Five of our group opted to rise before the sun, walk the short distance down to the beach, and hire two motor-driven, outrigger canoes to see if we could spot any dolphins. There were four to a boat, so Karel and I shared ours with another couple not from our tour group. We glided out over calm water, enjoying the ethereal light and pastel colors of the approaching dawn.
We motored for quite a distance out in the bay, and a few other canoes joined us; I counted seven of them within sight. Every now and then, we’d come near a buoy of sorts—a bamboo rig anchored in place—and we’d slow down and arc around it. I’m not sure if these marked places where dolphins were usually seen, or if they warned of shallows and reefs. Often there was a small boat anchored nearby, with a single, sleepy occupant sitting quietly.
At last, our boatman slowed our canoe and began a zigzagging search pattern. The sun had not yet cleared the mountains, and the water was unruffled and glassy as we nosed our way through gentle swells. The other seven canoes did the same, with several hundred meters between each boat. We searched for what seemed like a long time, and the boatman shook his head. No dolphins yesterday, maybe no dolphins today.
Luck was with us. We were the first canoe to spot dorsal fins breaking the surface. We moved in closer and had just a few moments of watching a small group of dolphins surfacing and diving a couple of times before the other canoes crowded in.
Several more groups of dolphins appeared. They were not feeling playful, though, and when the boats rushed over, they would dive and swim away. A couple of the canoe captains were especially aggressive in zooming right into the animals, which inevitably scared them away. I’ll give our captain credit; when we happened to be in the best spot, he slowed down instead of accelerating, and tried to cozy up to them without frightening them.
I peeled my eyes away from the water right around our boat for a moment and was aghast to see over 30 canoes closing in, and still more coming in from the distant shore.
There were dolphins everywhere, but the boats outnumbered them. I noticed a pattern: a group of dolphins would surface once, maybe twice; then they’d come up all together, bodies arching over the surface, dive, and disappear. They had to breathe, but otherwise they were fleeing us. With all the boats swarming in, I couldn’t blame them.
The dolphins are an attraction that generates business for these small entrepreneurs. No one owns or controls the dolphins; they’re a shared resource. It’s in the best interests of everyone—dolphins, boat captains, and tourists—to conduct themselves in a way that keeps the dolphins happy and healthy. The problem is, it’s in my personal interest, in the immediate moment, to get as close to a dolphin as possible, have a once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with Flipper, and get a great photograph. It’s in my boat captain’s interest, this morning, to make the passengers happy and get them in close for that encounter, so they’ll give a good tip and maybe come back again tomorrow.
The short-term interests of the individuals are in conflict with the long-term interests of the collective. Even if most of the boat runners have an agreement to take turns and avoiding scaring off the dolphins, all it takes is one rogue to turn it into a free-for-all.
Our experience in New Zealand was so different. The government and conservation groups have devised a system in which only a few operators are licensed to exploit the resource, and they must follow strict guidelines to protect the animals, the habitat, and the gawking tourists. It costs a lot more —$80 to $135 in New Zealand for a dolphin- or whale-watching cruise, versus about $6 in Bali— but it’s sustainable.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013