The Department of Conservation today announced outcomes of a review of dusky dolphin watching off the Kaikoura coast that it says will better align tourism activity with the dolphins’ natural behaviour.

Date:  23 November 2009

The Department of Conservation today announced outcomes of a review of dusky dolphin watching off the Kaikoura coast that it says will better align tourism activity with the dolphins’ natural behaviour.   

A number of new measures for managing commercial dolphin watching off Kaikoura have been put forward in the review for the protection of the dolphins after a three-year research programme found behavioural changes in the dolphins in the presence of boats, including dolphins moving more and resting less.

No new permits will be granted for commercial boat-based dusky dolphin watching and swimming off Kaikoura for five years.

Changes are also proposed to existing permits including increasing the maximum numbers of swimmers allowed per boat from 13 to 18, with the aim of reducing vessel visits; and setting a limit of four approaches per trip for boats attempting to drop off swimmers with dolphins. It is also proposed to make mandatory a currently voluntary dolphin-watching time-off period during the dolphins’ main resting time in the middle of the day (11.30am to 1.30pm), and to extend the period in which it applies from four to six months, from December-March currently to October to March.

The review took place ahead of the end of a 10-year moratorium on new permits for dolphin watching at Kaikoura declared in November 1999. The review drew on the findings and recommendations of the three years’ research on the effects of tourism activity on dusky dolphins and 15 submissions made by individuals and organisations. Decisions have been made in accordance with the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations which focus on the conservation, management and protection of the dolphins.

DOC Nelson/Marlborough Conservator Neil Clifton said review decisions reflected the researchers’ finding that the dolphins appeared to be more affected by boats, especially those dropping off swimmers, than by swimmers or aircraft.  

“The New Zealand and United States-based marine mammal scientists observed several behavioural changes, with dolphins overall resting less and moving more in the presence of boats. These effects tended to be greater with more boats present and with more encounters. They also found that on average dolphin groups were accompanied by vessels 25 percent of the time, most often in summer.

“Collectively, the measures put forward in the review are aimed at looking after the welfare of the dolphins by minimising the effects of tourist vessels on the dolphins’ normal behaviour. This is in the interests of the dolphins, the tourism industry and those who want to view dolphins in their natural world.”

Other measures put forward in the review include:

  • A proposal to amend permits to prohibit boats dropping off swimmers in front of an approaching pod of dolphins (which researchers had observed caused dolphins greater disturbance than approaches from the rear and side).
  • Allowing Encounter Kaikoura to extend its area of operation on two of its three permits to include the area between the Conway and the Waiau Rivers. This change would align these permits with the other five Whale Watch Kaikoura and Encounter Kaikoura boats already permitted to operate in this area.
  • Existing marine mammal permit holders will have opportunity to comment on proposed amendments to their existing permits before final decisions are made on them. 

Mr Clifton said additionally the department intended to consult with dolphin-watching operators on practises that could improve the dolphins’ encounters with boats including boat-handling around dolphins and interactions with pods containing calves.

Additional information:

  • The declaration to not grant new permits for boat-based commercial dolphin watching for five years does not apply to permits for commercial aircraft dolphin viewing and Kaikoura Peninsula-based commercial kayak trips and applications for these activities can still be considered.
  • There are currently two tourist operators permitted to undertake boat dolphin watching and/or swimming trips at Kaikoura: Encounter Kaikoura holds three permits and operates three vessels; Whale Watch Kaikoura has two permits and operates four vessels. Two operators run scenic fixed-wing aircraft flights which include dusky dolphin viewing, holding a permit each, and one helicopter operator has two permits.
  • It is estimated that around 12,000 dusky dolphins frequent the eastern coast of the upper South Island with an estimated 2000 of the dolphins off the Kaikoura coast at any time.  The dusky dolphin pods range in size from small groups through to hundreds and sometimes more than 1000 individuals. Nursery pods, small groups of dolphins with very young calves, are most common at Kaikoura over the spring and summer.
  • The researchers noted several factors contributed to the Kaikoura dusky dolphin population being relatively resilient to tourism pressure, including: it is a sizeable widely-spread population; the pods are large enabling some dolphins to choose to move away from boats and swimmers while others stay with them; the dolphins feed at night; and they undertake seasonal migrations into and away from Kaikoura.

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Trish Grant, Nelson/Marlborough Conservancy communications advisor, ph: +64 3 546 3146.

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