"Guidelines need to be specific and adapted not only to cetaceans but also to specific species and/or areas. A fin whale will not react the same way to a boat as a group of pilot whales or a Ganges river dolphin...The more precise a guideline is, the better."
Ivan Martin was interested in travelling and wildlife watching from a very young age and this interest determined his studies. He holds a Masters in Interdisciplinary Tourism Studies from the University of Lausanne and a Masters in Animal Law and Society from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He has also received training by the Swiss Cetacean Society (SCS) to conduct marine sea expeditions in the Mediterranean Sea, to collect data on the cetaceans and the marine debris including micro plastics. In 2018 he travelled around India in search of a good marine conservation project and thus ended up working as an intern for Terra Conscious, a responsible travel enterprise focusing on marine conservation in Goa. The experience gave him many ideas and insights on the impacts of dolphin tourism and when he returned to Switzerland, he proposed that SCS co-operate with Terra Conscious; thus the idea of an ecolabel for dolphin boat operators was born. Ivan is now coordinating the SCS ecolabel project with the assistance of Terra Conscious, raising funds for the project through crowdfunding, and building capacity and environmental awareness by training Goa's and Odisha's dolphin boat operators.
Ecoclub: What first attracted you to this career path, and what do you enjoy most about marine mammal conservation and ecotourism?
Ivan Martin: I became interested in marine tourism and the effects, positive and negative, it can have on wildlife after I went to South Africa to write my thesis about shark cage diving. While being there, I realised the issues of commercial and mass shark tourism, but I also discovered few companies that were doing a great job at raising awareness about shark conservation and conducting several conservation projects while earning revenue on shark tourism. This is when I got really into wildlife ecotourism and the way it can be linked with wildlife conservation and this is really what I enjoy: thinking about ways we can observe wildlife where the animals can also benefit from it.
Ecoclub: You are currently involved in marine mammal conservation in India, trying to limit the impacts of whale and dolphin watching in Goa and Odisha and launch a specialised ecolabel. What is the exact nature and intensity of the problem? Is there scientific proof that dolphins, thought by many people as craving human attention - really suffer from tourism harassment?
Ivan Martin: Yes, research has demonstrated that whale and dolphin watching has negative repercussions on the cetaceans, especially when it is not managed responsibly. When conducted in an irresponsible way, the short-term impacts of cetacean based tourism towards the animals are stress, change of natural behaviour, injury by collision and sometimes death. By being disturbed by vessels, cetaceans may stop feeding or nursing their young, alter their migration paths and become displaced from important habitats used for resting, breeding, calving or feeding. These effects can have a long-term impact on the natural behaviour of the animals and lead to populations decreasing in numbers. In addition, when executed without a trained guide, whale/dolphin watching tourism loses the opportunity to educate tourists on the animals and their environment, which is also a missed opportunity to educate them about cetacean conservation. In Goa, a study lead in 2016 has shown that dolphin tourism is changing the behaviour of the Indian Ocean humpback dolphins: they tend to swim away from the boats chasing them which is a proof they are being disturbed. In Odisha, Irrawaddy dolphins living in Chilika lagoon have already been dead by boat collisions.
Ecoclub: Switzerland is renown, among many other things, for its funding institutions, international agencies and non-profits including leading environmental NGOs. When a respected non-profit such as the Swiss Cetacean Society, is using Crowdfunding it may indicate how far Crowdfunding has come and/or how difficult fundraising has become. You have so far covered 50% of your target. What happens if you do not reach your target? Will you have to adjust your project or search for other funding options?
Ivan Martin: Indeed, finding funds for new projects is not something easy. We are glad we covered 50% through crowd funding, but we also managed to get additional funds through awareness events in Switzerland. We are still trying to get more funds for the first phase of the project. In case we don’t reach the target, the project will still happen as we have enough for organising parts of the project, but it will be more efficient and have more impact if we manage to reach the target or above.
Ecoclub: It must be very encouraging, for your prospective supporters too, to note that the founder of your project partners Terra Conscious, Ms Puja Mitra is a leading environmentalist who was the head of WWF India’s programmes in Goa. WWF India undertook projects about sustainable dolphin-based tourism in Goa in the past. What key lessons have been learned so that your project will succeed where previous efforts have not?
Ivan Martin: I am very honoured to have Terra Conscious and Puja Mitra as partners for the ecolabel project. Puja Mitra is at the origin of the ban of dolphins in captivity in India, which is a great achievement, and Terra Conscious has started since 2017 responsible dolphin trips in partnership with local communities, which is why I decided to partner with them for the project. Until now, 8 operators in Goa have been trained by Terra Conscious on how to conduct responsible dolphin watching, and it has been a success as these operators, who are former fishermen for the most part, are now following guidelines and are keen on dolphin conservation. This is an action that has been undertaken after the 2016 research made by IUCN, WWF India and Puja Mitra. We can therefore say that these past efforts lead to awareness about the issue and lead for a few operators to become more sustainable in Goa. Now, with the SCS ecolabel project, the aim is to extend what Terra Conscious has started, by turning more operators into responsible actors. The ecolabel will give an extra recognition, specially for the tourists that will be able to see the imprint of an international NGO, and hopefully feel reassured that this operator is responsible and ethical.
Concerning key lessons that has been learnt from experiences, we can say that this year we will include officials in the project, not only boat operators. By officials I mean the tourism department and the environmental department so that they understand the importance of that project for the environment and also for a better touristic experience. These actors have not been included in past workshops and that was a mistake that will not be repeated this year as it is important to get their support. Also, in the past, operators were not supported with market links or trip guiding support, hence they were unable to attract a clientele that was interested in a knowledge driven, guideline compliant nature experience. When Terra Conscious was started, this gap was addressed by providing marketing and trip guide support, which has more positive results. We are seeing compliance from 8 operators in the pilot site in Morjim. With SCS and Terra Conscious, we hope to expand this approach and capacity building to more areas, with more operators in association with the Government of Goa and IUCN India.
Ecoclub: Terra Conscious offer eco-friendly dolphin-watching tours, which one expects meet the principles you wish to incorporate in your ecolabel. How easy is it for them to gain the trust of their competitors, and convince them that they really wish to improve/green the services of all players, rather than put them out of business?
Ivan Martin: Terra Conscious raises awareness about issues related to unsustainable dolphin tourism. Last year, through workshops, they explained why it was important for all boat operators to follow some guidelines if they wish to conduct their trips in the future. Indeed, if dolphin populations decline, the boat operators won’t be able to make a revenue with dolphin tourism. For those that need more time in understanding that issue, Terra Conscious explained to them that if they stop chasing the dolphins and turn the engines off when the animals were close, the boatmen would save a lot of fuel and money. These talks on sustainability and economy helped convince these 8 boat operators, and now they are all onboard with sustainable dolphin watching. The outcome for them is that they need not conduct 3 trips everyday anymore, but one responsible trip instead, and they earn more money that way. We are using the same strategy this year with the SCS ecolabel project, hoping to reach out to many boat operators in Goa and Odisha.
Ecoclub: What are the added benefits of having a specialised ecolabel for whales and dolphin watching, in comparison to more general standards for sustainable marine tourism?
Ivan Martin: Guidelines need to be specific and adapted not only to cetaceans but also to specific species and/or areas. A fin whale will not react the same way to a boat as a group of pilot whales or a Ganges river dolphin. The SCS ecolabel has been adapted for the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin, which is a coastal species present in Goa and which is constantly harassed by boat operators but also water sports and boat traffic in general. The more precise a guideline is, the better.
Ecoclub: From your experience, are whale & dolphin-watching tourism providers in Goa and beyond, genuinely interested in such an ecolabel or would a stick (inspections and fines) also help? In other words, how optional should such an ecolabel really be? Is wildlife harassment an option?
Ivan Martin: Wildlife harassment should never be an option and a monitoring system needs to be implemented in order to make sure wildlife is not harassed. In Goa, the 8 operators that have been trained in following guidelines are interested in protecting the dolphins but this might not be the case for all operators. Therefore inspections are needed and will be implemented for the project.
Ecoclub: Over the years you have acquired solid experience in the travel and other logistics for marine mammals research. Apart from obvious requirements, such as adequate scientific skills, equipment and weather conditions, what other key parameters determine the success of a marine research tourism expedition?
Ivan Martin: At SCS, we organise every summer scientific sea expeditions in order to study the cetaceans and the micro plastics in the sea. In order for an expedition to go well, we need a solid team of motivated eco-volunteers. Thanks to their dedication, patience and motivation, the expeditions are usually a success, as they help us to detect the cetaceans and write the data down.
Ecoclub: In an era of adjectival tourism, with new tourism segments emerging every season, is “Marine Research Tourism” a useful and viable addition, commercially and academically?
Ivan Martin: I believe that as long wildlife tourism exists, conservation and research driven activities can be added to this segment of tourism. Let’s take, for instance, whale watching: it is a very commercial activity, generating a big revenue worldwide. Enhancing one whale watching operator by adding research and conservation, for example, a guide that will do photo identification during the trips with the tourists, will always be more interesting, in my opinion, than a strictly commercial driven boat operator. First it permits collecting some data on whale populations, which on the long term, with help of other data collections will help for research. Secondly, it will be more interesting for the tourists, to have an experimented person on board conducting some kind of research, as they will be able to ask questions to him/her. I think it is very important to have research and conservation projects while conducting tourism trips at sea as not much is known about marine animals and most boats for tourists can be used as a research platform as well.