'Gear on… get ready… drop!" We slipped awkwardly overboard, all flippers, wetsuits and snorkels, just as a pod of bottlenose dolphins finned surreally by in the deep blue waters.
A motley group of South African women, we were in Ponta do Ouro on the southeastern coast of Mozambique, to fulfil a lifelong, common dream of swimming with dolphins. While we had hoped to see some activity somewhere in the distant ocean, nothing could have prepared us for the proximity of these creatures and their playful interaction.
The bottlenose is curious and gregarious, however it had been stressed that the swims would be conducted on the dolphins’ terms.
"Go out with no expectations," Michelle Sachs of Ocean’s Essence and the facilitator of this trip had said. "Be calm and gentle in the water and let the dolphins come to you."
And they did. Sometimes close enough to touch, other times beneath us, or circle swimming around someone they had "chosen". Often we would hear them before we saw them – an odd clicking or squeaking like a creaky door.
Noise pollution threatens the dolphins survival
The popularity of dolphin excursions to Ponta do Ouro, where there are around 250 resident wild dolphins, has been steadily increasing, as has noise pollution from the influx of boats and jet skis. This noise has been known to interfere with the dolphins’ hearing and ability to echolocate, leading them to beach themselves, or collide with boats.
Dolphins use echolocation in tandem with their sight to identify the shape and size of objects in the water, such as predators, vessels and food; it’s their version of sonar. The high-frequency sounds they emit (sometimes as high as 120kHz) bounce off an object and echo back to them. It’s believed these sounds are transported through the inner ear to the brain, where they are interpreted into a mental image.
Noise, not only from boats, but from navy sonar and seismic testing, can cause deafness or their eardrums to burst, condemning them to disorientation, starvation and death.
The protection and conservation of dolphin life in Ponta do Ouro has become more important than ever. Four years ago, in what was regarded as a landmark conservation effort, the government declared the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve, a protected area which spans 678km2 along the coastline from Ponta do Ouro in the south to as far north as the Maputo River mouth.
A management plan for marine operators was enforced towards the end of 2011. This provided for protocols to protect all cetaceans in the reserve and a code of conduct that would be supported by local marine authorities. The code aimed to ensure that all tourism interaction was conducted in the marine mammals’ best interests.
From higher up the coast, at Ponta Mamoli, a "no-go zone" was declared, where no boats would be allowed to enter further north, giving dolphins a greater area in which to live without interference. A marine reserve headquarters was opened in Ponta do Ouro and a marine manager appointed.
An enclosed Dolphin centre
The Dolphin Centre is one of only two licensed, full-time dolphin operators in Ponta do Ouro and is actively promoting responsible marine mammal tourism and marine conservation through education.
While there has been progress in ensuring conservation methods are adhered to as per the management plan, the problem of jet skis and boats approaching cetaceans remains, says centre founder and director Noleen Skinstad, who has worked with dolphins for the past 10 years, initially in captive environments, before coming to Ponta do Ouro and launching the centre in 2007.
Jet skis have allegedly pushed through dolphin pods, causing injury and separating mothers from their calves. The calves fall victim to sharks, or die as they can’t fend for themselves. These kinds of experiences can also result in the dolphins becoming aggressive towards humans or deserting their territory to conduct their natural social behaviour in deeper water.
Further afield, in Zanzibar and Mauritius, there have been reports of boats without dolphin experts on board that surround entire pods, with the result that dolphins have swum into propellers and calves have died of stress.
"In the reserve, the use of jet skis is limited to fishing only and all vessels must stay 300m away from all marine life, however, this needs to be better monitored, enforced and regulated," says Skinstad. "But with the help of the authorities and enforcement by the reserve, I believe the problem can be resolved."
It appears a lack of manpower is hindering the implementation of the rules for jet skis and boats, as well as the curtailment of irresponsible interactions. Some diving operators have been advertising dolphin swims as an additional offering, despite not having permits.
"In the past there were sometimes six to 10 dolphin operators at a time from Ponta do Oura to Ponta Mamoli, but thankfully, due to the management plan, this was reduced to four for the entire area and only two for Ponta do Ouro," says Skinstad. "There has since been a significant improvement in terms of the interactions, but there is much work still to be done during the busy periods to prevent boats and other craft approaching cetaceans."
"No water entry" and "No touching " policies
Responsible interaction is ensured and monitored by the two licensed dolphin operators. "It is our responsibility to inform and educate tourists about marine life and ensure that interactions do not disrupt natural daily behaviour," says Skinstad.
All in-water observations are dependent on the behaviour that the dolphins are exhibiting.
A "no water entry" policy is adopted in the event of the pod resting, comprising a nursery of calves, or if the dolphins are demonstrating avoidance behaviour.
They will be viewed from the boat only and thereafter the excursion will move on to find a more interactive pod. Chasing or harassing the dolphins is prohibited and no flash photography is allowed.
There is also a strict "no touch" policy. This is not only due to interfering with the comfort zone of the dolphins or scaring them away, explains Sachs, who worked with captive dolphins in Bermuda and wild dolphins in the Bahamas.
Touching a dolphin upsets the equilibrium of the pod and the bond this dolphin has with its own family members. Humans can also transfer bacteria and disease to dolphins that their immune systems can’t fight.
Raising awareness to protect dolphins
Despite all efforts, the problem of irresponsible unlicensed operators persists; operators who do not follow the code of conduct and are not familiar with dolphin behaviour, allowing swimmers to enter the water regardless.
Sachs stresses that tourists should research the operators they intend booking with to ensure that they are reputable and licensed. For the past 14 years she has been trying to make a difference, with her dolphin retreats, which centre on educating participants about dolphin conservation, the human-dolphin bond and conservation of the planet.
She says that dolphins face many more challenges that threaten their survival, from becoming bycatch in tuna nets or being hunted to overfishing, which is depleting their food source (it has been predicted that by 2048 there will be no fish left in the sea), and ocean liners spilling sewage, contaminating their habitat and causing illness among them.
Several organisations are raising awareness and protecting dolphins. Among them are the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, International Dolphin Watch and Eyes on the Horizon in Mozambique, which conducts coastal patrols that monitor illegal activities and strandings and reports them to the authorities.
"However, education and awareness should be spearheaded by governments," says Sachs.
Until dolphin conservation becomes a priority at global government level, their plight, such as that of the rhinos, will remain a critical issue.Mozambique is a beautiful location in which to swim with dolphins but visitors should be sure to make use of one of the licensed operators, who adhere to marine regulations.