Test Design Lighthouse

M.E.E.R. - Mamiferos, Encuentros, Educación, Reconocimiento


The diversity of whale and dolphin life to be seen off the south-west coast of the small Canary Island of La Gomera is richer than in almost any other ocean. There are regular sightings of more then 20 species of whales and dolphins relatively close to the coast, among them some barely studied species of cetaceans – as scientists call the order of whales and dolphins – such as Blainville's Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) and the Rough-toothed Dolphin (Steno bredanensis). These waters provide ideal conditions not only for observing whales and dolphins, but also for studying them in their natural element.


Ever since 1994, small boats once used for fishing have brought visitors on daily tours from the port of Vueltas, in Valle Gran Rey, out to sea to spot whales and dolphins. And for almost as long, the association "M.E.E.R." (Mamiferos, Encuentros, Educación, Reconocimiento, or in English: Mammals, Encounters, Education, Research) has had the opportunity to accompany some of these regular tours and gather scientific data. This not only gives the visitors an insight into the working methods and lines of enquiry pursued by modern cetacean research, but also the added benefit of a qualified guide to the habitat of these fascinating sea mammals.



In order to gain the animals' trust, the boats always approach them with caution and respect.
A rare sighting: a Dwarf Sperm Whale off La Gomera. A Dwarf Sperm Whale can be identified by its characteristic blowhole, which is angled forwards.
A young Atlantic Spotted Dolphin. Atlantic Spotted Dolphins are exceptionally curious and it is not unusual for them (as here) to leap directly alongside the boat.
Sometimes the Atlantic Spotted Dolphins leap several metres out of the water.

Whale Watching – enjoyment of nature is also an industry


Whale and dolphin watching in their natural environment is becoming increasingly popular. Since the early 1990s, the economic activity generated by this form of nature watching has registered double-digit growth rates worldwide and currently 9 million people a year travel to watch these marine mammals. Whale watching also helps to raise environmental awareness – provided that it takes place in a properly regulated and ecologically sound context.


But at the same time, whale watching is a billion-dollar business. And in the Canary Islands, the sudden expansion taking place in this industry is arousing certain misgivings. The record holder is currently Tenerife, where over a million whale watchers a year are ferried out to see the animals. And due to the number of whale watching tours, approaching 20,000 per year, the populations most acutely affected by tourism are the animals living there.


Although the Canary Islands Government passed a law in 1996 to regulate the boat trips, specifying a code of conduct in the vicinity of whale and dolphin schools, so far this has had little effect. However the authorities are making continued efforts, in co-operation with tour promoters, scientists and various organisations, to reverse this negative image.


Given the present increase in tourism on La Gomera, here too there is a fear that uncontrolled expansion of whale watching tours will be manifestly detrimental to the regional ecology and to marine life. The non-profit association M.E.E.R. e.V. has initiated the project M.E.E.R. La Gomera to campaign for encounters between humans and whales to take place in a spirit of respect and consideration.



Research in support of environmentally sound tourism


In order to gain the animals' trust, the boat always approaches them with caution and respect. M.E.E.R. La Gomera has also managed to demonstrate that whale and dolphin behaviour in relation to the boats varies from species to species. Confident identification of the species and knowledge of the appropriate rules of conduct put the boat pilots in a position to adapt their behaviour to that of the animals – and not the other way round. Even before the law passed by the Canary Islands Government, the La Gomera boat pilots developed their own code of conduct in co-operation with biologists. And all boats now keep full records of sightings. In the meantime, over 2,100 sightings have been documented and are being scientifically evaluated. So the boats are also functioning as mini research ships.


A sign of the international attention attracted by the project is the growing interest of research and educational institutions in the association's work. For instance, the scientific work is being monitored by the University of Laguna (Tenerife) and the Humboldt University (Berlin), while the educational classes held on La Gomera have been recognised as equivalent to a course credit towards a Biology degree. Furthermore, M.E.E.R. e.V. is in regular contact with the environment department of the Canary Islands Government, with scientists, and with national and international organisations.


By studying the whales and dolphins in the seas off La Gomera and through effective communication of ecological information in the media, M.E.E.R. e.V is promoting the development of low-impact whale watching in line with principles of responsible, sustainable tourism. This has been recognised as an important contribution to the region's economic development, as is testified by the presentation of the international environmental award "Tourismus und Umwelt 2001" to M.E.E.R. La Gomera by DRV, the German Association of Travel Agents and Tour Operators. According to the chairwoman of DRV's environment committee, the project "demonstrates exemplary and innovative new ways to co-operate in the spheres of research and tourism".


The information centre on La Gomera, which is earmarked for future expansion, will be an important contact point since it now stages weekly information evenings for tourists, displays information material and publicises research findings on public display boards.


In the long term, M.E.E.R. e.V. aims to establish a marine conservation area off La Gomera, which will contribute substantially to protecting the natural habitat of the region's whales and dolphins in future.


The Lighthouse Foundation supports the M.E.E.R. La Gomera project by making funding available for technical equipment.