It was 4 in the morning when the small minibus from the National Council for Protected Areas (CONAP) left Guatemala City for Las Lisas, a community located in the Santa Rosa area, on the border with El Salvador.
The idea of such an early departure was to be able to observe some of the humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) that use the waters of the Central American Pacific as mating, feeding and recreation areas during this season of the year. “We will leave at that time, in order to increase our chances of observing them,” warned Norma Joj, a communicator for the state institution.
The notice made sense, at least for those of us who have been able to take those tours on more than one occasion. Because seeing whales, dolphins or any of the 33 species of cetaceans registered in Guatemala is not easy. Logistically speaking, you have to go 12 to 20 nautical miles (between 22 and 37 kilometers) into the sea to be able to observe them, which means a lot of waiting time before knowing if you will be lucky enough to observe a whale or not.
Having done this on more than one occasion, gives me the peace of mind to say that the odds increase when you have the support of a boat captain experienced in this type of activity, such as Óscar Marroquín, an artisanal fisherman from Las Lisas, and certified tour guide in whale watching.
“We have recognized, and marked with GPS, a route where the whales move. We will see if we are lucky to see any today, ”he said while giving the general recommendations so that we are aware of what could happen already on the high seas.
Whale watching trips have become very popular in Guatemala and other countries such as El Salvador and Costa Rica. “They are a sustainable alternative to fishing,” Marroquín said in one of his talks during the trip. During this visit alone, supported by the Wildlife Conservation Society in Guatemala (WCS-Guatemala), six fishermen left their nets at home, earning their day without altering the ecological balance in that part of the ocean.
In El Salvador, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), implements the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project in areas such as Los Cóbanos, with the idea of diversifying fishing activities. There, up to 90% of the fishermen benefit from this tourist activity, with the support of the United States Agency for International Cooperation (USAID).
Back in Guatemala, in the area of the Multiple Monterrico Nature Reserve, ARCAS Guatemala, a member of the IUCN and a local partner of Coastal Biodiversity, made an alliance with the Las Mañanitas Fishermen’s Association (ASOPESMA), to offer these tours and tell with funds for its operation.
Before continuing, it should be clarified that the observation of wildlife in its natural habitat is an exercise in patience and serenity. Unlike what happens in a zoo or an aquarium, paying an amount of money (between Q900 and Q1000 -$117 and $134- per person) does not buy the certainty of being able to see an animal. That is something to take into account if you intend to take one of these tours. What is a fact is that you will have a lot of time to reflect on life and its contradictions.
While some of my crewmates were catching up after not seeing each other for a long time, or concentrating so as not to fall prey to seasickness, I was thinking about something very particular: just like El Salvador with the Los Cóbanos Complex Natural Protected Area, Guatemala only has one officially recognized marine-coastal protected area: the Punta de Manabique Wildlife Refuge. To make it more impressive, in Honduras there are 91 marine-coastal protected areas and in Costa Rica, 26.
This, despite the fact that Guatemala already has several reserves, conservation and protection areas and even a marine-coastal national park, only 7,042.44 hectares (ha) are protected. And that is very little, taking into account that the Central American country has 402 kilometers of coastline (254 km in the Pacific and 148 in the Caribbean), and an estimated marine territory of 120,229.59 km2.
As he reflected on it, the captain’s radio sounded: “we saw a spot two miles east of our position.” After a little over an hour of sailing, the possibility of seeing a humpback whale became a reality and the odds increased.
There are several ways to detect the presence of a whale in the area. The first, and most recognizable to the untrained eye in seascapes, is the “cloud” that forms when a whale comes out to breathe. Typically, when they surface, whales take three to four breaths before diving back into the deep sea. Another way to do it is by means of the trail of fat that they leave once they submerged (although to recognize that from a distance, you have to have a lot of experience and a good eye).
And yes, this time we were lucky enough to see a whale in the distance wriggling its body over the surface of the water, just as it happened three years ago on a similar tour, in which, in addition to supporting the local people and its sustainable tourism activities, CONAP also promoted the publication of the Marine Fauna Sighting Regulations, a document that regulates these activities and the providers that carry them out.
During its first appearance, the whale neither jumped (a very rare thing to see), nor did it show its tail. After his breathing routine and having delved in again, I reflected on the fact that in Guatemala, a country whose Pacific coastline encompasses six departments, 17 municipalities and approximately 300 communities, does not have a marine-coastal zone protected.
In May 2021, CONAP launched an awareness campaign, which highlighted the need to protect the country’s marine-coastal areas, due to the biological diversity they contain and the ecological, climatic and economic benefit that the country obtains from them. they.
Between 2014 and 2018, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) implemented the project Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity in Coastal Marine Protected Areas, whose proposal was the declaration and/or expansion of five conservation areas marine-coastal in the Pacific region of Guatemala.
The main goal was to take the current 7,042 protected ha (6,043 coastal and 999.44 marine ha), and expand it to 164,297.40 ha (56,046.82 coastal and 108,250.58 marine ha). To achieve this, the Global Environment Fund Truste, through UNDP, executed more than $5.3 million in capacity building, both local and institutional, as well as in the designation of sites of importance for their protection.
These areas are: Manchón-Guamuchal Special Protection Area, Sipacate-Naranjo National Park, Monterrico Multiple Use Nature Reserve, Hawaii Multiple Use Area, and the Las Lisas Conservation Area, from where we set off in search of whales.
By 2018, CONAP already had a technical study developed by the Center for Conservation Studies of the state university, and ARCAS, necessary for the evaluation of the declaration of these areas as protected areas. After analysis, this proposal must be transferred to the Congress of the Republic, so that the protection zones have legal recognition. “It is important that we establish conservation and management actions for the neighbors and the marine fauna,” Pilar Velásquez, president of the Scientific Institute for Applied Research on the Environment and Development (ICIAAD), said in an interview with local media.
Currently, WCS-Guatemala collaborates with CONAP, civil society and community institutions to promote the declaration of marine-coastal conservation areas that have been identified by the State as priorities.
Before I could think anything else, all the crew members of the boat piloted by Marroquín suddenly got up when we heard a cry of “There it is! With the emotion of seeing her already satiated during the first meeting, the goal was to immortalize this meeting with the best possible number of images.
The tail or a jump on the water (which is very unlikely to be a single whale). That was the longing. After three or four breaths, the boat was right behind her, about 100 meters away, as required by the regulations, and the much-desired photo (the photo that appears on the cover) was achieved.
At the beginning of the tourist activities to see whales, I remember that the posters of the tourist agencies sold “tours to watch whales”, but since at this point we already know that this is a lottery, the most sensible thing was to change it to whale watching, group of marine mammals that include, among others, dolphins and killer whales. This decision was very wise, because encountering groups of dolphins swimming happily is much more likely than encountering large humpback whales.
In a study published in 2021 in Frontiers in Marine Science, carried out by a group of biologists from Simmons University in Boston, United States, the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Semillas del Ocean, from Guatemala, revealed that the bottle (Tursiops truncatus) is the species that is most observed in the Guatemalan Pacific.
In the 38 months in which the study was carried out, the Guatemalan biologists made a total of 505 sightings, in which they managed to record a total of 64,678 cetaceans of nine species of Delphinidae. Of these, there are three common species, such as the aforementioned bottlenose dolphin, the spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata) and the long-beaked dolphin (Stenella longirostris), which accounted for 90% of all sightings.
The study, carried out between January 2008 and June 2012, aimed to determine the number of dolphin species that inhabit the Pacific waters of Guatemala, their distribution area and the threats they face. And the greatest threats, such as contamination by solid, organic and chemical waste, overfishing and the lack of management plans for marine-coastal areas throughout the world.
In Guatemala, as has been evidenced in other activities such as the collection of turtle eggs or small-scale fisheries, such as manjúa, the big problem lies in the lack of reinforcement of existing laws and regulations, and the control and surveillance that the State must perform to avoid overexploitation of resources.
“Effective management of wild animal populations depends on a solid foundation of knowledge about their distribution and abundance.” Without this knowledge, it is impossible to determine when, where, how and, more importantly, where to carry out subsistence and economic benefit activities for the country.
In the country, there are a variety of international organizations, such as the aforementioned WCS-Guatemala and the UNDP, to which can be added the IUCN, the United States Agency for International Cooperation (USAID), and the Global Fund. for the Environment (GEF), to name a few, which invest large sums of money to create capacities in local development groups (COCODES), civil associations, municipal governments and state entities, with the aim of raising awareness about the importance of proper management of the country’s natural resources.
Without going any further, in Las Lisas, the UNDP Small Grants Program (PPD) and the Regional Coastal Biodiversity Program support the community for the creation of a fishing recovery zone, in which the hammerhead shark was designated as flag species, and thus avoid the reduction of the fishing resource.
“Guatemala is at an important moment to advance in marine and coastal conservation to contribute to declaring at least 10% of our coastal and marine area under some conservation mechanism, for the benefit of the local population, and sustainable management of resources. natural,” said José Moreira, a researcher for WCS-Guatemala.
This community initiative collides with the passivity of the state in recognizing local capacities for the sustainable management of its resources. “[In Las Lisas] the resources have been maintained because people are aware that they must do something to maintain them, but why don’t we shield them, taking into account current legislation? This armor is the declaration of a protected marine-coastal area”, said Velásquez, president of the ICIAAD, an organization that signed a cooperation agreement with the IUCN to establish this fishing recovery zone in the Guatemalan Pacific.
“We see the need to strengthen the capacities of DIPESCA. We also see that one of its weaknesses is in surveillance, which is why we promote participatory local management processes, where work agreements are generated with fishermen for the promotion and compliance with fishing regulations,” said Blanca García, coordinator of the Motagua site of the IUCN Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project.
The study for the declaration of new marine-coastal protected areas, produced by the conservation project led by UNDP, and completed in 2018, is currently under review, since CONAP considered it necessary to solve “some requirements”, to improve said study. .
“We hope that it will be this year when CONAP receives this technical study back for its approval. Based on this, a law initiative is then drawn up that must be approved by Congress,” said Carlos Godoy, director of the National System of Protected Areas. “The process has taken a long time, progress is slow, but the process continues,” he added.
On the way back in that little minibus, the last thought that popped into my mind was the role that the general population plays in these kinds of stories. Although this activity is within the reach of anyone who can pay for it, and that automatically rules out more than half of the country’s total population, it is also not a requirement to recognize that our role as citizens is key when it comes to choosing and demanding the rulers to take definitive action to protect the country’s natural resources.