From Whaling to Whale Watching: Cetacean Presence and Species Diversity in the Galapagos Marine Reserve

  • Judith DenkingerEmail author
  • Javier Oña
  • Daniela Alarcón
  • Godfrey Merlen
  • Sandy Salazar
  • Daniel M. Palacios
Part of the Social and Ecological Interactions in the Galapagos Islands book series (SESGI, volume 1)


Before the Galapagos Archipelago became famous thanks to Darwin’s work on the theory of natural selection, it already was a hub in the global economy as an eighteenth-century whaling ground. Now a marine reserve, Galapagos is one of the most popular destinations for nature tourism and whale observations in the world. Over the last two decades, tour guides and researchers have contributed their occasional whale and dolphin sightings to a whale database with sighting records from 1993 to 2010, which we analyze here. We use presence/absence data of different species to assess the impact of El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycles and associated surface water temperature variations on the cetacean community in the Galapagos. We also describe the occurrence patterns of the 12 most common species in detail. Finally, we photographically identify 17 orcas in four pods and follow their distribution within the Galapagos Marine Reserve (GMR). According to their presence from June to November, humpback and blue whales show a strong affinity for the Southeast Pacific population, but sightings of all baleen whales throughout the year suggest that there are resident populations in the GMR. Of all cetaceans, bottlenose dolphins are most common and similar to orcas; they seem to be resident to the GMR. Residency of orcas is confirmed by numerous resightings of 17 animals with the longest time span between resightings from 2005 to 2011. The information presented here indicates that Galapagos supports a unique and diverse cetacean fauna that can be reliably observed along the established routes for tourism vessels. This information could form the basis for the establishment of a targeted and responsible whale watching industry.


Bottlenose Dolphin Sperm Whale Humpback Whale Common Dolphin Baleen Whale 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We are especially grateful to the tour guides of Lindblad Expeditions and others for providing us with numerous sighting records and to the Galapagos National Park for taking us along and hosting us at Bolivar Channel. Our thanks go to Chiara Guidino, Annika Krutwa, and all the other volunteers; to Walter Traunspurger and Hubert Spieth from Bielefeld University for their support on a Southwestern Galapagos Research cruise; and to Ben Haase for sharing his Orca photographs. Finally, we express our appreciation to Pol Segarra and Carlos Mena for editing sighting positions, and to Eduardo Espinoza for helpful comments. The present project has been carried out under Research Permit (PC-23-10 and PC-27-11) of the Galapagos National Park.


  1. Alava JJ (2009) Carbon productivity and flux in the marine ecosystems of the Galapagos Marine Reserve based on cetacean abundances and trophic indices. Revista de Biologia Marina y Oceanografía 44(1):109–122Google Scholar
  2. Alava JJ, Felix F (2006) Logistic population curves and vital rates of the southeastern pacific humpback whale stock off Ecuador. Report of the IWC Workshop on Comprehensive Assessment of Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales, Hobart, Tasmania, 3–7 Apr 2006. SC-A-06HW1Google Scholar
  3. Alava JJ, Barragán MJ, Denkinger J (2011) Assessing the impact of bycatch on Ecuadorian humpback whale breeding stock: a review with management recommendations. Ocean Coast Manag 57:34–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Baird RW, Dill LM (1996) Ecological and social determinants of group size in transient killer whales. Behav Ecol 7(4):408–416CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Boersma PD (1998) Population trends of the Galapagos penguin: impacts of El Niño and La Niña. Condor 100:245–253CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Branch TA, Stafford KM, Palacios DM, Allison C, Bannister JL, Burton CLK, Cabrera E et al (2007) Past and present distribution, densities and movements of blue whales Balaenoptera musculus in the Southern Hemisphere and northern Indian Ocean. Mamm Rev 37(2):116–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brennan B, Rodríguez P (1994) Report of two orca attacks on cetaceans in Galapagos. Noticias de Galapagos 54:28–29Google Scholar
  8. Day D (1994) List of cetaceans seen in Galapagos. Noticias de Galapagos 53:5–6Google Scholar
  9. Félix F, Palacios DM, Salazar SK, Caballero S, Haase B, Falconí J (2011) The 2005 Galapagos humpback whale expedition: a first attempt to assess and characterize the population in the archipelago. J Cetacean Res Manag (Special Issue) 3:291–299Google Scholar
  10. Ferguson MC, Barlow J, Shores LJ (2003) Addendum: spatial distribution and density of cetaceans in the eastern tropical pacific ocean based on summer/fall research vessel surveys in 1986–1996 National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, La Jolla, California 92038. Administrative Report LJ-01-04Google Scholar
  11. Fiedler PC, Talley L (2006) Hydrography of the eastern tropical Pacific: a review. Progr Oceanogr 69:143–180CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gambaiani DD, Mayo P, Isaac SJ, Simmonds MP (2009) Potential impact of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions on Mediterranean marine ecosystems and cetaceans. J Mar Biol Assoc UK 89:179–201CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Guilyardi E, Wittenberg A, Fedorov A, Collins M, Wangm C, Capotondi A, van Oldenborgh GJ (2009) Understanding El Niño in ocean–atmosphere general circulation models: progress and challenges. Bull Am Meteorol Soc 90(3):325CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hammond PS, Mizroch SA, Donovan P (1990) Individual recognition of cetaceans: use of photo-identification and other techniques to estimate population parameters. Rep Int Whaling Comm (Special Issue 12):143–145Google Scholar
  15. Hickman J (1985) The enchanted islands: the Galapagos discovered. Noticias de Galapagos 42:26–27Google Scholar
  16. Hope PL, Whitehead H (1991) Sperm whales off the Galapagos Islands from 1830–50 and comparisons with modern studies. Rep Int Whaling Comm (Special Issue) 12:135–139Google Scholar
  17. Hoyt E (2005) Marine protected areas for whales, dolphins and porpoises: a worldwide handbook for cetacean habitat conservation. Earthscan, London, 516 ppGoogle Scholar
  18. Hoyt E, Iñíguez M (2008) The state of whale watching in Latin America. WDCS, IFAW, Chippenham, UK; Yarmouth Port, USA; and Global Ocean, LondonGoogle Scholar
  19. Kaschner K, Tittensor DP, Ready J, Gerrodette T, Worm B (2011) Current and future patterns of global marine mammal diversity. PLoS One 6(5):e19653CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lambert E, MacLeod C, Hall K, Brereton T, Dunn T, Wall D, Jepson P (2011) Quantifying likely cetacean range shifts in response to global climatic change: implications for conservation strategies in a changing world. Endangered Species Res 15(3):205–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. MacLeod CD, Mitchell G (2006) Key areas for beaked whales worldwide. J Cetacean Res Manag 7(3):309–322Google Scholar
  22. MacLeod CD (2009) Global climate change, range changes and potential implications for the conservation of marine cetaceans: a review and synthesis. Endangered Species Res 7:125–136CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Merlen G (1992) Ecuadorian whale refuge. Noticias de Galapagos 51:23–24Google Scholar
  24. Merlen G (1995) A field guide to the marine mammals of Galapagos. Instituto Nacional de Pesca, Guayaquil, EcuadorGoogle Scholar
  25. Merlen G (1999) The orca in Galapagos: 135 sightings. Noticias de Galapagos. 60–63Google Scholar
  26. Palacios DM (1999) Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) occurrence off the Galapagos Islands, 1978–1995. J Cetacean Res Manag 1(1):41–51Google Scholar
  27. Palacios DM (2003) Oceanographic conditions around the Galapagos Archipelago and their influence on cetacean community structure. Dissertation, Oregon State UniversityGoogle Scholar
  28. Palacios DM (2004) Seasonal patterns of sea-surface temperature and ocean color around the Galapagos: regional and local influences. Deep-Sea Res II 51(1–3):43–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Palacios DM, Salazar SK (2002) Cetáceos. In: Danulat E, Edgar GJ (eds) Reserva Marina de Galapagos. Línea Base de la Biodiversidad. Fundación Charles Darwin/Servicio Parque Nacional Galapagos, Santa Cruz, Galapagos, EcuadorGoogle Scholar
  30. Palacios DM, Salazar SK, Day D (2004) Cetacean remains and strandings in the Galapagos Islands, 1923–2003. Lat Am J Aquat Mamm 3(2):127–150CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Palacios DM, Salazar SK, Vargas FH (2010) Galapagos marine vertebrates: responses to environmental variability and potential impacts of climate change. In: Larrea I, Di Carlo G (eds) Climate change vulnerability assessment of the Galapagos Islands. World Wildlife Fund and Conservation International, USA, pp 69–80Google Scholar
  32. Pyenson ND (2011) The high fidelity of the cetacean stranding record: insights into measuring diversity by integrating taphonomy and macroecology. Proc Royal Soc B: Biol Sci 278(1724):3608–3616CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Pitman RL, Palacios PM, Brennan PLR, Brennan BJ, Balcomb KC, Miyashita T (1999) Sightings and possible identity of a bottlenose whale in the tropical Indo-Pacific: Indopacetus pacificus? Mar Mamm Sci 15(2):531–549CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Simmonds MP, Isaac S (2007) The impacts of climate change on marine mammals: early signs of significant problems. Oryx 41:19–26CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Smith SD (1999) Distribution of dolphins in Galapagos waters. Mar Mamm Sci 15(2):550–555CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Sweet WV, Morrison JM, Kamykowski D, Schaeffer BM, Banks S, McCulloch A (2007) Water mass seasonal variability in the Galapagos Archipelago. Deep-Sea Res I 54:2023–2035CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Trillmich F, Limberger D (1985) Drastic effects of El Niño on Galapagos pinnipeds. Oecologia 67(1):19–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Valle CA, Coulter MC (1989) Present status of the flightless cormorant, Galapagos penguin and greater flamingo populations in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador after the 1982–82 El Niño. Condor 89:276–281CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Vargas FH, Harrison S, Rea S, Macdonald DW (2006) Biological effects of El Niño on the Galapagos penguin. Biol Conserv 127(1):107–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Wade PR, Gerrodette T (1993) Estimates of cetacean abundance and distribution in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Rep Int Whaling Comm 43:477–494Google Scholar
  41. Whitehead HS, Cristal J, Dufault S (1997) Past and distant whaling and the rapid decline of sperm whales off the Galapagos Islands. Conserv Biol 11(6):1387–1396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Whitehead H, MacGill B, Worm B (2008) Diversity of deep-water cetaceans in relation to temperature: implications for ocean warming. Ecol Lett 11:1198–1207Google Scholar
  43. Würsig B, Jefferson TA (1990) Methods of photo-identification for small cetaceans. Rep Int Whaling Comm (Special Issue 12). 43–52Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Judith Denkinger
    • 1
    Email author
  • Javier Oña
    • 1
  • Daniela Alarcón
    • 1
  • Godfrey Merlen
    • 2
  • Sandy Salazar
    • 3
    • 4
  • Daniel M. Palacios
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Galapagos Science Center, College of Biological and Environmental SciencesUniversidad San Francisco de QuitoQuitoEcuador
  2. 2.Galapagos National ParkSanta CruzEcuador
  3. 3.Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric ResearchUniversity of HawaiiHonoluluUSA
  4. 4.NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC/Environmental Research DivisionPacific GroveUSA

Personalised recommendations