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Dolphins in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica:

MARINE MAMMALS IN A TROPICAL FJORD

GOLFO DULCE A COMPLEX MARINE ECOSYSTEM Golfo Dulce is a tropical embayment where attributes and characteristics of both, coastal and oceanic habitats come together. This small inner sea is located in the OSA peninsula in the southern pacific off Costa Rica. The gulf has been shaped by tectonic forces. It is usually termed as a tropical fjord, probably as a result of being surrounded by hills, and having a notably depth that reaches 215 meters at the deepest point. Also the water circulation is restricted, similar to high latitude fjords, with slow deep water renewal by occasional intrusion of dense subsurface waters. Another remarkably aspect is that it is an anoxic basin. There is no oxygen under 100 meters depth, which also means that the common processes of oxidation of organic matter are absent. Golfo Dulce comprises two important areas: a deep inner basin steeply sloped with a flat bottom with a dominant coastline of steep forested rocky shore in the north coast, and a shallow outer basin with a sill depth of 70 m. There are about 2000 hectares of mangrove ecosystem associated with rivers flowing into the gulf. However, there is a lack of nutrients typical of non-upwelling shelf-waters. Golfo Dulce remains an undisturbed estuary that acts differently from most tropical coastal ecosystems, resembling more an open ocean system rather than an estuarine one (Wolff et al.1996). But the most interesting aspect of this embayment is that being an almost oligotrophic environment (nutrients depleted) it harbours a great megafauna, where cetaceans populations and particularly predators as dolphins thrive in these tranquil waters.
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DOLPHINS IN GOLFO DULCE The marine mammals fauna reported by the cetologist Alejandro Acevedo in 1996, comprises two baleens whales: Balaenoptera edeni and Megaptera novaeangliae, as being humpback whales which are relatively common during the northern breeding and calving season. However, sightings of southern humpbacks have been reported by locals, and three odontocetes: the resident bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus, the frequent pantropical spotted dolphin Stenella attenuata and the occasionally seen false killer whales Pseudorca crassidens. Bottlenose dolphins are common residents in the waters of Golfo Dulces waters. They remain close to river mouths where they can get access to a predictable and concentrated food source. They group together in very small aggregations of about 6. Recently, there has been a estimated abundance of 80 bottlenose dolphins in the entire basin, according Acevedo and Mathewss photo ID data (2005). I have observed a shifting population on the north coast of less than 20 dolphins that move between two important feeding areas: the Rincon River and Esquinas River. Spotted dolphins are my main interest as a researcher of marine mammals. Their patterns of distribution have been documented previously in the basin (Acevedo and Burkhart 1998, Cubero Pardo 1998). Insights into the behavior of the species was given by Priscilla Cubero Pardo (1998). However, there are some open questions about spotted dolphins habitat use in the Golfo Dulce, especially regarding the feeding ecology of the species, for instance, is Golfo Dulce a feeding area for these

dolphins or a refuge from predatory pres-sure in the open Pacific Ocean? The abun-dance registered of more than 200 dolphins, and the frequency of sightings within the deepest portion of the inner basin of the gulf, made me wonder about the conspicuous presence of such a predator in a nutrients depleted ecosystem. Although, recent observations of feeding behavior, even in shallow areas such as river mouths evidence a higher relevance of feeding events than previously thought. On the other hand, there is the strong possibility that Golfo Dulce is only one part of a wide (major) range of feeding grounds. Data gathering in adjacent areas in the open southern Pacific has increased the probability of future matching of photo-identified individuals. CONSERVATION OF A PRISTINE HABITAT Whether a refuge, a feeding area, or even both, Golfo Dulce as a complex and unique ecosystem deserves to be perceived as an Area of Conservation Importance: a geographical unit considered to contain special conservation values (Bearzi et al, 2004) for pantropical spotted and bottlenose dolphins, as well as other marine vertebrates such as sea turtles. Especially, if we considered that Costa Ricas economy depends on the beauty and health of its natural heritage. Recently, there has been a proposal for an aquaculture facility at the entrance of the Gulf. Baselines that will indicate what potential effects human activities might have on the habitat are just being gathered. Today many tourists come to marvel at the solitude of these sanctuary waters and dolphins swimming near their boats are the living evidence of the well being of this wild place.

FURTHER READING Acevedo, A. and S. Burkhart (1998). Seasonal distribution of bottlenose (Tursiops truncatus) and pan-tropical spotted ( Stenella attenuata) dolphins (Cetacea: Delphinidae) in Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica. Revista de Biologa Tropical. 46: 91-101. Acevedo-Gutirrez, A., and Matthew, A. (2005). Association pattern of bottlenose dolphins in Costa Rica: Constant Companions and Casual Acquaintances. In Book of abstract XVI Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Diego, California. Bearzi G., Notarbartolo di Sciara G., Reeves R.R., Caadas A., Frantzis A. 2004. Conservation Plan for shortbeaked common dolphins in the Mediterranean Sea. ACCOBAMS, Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and Contiguous Atlantic Area . 90 pp. Cubero Pardo P. (1998). Distribucion y patrones de actividad del bufeo (Tursiops truncatus) y el delfn manchado (Stenella attenuata) en el Golfo Dulce . Tesis de Maestria. Universidad de Costa Rica. 102p. This contribution has been possible thanks to the valuable involvement of Villas Corcovado Hotel in OSA Peninsula, They kindly provided logistical support for the field trips. Special thanks to the captains Taboga, Charly and Rony for their good towards dolphins JMBA Global Marine Environment 23

Lenin Oviedo Maestra de Ciencias Marinas y Costeras Universidad Nacional UNA, Costa Rica