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The Gap Year Blog

Science Reports 2020: Tenerife Whale and Dolphin Conservation

19 May 2020 16:35 PM


Frontier's scientific research is a crucial part of our organisation, and the spring reports are a culmination of all the data collection our awesome project teams have been doing from January - March this year.  We're so proud of the important work our staff and volunteers do, and we can't wait to share their latest findings with you.


Project Background

Tenerife is an island in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, about 80 miles from the coast of Africa. The diversity and abundance of nutrients in the water around the island make it an ideal habitat for cetaceans.

Cetaceans are a family of large aquatic mammals such as dolphins, whales and porpoises. Most of the cetaceans in Tenerife are migrant, but the island is a permanent habitat for short-finned pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, sperm whales and Risso’s dolphins. However, only the first two of these are seen regularly in the marine area where the Frontier team operates.  


Why Is Our Work Important?

The Frontier Tenerife team are undertaking important research into the relationship between cetaceans and human disruptions to their natural habitat.

Around 5 million tourists visit the island each year, and at least 700,000 of these are drawn to Tenerife to participate in whale-watching activities.  Although this type of eco-tourism does offer educational opportunities for citizens, it can also cause marine disturbance and noise pollution.

The Canary archipelago is also a busy global shipping lane. While this is positive for the local economy, which relies heavily on its marine zone, large volumes of marine traffic can also present a threat to marine creatures inhabiting the area.

For example, boat traffic can make it difficult for dolphins to communicate, as the noise of boats can obscure the sound of their tonal calls. The presence of boats can also encourage erratic behaviour and a loss of resting and feeding time. Meanwhile, cetaceans like Bryde’s whales could be at risk of colliding with vessels.

As cetaceans have low rates of reproduction, it’s crucial to identify and regulate any human activities that could be affecting their ability to thrive and reproduce.



Research and Conservation Aims

The Frontier Tenerife team have been using both boat-based and land-based surveys to collect data on the behaviour and abundance of cetaceans off the southwestern coast of the island.

These surveys focus on the response of dolphins and whales to boat presence and noise pollution. They will ultimately help the team to suggest how the island could regulate boat traffic to best protect cetaceans.

The team also carry out regular beach cleans. Much to the joy of locals and tourists enjoying the island’s beaches, they remove any waste they can find and do their best to categorise and identify it.


What Were the Key Findings?


  • Tenerife cetaceans are ‘more likely to interact with a solitary whale-watching vessel than several boats’. This suggests a need for regulation for the number of whale-watching vessels operating on the island. 


  • Atlantic spotted dolphins appear to be more open to boat encounters, as they interacted with 84% of all marine vessel encounters.


  • Short-finned pilot whales try to avoid boats and show limited response behaviour, suggesting that they may be more sensitive to boat traffic. This could be because it disrupts resting, feeding or breeding for this species. 


  • There was a 76% decline in cetacean presence when boats were moving fast, compared to when they were stationary. This highlights a potential need for regulation over the speed of boats in the area. 



The Role of Frontier Volunteers

The project relies on the contribution of our volunteers, who undertake much of this important work.

All the Tenerife volunteers are fully trained in species identification. They are then able to monitor the behaviour of cetaceans and take photographs of these creatures in close proximity to the boat. Some of our volunteers even learn how to match photographs to species on DARWIN, a fin ID software.

Volunteers get to learn a vast amount about cetaceans and their eco-systems from our fantastic Tenerife team leaders, and they are able to get incredibly close to a variety of marine life, including dolphins, turtles and whales. Some of our volunteers have even caught sight of some fin whales – the second largest whales on Earth!



Volunteers also get to explore the island via snorkelling, kayaking, surfing, sunbathing and even hiking up volcanoes.

Here is what one volunteer had to say about her experience of watching Atlantic Spotted Dolphins:

‘I heard the echolocation clicks they use to communicate with each other; I watched them feeding on schools of fishes in cooperation with huge tunas and seagulls; I saw them swimming at high speed alongside the coast in a pod of more than 200 individuals, each of them breaching at least four or five times with their whole body out of the water. In my whole life, I do not think I have ever seen something so beautiful and graceful as these animals’ – Chiara Bresciani, February 2020



Sound like something you'd like to do? Volunteer in Tenerife here. 


Read the full science report here.


By Ella T Smith - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial and marine conservationcommunity and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!