A "School" of Dolphins at Tarifa, Spain

Text and photos by Patty Tse, Hongkong, August 2015

Bottlenose Dolphin bowriding 

Having come across a breaching fin whale photo taken at the Strait of Gibraltar on Facebook last year, I started to search for a whale watching spot in the area.  This is how I came across a one-week programme organized by Foundation Firmm, a Swiss based research organization founded for promoting the conservation of whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Foundation Firmm is founded by Ms. Katharina Heyer, a very dedicated Swiss Lady with a passion for whale and dolphin conservation. They were the first to conduct survey and record data of cetacean sightings in the area 18 years ago. I must say, I am very much touched by her perseverance and passion in starting whale watching in Tarifa which was still a fishing village by then.  They are committed to show people the beauty of marine animals in the wild, sensitize them and inform them about the threats the animals are facing. The harm done by captivity to dolphins is also one of the messages they want to convey to the general public. They give talks to local schools, organize education programmes and let people know what to do if they find a stranded whale or dolphin. This is the scope of research they are involved:

  • Record of sightings
  • Photo-identification
  • Mapping
  • Plankton sample collection and analysis

Based in Tarifa of Spain, the one-week programme includes a total of ten hours of activities – whale watching (weather permitting), two hours' talk on whales and dolphins, as well as visits to local area with biologists if it is too windy for sea trips. (Note: Tarifa is famous for wind surfing, so wind is an issue for going out to the sea. We were lucky that all five days were good for whale watching but there were days that the sea was quite choppy.) Many participants are from German-speaking nations like Germany, Switzerland, Austria, etc. but the organization is very happy to give talk and explanation in English or Spanish. The course is open to the public of all nations and all ages, including families with young children. For more details, please click on the link to the organization: www.firmm.org

Apart from the sea trips included in the programme, I'd added four more trips myself. Out of the seven species of cetaceans recorded in the Strait of Gibraltar, I encountered five of them during my 12 sea trips.

Pilotwhale Pilotwhale Pilotwhale 

Bottlenose Dolphin Bottlenose Dolphin Bottlenose Dolphin Bottlenose Dolphin bowriding Bottlenose Dolphin 

Striped dolphin Striped dophin 

Orcas/Killer Whales – around July and August to snap tuna fish from the Moroccan fishermen. Tuna from the Atlantic Ocean come to the Mediterranean for reproduction from May to August every year. They pass by the Strait of Gibraltar after laying eggs in the Mediterranean. You'll see how scarred fishermen are when they see Orcas approaching. Some of them try to retrieve the fishing line quickly, hoping that their fish won't get eaten.

Orca is pulling a fisherboat Orca with tuna in mouth 

Spyhoping orca orca Pilotwhale Orca 

Common dolphin 

Other species recorded but not encountered:

Sperm Whales – passing by
Fin Whales – passing by

Approaching the animals
As the guidelines on whale watching was on a voluntary basis only, it is of prime importance to choose a responsible whale watching company. I had seen a large tourist boat leaving the scene at high speed when the Orcas were still around feeding. This might harm the animals.

Why are there whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar?

The Strait of Gibraltar 

As the evaporation rate of the Mediterranean Sea is higher than that of the Atlantic Ocean, the salinity of sea water at the Mediterranean increases, which means it is denser and heavier. The denser water sinks and create a counter current with influx from the Atlantic Ocean. The denser water flows from the 400km deep Mediterranean via the 1000km deep Strait of Gibraltar to the Atlantic Ocean. The underwater mountain at the Atlantic side of the Strait of Gibraltar causes the water to rise up and hence brings up the nutrients from the deep. As the counter current creates an influx of water from the Atlantic Ocean, the nutrients brought up to the surface is pushed back to the Strait of Gibraltar. A vibrant ecosystem is hence created.

Fishermen quickly retrieve their catch for fear it will be snapped by Orcas nearby 

Museum on Cetacean
There is a small-scale Museum on Cetacean near to the harbour. You can find life size models, specimens and information on the local species as well as the threats they face. The museum opens from 11am to 3pm.

Museum on Cetacean Museum on Cetacean 

Points to note:

  • Choose a responsible whale watching company
  • Take note of the seasonality of the cetaceans there
  • Breakfast in restaurants is served till 1pm. Kitchen of restaurants usually opens at 8:30pm for dinner
  • Learn some Spanish before going, otherwise you may get ignored by waiters
  • Siesta time and day off of tourist attractions, e.g. the castles, Roman remains at Bolonia (a town nearby)

Nearby airport:
Malaga Airport

Transfer and Accommodation:
For participants of the course, Foundation Firmm can help arrange accommodation and transfer from nearby airports, which make things much easier for overseas travellers.

Whale Watching Company:
Foundation Firmm (www.firmm.org) is highly recommended as they are a responsible whale watching company and the fee you pay will help support their research and conservation work.


Go back