By Eva Pedrol
PANAMA CITY – Panama’s Tommy Guardia National Geographical Institute is creating the first interactive map for whale-watching in Latin American with the aim of organizing research and contributing to the protection and preservation of the huge mammals.
The digital plan will be placed on a Web site so that anyone traveling to Panama can learn where and when he or she can see humpback whales, the most numerous of the types of whales that visit the coasts of the Central American country.
“The ultimate goal of the map is the conservation of the whales. We want it to be a tool for the proper management of the species and of ecotourism,” the project’s creator, institute engineer Gabriel Despaigne, told Efe.
People will also be able to interact with the new tool and anyone who has seen a whale will be able to send in details to help build and update the map.
Another of the project’s objectives is for Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador to begin a similar initiative to create a “whale corridor map of the Americas.”
“Although it’s just a proposal, in every meeting we’ve had since 2005 with the NGO whale conservation groups I’ve been talking about the need for each country to adopt the whale-sighting map,” Despaigne said.
According to the calculations of the National Geographic Institute, controlled whale-watching could mean $100 million in annual income for Panama.
The project is in the phase where GPS tracking devices are being placed to locate the mammals and the tails of the beasts are being photographed to identify them and establish their travel routes.
The engineer admitted that “disorganization” in this activity could mean harm to the species, since they can tend to abandon their usual ranges if human activity there gets to be too disturbing.
Therefore, he emphasized the importance of the map and gave as an example the town of Puerto Piramides, Argentina, which for the past 30 years has been dedicating itself in an organized way to whale-watching that has posed no threat to the species.
“Often whales and dolphins seek interaction with man,” said Despaigne, who added that after Panama changed its stance, whereby it had aligned itself with the whale hunters in the International Whaling Commission the whale-awareness situation in that country had improved.
“When the Green Association of Panama in 2003 began the ‘Save the whales’ campaign, people thought that the mammals were only in cold countries, and now it’s a rare person who doesn’t know that Panama has whales,” Despaigne said.
Panama’s outgoing president, Martin Torrijos, enacted in 2005 a law to protect the marine mammals, with the aim of also promoting research, whale-watching and tourism.
A biologist with the Mar Viva organization, Gabriela Etchelecu, who works to conserve and promote the sustainable use of marine and fishing resources, says that a map with these characteristics will be “valuable for ecotourism and the country’s economy.”
Even so, she lamented the lack of implementation of the 2005 law and the regulations for whale-watching, which establish the minimum
distances to which people can approach the whales and obligate them to have qualified guides with them during the activity, among other things.
Etchelecu told Efe that currently there is no office overseeing the whale presence in Panama. “There is no institution centralizing all the information for fishermen, tourists and scientists reporting to the same site.”
In addition, she expressed her wish that the new Panamanian government, which will take power July 1, will maintain Panama’s vote before the IWC against the hunting of whales. EFE