Until Jaws or Willy comes along

by Gunnar Engblom on November 28, 2009

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Anyone seen the Great White Shark or the Killer Whale lately?

Sooner or later someone's going to die! Sealions and swimmer at Palomino. Photo: Gunnar Engblom

Sooner or later someone's going to die! Sealions and swimmer at Palomino. Photo: Gunnar Engblom

Eco-tourism can often be good for conservation, but sometimes the operators are just not responsible. This example is from Palomino islands outside Lima, where it has become popular to swim with the sea-lions. This is totally unregulated. There are no specific areas designed where impact with the breeding colony is minimized – a less impacting area would be in front of the bachelor resting rocks. There is no minimum distance to the island established, nor any code of conduct.

The water of the Humboldt current is ice-cold – the risk of hypothermia is evident. The swimming is just next to the colony. There are no rules of minimum distances.  The sharp teeth of the sea-lions could potentially be dangereous. Males can weigh over 300 kg – take that into account.

Killer Whales and Great White Sharks are rare in Peruvian waters, but both have occurred – and when they do show up again, could they avoid this virtual smorgasboards of prey?

So far there has not been any serious injuries, but it will happen – sooner or later someone will be serious injured or killed. It is an announced accident – that will happen.

Swimming with sealions - Invasive tourism.

Swimming with sealions - Invasive tourism.

In spite of this, there seems to be very little interest in regulating the activity. On the contrary the municipality of Callao promotes it. I ask myself if it is really necessary. At Paracas, 300km south of Lima, most tourists content themselves with observations of the sea-lions from a boat. They do not need to get into the water. Why can’t the same tourism be applied in Lima?

UPDATE:

Since I published this blogpost, I found by accident a blogpost on Living-in-Peru that totally praises the activity. Two sides of the same coin! Which do you chose?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

David Nowell November 29, 2009 at 7:52 am

Idiots!! It is as bad as the tourists going up to “pat” lion in Africa and then express shock and outrage when their mate got eaten!

Stefan Austermühle November 29, 2009 at 8:31 pm

I agree with you Gunnar that this activity has to be regulated. I agree with you that the pictures show inadecuate and highly impacting behaviour. The problem is less that somebody could get bitten but that people swimming so close to rocks are likely to scare the sealions from the rock into the water – this may even get to a stampede level – if that happens in january/ february it is likely that the old and heavy animals smash the pubs and we get dead sea lions. So definitely there have to be regulations.

However I disagree with your tenency to generalize and damn the entire activity. You are just NOT right when saying that swimming or diving with sea lions is per se invasive. If a boat stays 100-200 meters away from the sea lion colony anchored the divers or swimmer go into the water at this distance and the sea lions aproach them – in this case it is just not invasive – sea lions are curious and playful and intelligent top predors that like to investigate – this characteristic can be used for a joyfull encounter without any problem – that will stay in peoples mind and probably do more for environmental conservation than a thousand visits in a zoo (being very invasive for the involved animals).

You are not right either in using Paracas – boat tourism as a positive alternative – the boat tourism in Paracas has huge negative impacts with the number of sea lions dropping over the last decade – that is because these boats like the ones in your picture aproach sea lions on the rock too close – so please Gunnar – I would prefer you starting to be less black and white and get a little bit more differenciated about things – use your positive energy and join in to ask for regulation, zonification and minimum distances to be complied with and let people have their fun as long as the sea lions enjoy it too.

best Stefan

Stefan Austermühle November 29, 2009 at 8:36 pm

There has never been reported a white shark or an orca attacking sea lions in the Ballestas islands sea lion colony – this place has tourists boats being there every day for more than 20 years now -any shark or orca attack would have been registered – there is also no report for Palomino islands even though observation density is only recent. There have been orcas seen passing by in Paracas but only once in a few years. White sharks have been reported from Las Hormigas Islands. But these islands are right on the edge of the continental shelf. Shark fisheries and orca observations are regularly along the coast in the area where the continental shelf breaks or further offshore – so there is a population of sharks and orcas but according to all our knowledge they do stay far away from the coast hunting for pelagic fish – there seems to be enough food outside so there is no need for them to patroll sea lions colonies – please be also aware that the reported cases of orcas and sharks feeding on sea lion colonies only occur in very few places in the world and it is not a widespread behaviour but rather a localised special behavior of a small group of these predators. So there seems to be no danger for sea lion swimmers or divers in Peru. That of course is no guarantee – we are dealing with nature here – but the probability is likely to be much lower than dying in a car or plane crash. Everybody in the world who goes surfing or diving or swimming in the whatever ocean should be aware that he asumes the remaining risk. Hope that answer helps and many greetings Stefan

Gunnar Engblom November 29, 2009 at 9:59 pm

Stefan
Please note that I am calling for minimum distances and code of conduct and also suggest that the swimming could take place for instance at the rookeries – if it must be done at all. All interaction with humans and animals is invasive in one way or another. Operators of eco-tourism should seek that this is as little as possible. Personally, I think directly interacting with the animals actively in this way, is un-ethical and would not offer it to my clients.
Also, I can’t for the world see why this would be necessary for the visiting tourist. It is one thing to do scuba diving where you sort of become one with the element – the scuba diver would also be more experienced to be in the water than the general tourist, but just throwing a tourist into the water with a life west to bob around with the sealions it just senseless!

It is going out of hand at Palomino (which is almost 300 km north of Paracas). I am not suggesting that there is a big risk for a Great White Shark or Killer Whale to take a swimmer, but it seems like the only way that regulations will happen is that a serious accident happens. And something serious will happen….sooner or later!
Should we just hope it is sooner?

What I am saying about Paracas is that the tourists there content themselves with seeing the sealions without jumping into the water. Obviously, it needs to be regulated there as well with minimum distances fixed and code of conduct enforced.

On my Facebook where I published a link to the blog post I got this comment from Katie Phillips:
“Gunnar, while at Paracas we were lead to believe there was a 50 meter rule on approaching marine mammals… Fiction?”
My reply:
“Katie. I salute the responsible operator if they enforced this. Who did you go with in the end? Were they good?
I think one should keep 50 m away from the big colony at least, and maybe approach closer individuals at the rookeries (of young males) so that clients can get good close up shots. That should keep all happy and have little impact on the colony itself.”
Katie reply:
“We went twice, each time with some general operator off the pier (no name). They did stay back from larger colonies, but not from individuals, and not from bird rookeries. Seals seemed nonplussed. Interestingly it was Pelicans that were the most perturbed. Alas, on our second trip there were two boats operating with huka set ups harvesting shellfish near the seal colonies. The boat guide said that “artisan” operators were allowed in the reserve… Sigh. We wrote down the boat numbers anyway but didn’t press.”

In the end there seems to be some rules imposed and carried out at Paracas, but none whatsoever at Palomino.

Professor Archibald Smythe December 3, 2009 at 11:53 am

It is the lack of the right kind of interaction or, conversely, too much of the wrong kind of interacton ie shooting,fishing that is the problem.
Sea Lions, like Dolphins and Porpoises, enjoy interacting with humans and in my humble opinion this can not happen enough. it is fear of humans that is the issue. Humans should intermingle and interact as much as possible with all non human life. Eco – tourism is merely the use of animals for the benefit of human tour operators – the bottom line if you like. How does one explain to a Sea lion or a Cock of the Rock that it is being ‘used’ to financially benefit some humans? A plague on eco-tourism if you ask me. We, the fifth ape, are animals made up of the same molecules as virtually all other life and, as such, have no right to impose our desires,beliefs etc on other life. Interaction wherever possible for me.
Archibald

Oswaldo Aguirre December 3, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Gunnar: I totally agree with you. Once I had the chance to visit the Palomino islands and saw a group of young tourists swimming with the sea lions, in fact we had been sailing in the same yatch and they were told to get into the water, cos that was part of the tour. My first thought was: Isn’t this an invasion of the sea lions habitat? on the other hand as you well stated, what if these animals feel stressed and threatened? I am not an expert, but this is a matter of common sense. Something must be done before it is too late. Regards. Oswaldo

Mariano Valverde December 4, 2009 at 10:04 am

Hola (disculpen por no respetar el idioma del blog):

Tambien considero que el nadar con lobos es jugar una ruleta rusa y como casi todo en nuestro país, solo es regulado cuando ocurre una tragedia (sino recuerden Mesa Redonda, o las miles de vidas que se han salvado por el uso del cinturón de seguridad).

También creo que quien se baña con lobos debería saber cómo es su comportamiento normal cuando no hay turistas cerca, además es cierto que ellos se acercan, sí, pero hay que aclarar si ellos se lanzan al agua porque quieren vernos de cerca? o se lanzan al agua porque se sienten amenazados y es el agua su mejor refugio?, yo creo que lo último es lo que está pasando en Palominos dada la cercanía de los botes segun he visto en las fotos.

Por otro lado quiero dar un dato, en el año 2003 si mal no recuerdo, un yate de Paracas encalló en la playa La Maternidad de la isla Ballestas originando un caos en la colonia de lobos y el susto de su vida a los turistas, desde esa época la población de lobos prácticamente desapareció de Ballestas y al parecer se fueron a las Chinchas y Sangayán, sería necesario conocer datos más exactos del IMARPE, ya que ellos realizan anualmente el censo de lobos en toda la costa.

Por otro lado y para no aburrirlos, la presencia de lobos cerca a los humanos me parece comparable con la presencia de los extractores de guano y las aves guaneras, tengo fotos donde las aves están sobre los sacos de guano y la gente dice: “que lindo, las aves y el hombre en armonía”, pero no saben que esas aves están allí porque el hombre está ocupando el lugar donde ellas van anidar, ya que un pájaro cuando no desea anidar no descansa tan cerca del hombre sino que parte al vuelo inmediatamente.

Saludos
Mariano

Luis Montero December 5, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Some acclarations:
1.Thanks for the photos, were taken far away from us, shot at a horizontal position, you cannot have an exact idea of the closeness to the islet, bigger boats cannot come closer, so will take the whole responsability for close invasion issues. Next time will maintain more distance so not “disturb sea lions” on islet.
2-Only small groups of no more 6-8 people at the most are swimming with sea lions at a time, it’s not true that everybody that goeos to Palomino must swim with them, most don’t as water is very cold, in the event they do is for a very short term with them.
3-Palomino used to be a fishing zone were fishermen used to spank sea lions because ruined their nets, and ate their fish, no longer, cannot fish commercially here, good for sea lions as to have food available at all times.
4-If there are lots of worldwide places where people intercats with stressed captive dolphins why can’t you swim with sea lions if you do it in a passive way, just float, remain silent, don’t move, let the lions come closer to you and not viceverse. Lions are very friendly and curious with man, an incredible once in your life experience, specially if you are a tourist used to live in big concrete cities.
5-If you take tourists to see Humbold penguins located at a cove in San Lorenzo island, then you are a real danger to them, as penguins freightens more than sea lions, as they are not used to see people around their habitat. Know this from experience.
6-If possible, would like to collaborate with a nice Palomino photo so readers makes their own conclusions if swimmers are a real danger to them, they seems to be enchanted with the visitor.
Luis

Oswaldo December 15, 2009 at 8:51 am

Luis: No doubt you do go for the interaction with sea lions, and your view is highly respectable as everybodyelse’s, but bear in mind that the key point here is: Habitat invasion, so let us not miss the point. Regarding the dolphins, I watched a documentary where dolphins in captivity attacked people biting them. The experts tried to figure out what had really happened that darmatically affected the dolphins beahviour, and arrived to the conclussion that they experienced a sort of stress due to the constant human presence in their midst. Remember the Australian crocodile hunter? We, by no means can ensure anybody that sea lions won’t ever react against human swimmers. We can go to watch them at a certain distance, respecting their dwelling, but we should not dare to break-in their habitat. God bless.

Professor Archibald Smythe January 2, 2010 at 11:02 pm

It is the lack of the right kind of interaction or, conversely, too much of the wrong kind of interacton ie shooting,fishing that is the problem.
Sea Lions, like Dolphins and Porpoises, enjoy interacting with humans and in my humble opinion this can not happen enough. it is fear of humans that is the issue. Humans should intermingle and interact as much as possible with all non human life. Eco – tourism is merely the use of animals for the benefit of human tour operators – the bottom line if you like. How does one explain to a Sea lion or a Cock of the Rock that it is being 'used' to financially benefit some humans? A plague on eco-tourism if you ask me. We, the fifth ape, are animals made up of the same molecules as virtually all other life and, as such, have no right to impose our desires,beliefs etc on other life. Interaction wherever possible for me.
Archibald

Steve July 2, 2014 at 10:57 am

You mention tourists being ok with watching the sea lions from a boat in Paracas. I was there a couple weeks ago. And i gotta say it was utterly disappointing. We saw 2 sea lions apart from each other. Each was sleeping. There was nothing cool about the tour. So you shouldn’t use Paracas as good example.

Gunnar Engblom July 16, 2014 at 12:06 am

Steve, this may have to do with the Niño conditions that are piling up. The sealions have probably moved elsewhere due to the warm water. I still think it is totally un-necessary to get into the water with the sealions.

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