulate on dolphins and whales were available on loan to tour participants as was snorkelling gear and of course the food and drinks, most notably the prawns!!! Yes; we were in Mozambique and there were no LM prawns available down south…Ponta do Ouro was basically cut off after the war….

After a successful two year period founders could confirm regular sightings of bottlsnoe dolphins; a sheltered bay to facilitate in-water encounters thought the year and a want from the public to swim with wild dolphins. It was with this in mind in1997 that they approached campsite management and were able to obtain a beachfront property to establish a permanent base that would later simply be referred to as DOLPHIN - a 40 bed beach camp with restaurant, bar, surf shop and educational dolphin center where guests would stay and participate in a 3 night 5 launch dolphin eco-tour.

Much has changed since dolphin and diving pioneers explored the southern shores of Mozambique during the early 1990’s. The local population was friendly and eager to rebuild Ponta do Ouro to its former pre-war glory and early visitors to the area welcomed the quiet that Ponta offered.  Although accommodation was a tent, with run-down ablution facilities and amenities that were few and far between, visitors enjoyed dining on peri peri – chicken and prawns that were available from the seaside caravan and were happy to exchange modern-day vices for pristine beauty and the chance to discover the marine wonders of the south. Rustically constructed Mozambicano-style dive camps soon developed within the campsite, catering to the fast growing dive industry.

During the early years Angie met with and presented to various governmental bodies on the concerns of a growing dolphin-tourism industry that was not properly managed. Together with Dr Almeida Guissammulo from the Natural History Museum in Maputo and students from the University eduardo Mondalan the photo id project was born and studies started into to negative impacts of dolphins tourism and the DolphinCare code of conduct was presented and promoted for those wanted to swim with dolphins. Evidence was emerging from studies done on the other side of the globe that the impacts were indeed dire.. Operators were informed that because of the sensitivity of the animals the activity would be restricted as would be the amount of dive concession as a way of protecting the delicate resources. At this stage only one dolphin operator and 5 dive concessions were operational permanently in Ponta. It was suggested that this remain unchanged and that having 1 operator per 20km is the most ethical and sustainable way to undertake marine mammal tourism.

The media lapped up the opportunity to film, photograph and write about our work & close relationship with the Dolphins of Ponta which at that stage was proudly advocated as the areas only dedicated wild dolphin swim center. People started arriving from far and wide and with ‘business being business’ operators within the area started to capitalise on this exposure. Tourists soon started arriving with jetskis and boats to come and ‘swim with the dolphins’.  Sadly - everyone had missed the point and the pressure was on for the dolphins.

By the close of 2008 there were 8 multi activity operations that took people to swim with dolphins and double the amount of scuba diving operations. The inevitable had happened - regulations had not been put into place and tourism was on the increase. Boats and jet-skis were regularly sighted swimming with dolphins and whales and the activity was reaching un-sustainable levels.  Rogue operators were aplenty and the area was heading for disaster. A partial marine protected area was proclaimed in 2009 as a way of managing the growing tourism activities within the delicate marine area. 

Given the vast amount of data and imagery that was being accumulated, the project expanded to include the volunteer program that saw international biologists supervising and co-ordinating research and volunteer efforts. February 2010 welcomed Mozambican biologist Diana Rocha onto the team who is responsible for the upkeep of the Dolphins of Ponta fin ID program.

June 2010 saw the unexpected happen. Three camps burned to the ground after an all encompassing fire broke out at the entrance of the landmark that was Dolphin. Everything was lost in all but 30 minutes. It is not known what started the fire that destroyed the facility and saw an end of an era in Ponta do Ouro.

The fire of 2010 was a turning point for both Dolphins and tourism in  the area in general. A few short months after we had relocated to a small wooden shack in the middle of the village square, a second dolphin centre opened in Ponta do Ouro. With the loss of literally 100’s of beds in the campsite, accommodation venues boomed which meant marine based tourism boomed too, bad news for our local dolphins. As the Reserve implemented regulations and a code of conduct drawn from the original dolphin care code; a new industry was born, that of the ocean safari. With scuba operators no longer able to take tourists to swim with dolphins, they could still view - from 300m away. This saw an increase of commercial vessels within the inshore coastal area frequented by the local dolphins.

During June 2017 both Angie and Diana attended and presented at the World Whale Conference in Durban South Africa where responsible and ethical marine mammals tourism in the region was discussed.