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Puerto Rico (USA)
Population: 3,806,000.
Land area: 9,065 sq km.
Tourist arrivals by air: 3,378,514 (+8.0% on prev. yr.)
Tourist arrivals by cruise ship: 1,236,367 (+20.6% on prev. yr.)
Total Tourist Expenditures: $2,125.0 million USD.
Tourism Budget: Not reported.
GDP at factor cost: $48,102.1 million USD.
1994 figures on whale watching: Minimal.
1998 figures on whale watching: 5,000 people and total revenues of $150,000 USD; unknown number of land-based whale watchers (thousands?) (prov.)
Whale-watching ports (current or potential): Rincón, Aguadilla, Mayagüez, Puerto Real (Cabo Rojo).
Land-based viewing sites: Punta Higuera Lighthouse at Parque el Faro (Lighthouse Park), hills or high points around Aguadilla and Rincón.
Whale-watching potential: Moderate to considerable.
(Figures above are latest figures for 1997, except as noted.)

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth territory of the United States with a strong Spanish history. It is located about 1,000 miles (1600 km) southeast of Miami between the Dominican Republic to the west and the US Virgin Islands to the east. Slightly smaller than Jamaica, it is 110 miles (153 km) from east to west and 35 miles (58 km) wide. With its old volcanic mountains long given over to agriculture, Puerto Rico has a small array of nature reserves. Less than 1 percent of the island today is virgin tropical rain forest, though it is possible to see some examples of protected forest, including the 28,000-acre (11,000- hectare) El Yunque rain forest near San Juan, the capital. San Juan alone has a metropolitan area that covers 300 square miles (115 sq km). For many visitors, particularly from the United States, Puerto Rico provides their introduction to the Caribbean. It is easily accessible to North American and European visitors on non-stop flights. It has a vast and varied tourism infrastructure with every kind of accommodation and tourist facility. As of 1997, the Puerto Rican tourism industry was exceptionally buoyant and it led the Caribbean in number of tourist arrivals (3.4 million — up 8% on the previous year) and total expenditures ($2.1 billion USD). It was third in cruise passenger arrivals, with 1.2 million passengers, up 21% on the previous year. Some 22% of all tourist arrivals to the Caribbean go to Puerto Rico. With such a huge percentage of the Caribbean tourism market, tourism is a big part of the Puerto Rican economy, but manufacturing for export (textiles, clothing, electrical and electronic equipment, chemicals and pharmaceuticals) dominates the economy, followed by agriculture. The Puerto Rican GDP, at $48 billion USD, is more than three times that of the Dominican Republic, which has the second highest GDP in the Caribbean. Only a few years ago, commercial whale watching was not thought to be possible or at least practical from Puerto Rico. Although it was known that some humpback whales were wintering off the west coast of Puerto Rico, it was a comparatively small portion of the numbers found north of the Dominican Republic. Moreover, it was felt that the typical Puerto Rican tourist would be too busy shopping, going to the beach, or doing other things, and certainly would not want to venture out in a boat in possibly rough seas to try to find whales. On top of that, Rincón, the main town, has a poor harbour for launching boats larger than 20 feet long (6 m). But in the mid 1990s, whale watching suddenly started to take off from the west coast of Puerto Rico. Diving and other small boats were used out of the ports of Mayagüez and Aguadilla, as well as Rincón. Unfortunately, the whale watching was ad hoc, sometimes without adequate safety provisions and completely unregulated. Reports of whales would lead to tours being instantly offered and boats would steam out to find some whales. By 1996, it was felt that the whale watching was a little too opportunistic, and in order to regulate the fee-charging boats as well as private charters and other boats, there should be regulations. A local NGO, the Puerto Rican Ecological League of Rincón (Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña de Rincón) played a primary role in working for the protection of the humpback whales and for the improvement of the educational provisions. Enacted on 27 June 1997, these regulations (see below) have placed whale watching on a sounder basis, recognising that the humpbacks on their mating and calving grounds need to be protected too. Since the guidelines were passed, however, only one boat operator has officially applied for a whale-watch permit — the Viking Starship (see below). Instead, the local captains offer diving, fishing, and sightseeing tours — which might include whales. There are six or seven dive operations in Rincón and Aguadilla that are among those boats which in the winters of 1998 and 1999 have continued to do this 'incidental whale watching'. This may in effect help to regulate the intensity of whale watching in this area, but it would be best if there were a more forthright approach to whale watching. However, it must be taken into account that the permits, particularly for smaller boats/operations, can be difficult and time-consuming to obtain, with various certifications and inspections needed, as well as comprehensive insurance. The effect of the regulations, in Puerto Rico, may be to restrict whale watching to operations with substantial backing, using mainly larger ships.
At the same time as the boat-based watching has expanded, land-based whale watching also started to grow in popularity. The prime site for this is near Rincón on the westernmost point of the island. The Punta Higuera Lighthouse, built on a cliff and surrounded by Parque el Faro (Lighthouse Park), was restored in 1993, and offers stunning panoramic views over the Atlantic and the Caribbean (Mona Passage). Originally, tourists came to watch the surfers in what is known as one of the prime surfing areas from October to April (site of the world surfing competition in the 1970s). But when the whales are in season (especially January to April), many more tourists are coming to watch humpback whales, with 3-4 times as many people arriving on weekends. Special viewing scopes are available for a small rental but sometimes the whales are even seen in the surf or just beyond it. At times, the bottlenose dolphins can be seen as well. Visitors to Parque el Faro, according to the mayor of the city of Rincón, total half a million people a year. During the 10-14 week prime humpback whale period in winter, therefore, there may be 125,000 visitors to the park. The best rough estimate is that 'thousands' of these visitors watch the whales from the lighthouse during the winter when the whales can be seen not always but on most days. In 1996, special excursions to watch whales and visit the park on day trips brought busloads of visitors from other parts of Puerto Rico. An estimated minimum of 400 people per weekend did land-based whale watching, amounting to 4,000-5,000 total whale watchers in a season. However, this number had tapered off by 1998 and in 1999. Efforts are currently being made to provide more precise ways of counting the whale watchers and evaluating their monetary contribution, but at present (for the 1998 and 1999 seasons) such estimates are difficult to make and are thus not included in the total whale watch figures for Puerto Rico. Besides those watching from the lighthouse, others watch from coastal villas, hotels, and from the hills above the ocean outside of Rincón along the northwest of the island. Divers and other visitors to Mona Island (Isla Mona) and Desecheo Island (Isla Desecheo), located in the Mona Passage which separates Puerto Rico from the Dominican Republic, also regularly see the whales and sometimes dolphins from land. On their website, a number of west coast Puerto Rican hotels advertise humpbacks as one of the pleasures of staying on the coast near Rincón. More than anywhere else in the Caribbean, the idea of land-based whale watching has taken off. It is an excellent way for large numbers of people to meet the whales without disturbing them; with careful planning it can also make a solid economic contribution. From 1994 to 1998, the Viking Starship, a large diesel whale watch ship (capacity 300 people) from Long Island, New York, made six trips a week during the winter humpback season of 10-14 weeks (depending on weather and whales). Departing from Puerto Real in the Cabo Rojo area of southwest Puerto Rico, the ship brought people to watch whales off Rincón, as well as visiting Desecheo Island. Approximately 90% of the trips encountered cetaceans. Besides humpback whales, they encountered bottlenose and long-snouted spinner dolphins. They also reported some sperm whales and false killer whales. The tours brought many Puerto Rican school children out to see the whales, charging mainly $10 USD per student and $25 USD per adult, plus various concession rates for teachers, seniors, military, etc. Some 14 people plus marine biologist/naturalists were employed on the trips. In 1996 and 1997, approximately 10,000 people per year were going whale watching, slightly more adults than children and concessions. This number declined in 1998 to about 5,000 who spent an estimated $150,000 USD on the trips including expenses. The venture lost substantial money in 1998 due to poor weather, decreasing tourists to western Puerto Rico, and other business problems. The
Viking Starship proved to be too large and expensive to run at much less than full capacity, and not enough adult tickets were sold to help pay for the trips. In any case, the tours were discontinued for the 1999 season. It is hoped that a smaller 65-75 foot (20-23 m) boat can be found to continue the trips.

Puerto Rico: Whale watching regulations

These regulations come from the Government of Puerto Rico, Department of Natural Resources and Environment, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Translated into English by Rebecca Tozer (Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña de Rincón) (Carlson 1998).

Appendix 3 Special Rules for the Observation of Humpback Whales


Under article 11, clause i of law number 70 enacted on May 10, 1976, the regulations that are in force to regulate the management of vulnerable and endangered species in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico are amended and added as Appendix 3 of the law. Rules for the protection of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and other cetaceans that are vulnerable and in danger of extinction and to regulate the operations of passenger boats for the observation of these marine mammals.

I. Purpose

This rule is adopted with the purpose of protecting the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and other cetaceans that are vulnerable and in danger of extinction in the territorial waters of puerto Rico. It is publicly known that the activity of humpback whale watching in the northwest area of Puerto Rico has developed and peaked in the last few years, which could threaten the presence of this marine mammal and other marine mammals in our waters. In addition it can interfere with the behaviour and natural life cycles of these marine mammals.

II. Application and Management

These rules are applicable in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico and its adjacent islands during the entire year.

III. Prohibitions

In addition to the provisions in section 12 of this ruling, it will be illegal for any person to engage in the following activities:

a. To provoke the whales to change their natural direction, or to provoke the separation of the whales from their group, that might cause them to get lost, or to separate

a mother from its calf as a result from interference.

b. To feed the whales.

c. To enclose or trap the whales in between boats or crafts impeding their path.

d. Observing the whales from jet skis.

e. Observing whales from airplanes at less than 1,000 feet from sea level.

f. It is prohibited to approach a mother and calf.

g. It is prohibited to swim or dive near the whales.

IV. Minimum distances for the observation of whales from boats

a. The minimum distance for observing the whales will not be less than 1000 metres. The motor of the craft will remain in neutral as long as the minimum distance is maintained.

b. The approach will always be done from the posterior (rear) or by the side of the whales, in parallel position to the last whale and/or slower whale of the group allowing for an area of 180 degrees in front of the whale(s).

c. Swimmers and divers can get within a minimum distance of fifty (50) meters.

d. Scientific investigators, with federal and state permits in non-commercial vessels will be able to approach the whales at a distance less than the one stipulated as long as they comply with the established rules in their permits.

V. Measures for Management

a. One boat is permitted to remain a distance of 100 meters (not less than 100 meters), and not more than two boats at a distance of no less than 400 meters at the same time.

b. The time limit is no more than 30 minutes per boat.

VI. Permits

a. Every owner or operator of commercial boat(s) that is dedicated to transporting passengers in the territorial waters of Puerto Rico with the purpose to observe the humpback whales and other cetaceans that are vulnerable or in danger of extinction must solicit a permit from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. The owners or operators of private boats that observe the whales as a pastime are exempt from this requisite, but must obey the rules of the law. The applicants for this permit must provide the following information:

b. A copy of their license or permit issued by the Public Service Commission

Service to transport passengers (or for the transportation of passengers).

c. A copy of the license issued by the Coast Guard of the United States of America certifying the vessel fit to transport passengers.

d. Fill out the application for the permit to observe humpback whales. This permit is good for one year only.

VII. Penalties

Any person that violates any of these rules according and included in this appendix will be penalized under section 18.00 of the Regulations to Manage the Species that are Vulnerable and Endangered in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This regulation will be enacted immediately, conforming to the section 2.8 a) (1) Law number 170, 12 August 1988, as amended.

Approved in San Juan, Puerto Rico, today, the 27 of June 1997.

Acknowledgments: Carole Carlson, Hector Colón and Rebecca Tozer (Liga Ecológica Puertorriqueña de Rincón), Antonio Mignucci, Mignucci 1989, Mignucci-Giannoni 1998, Erdman 1970, Taruski and Winn 1976, Harry Ruiz, Joan Pavesi, CTO 1997.

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