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Close wildlife encounters with cetaceans (2012-2014)

Field study news on swim encounters with short-finned pilot whales and food provisioning of Amazon botos.


Wildlife encounters of humans diving, swimming and wading in the vicinity of cetaceans in open water environments have increased worldwide. At the same time, the quality and quantity of close-up or interactive cetacean behaviors addressed towards humans appear to vary widely. In the past, free-ranging cetaceans were reported to avoid, aggressively interact with, injure or even kill humans. Further indirect effects threatening the health status of target species such as entanglements, boat strikes or alterations of behavior have been reported as negative by-products. From the management perspective, encounters have to be directed in order to reduce the likelihood of detrimental outcomes for both sides. It has been proposed to conduct studies on the quality of behavioral interactions to facilitate a comparative perspective between species and locations, as well as to conduct research before commercial programs are implemented. However, self-initiated cetacean behaviors addressed towards humans still have received little attention, hence their structure and function largely remain unclear.

In a collaborative effort, researchers from Brazil (Luiz Cláudio Pinto de Sá Alves, Alexandre de Freitas Azevedo and Artur Andriolo) and Germany (Fabian Ritter and Michael Scheer) catalogued self-initiated behaviors of two cetacean species. The study compares behaviors addressed towards human feeders and swimmers which occur during encounters with food-provisioned Amazon botos (Inia geoffrensis) and non-habituated short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) in the Canary Islands, respectively.


During the majority of encounters, short-finned pilot whales addressed affiliative behaviors towards swimmers. Neutral or avoidance behavior occurred less and intraspecific agonistic behaviors occurred rarely. In contrast, botos did not show avoidance reactions to human feeders but were permanently attracted to them. Risky behaviors occurred during all encounters and botos additionally addressed agonistic behaviors towards conspecifics. Nearly all risky interspecific behaviors remained constant or increased and all agonistic intraspecific behaviors increased between seasons. Thus, humans are permanently exposed to health risks, and these increased between consecutive seasons.

First results will be published in 2014 (…).

Recent videos

All videos are protected by copyright. All rights are reserved including the rights of photomechanical reproduction, the duplication and distribution via special processes (e.g. data processing, data carriers, data networks).

Videos: Food-provisioning of Amazon botos

Notice: The following videos were recorded at Novo Airão (Amazon State, Brasil) in 2008 and 2009 by Luiz Alves. During these years, food provisioning with Amazon botos was not regulated and encounters were conducted without management rules. Research results clearly showed that encounters like these should be discouraged as they put humans and botos at health risks. Since 2010 there are management rules being followed at Novo Airão in accordance with the responsible federal environmental agency.


Click to see a woman hand-feeding a boto.
She is being bitten during the course of the encounter
(.mov file with 14.9 MB).


Click to see a collection of risky situations between
human feeders and botos (.mov file with 6.8 MB).


Click to see a single boto begging for fish-handouts. The animal lifts its head and whole body vertically out of the water several times (.mov file with 9.6 MB).


Click to see botos being hand-fed in a human crowd. The animals begg for food with opened mouths and accept touching by human feeders (.mov file with 15.9 MB).

Videos: Swim encounters with short-finned pilot whales

Notice: Private and commercial swim encounters with wild cetaceans in the Canary Islands have been banned by law. Our research has been authorized by the Canary Islands Government.


Click to see a group of short-finned pilot whales underwater in close range to the swimmer (.mov file with 7.2 MB). Several times the whales echolocate towards the swimmer.


Click to see and mainly hear a group of short-finned pilot whales communicating (.mov file with 6.4 MB). The whales emit a variety of sounds such as clicks, whistles, grunts and calls.


Click to see sequences of human-pilot
whale research encounters (.mov file with 20 MB).


Click to see two pilot whales encircling
two human swimmers (.mov file with 5 MB)


Click to see a pilot whale frontally approaching
a human swimmer (.mov file with 1.9 MB)


Click to see a large pilot
whale group (.mov file with 18.2 MB)
(Video: Fabian Ritter)


Click to see human snorkelers swimming
with a large pilot whale group (.mov file with 10.4 MB)
(Video: Roland Gockel)


Click to see a human swimmer approaching
a pilot whale underwater (.mov file with 9.9 MB)
(Video: Roland Gockel)


Foto Field study news

Encounters of humans with free-ranging marine mammals have quantitatively increased worldwide, mainly in the context of commercial whale watching activities. In addition to observations of free-ranging animals from land, air or boat, for many humans it has become a life-dream to encounter a whale, dolphin or pinniped directly in its natural habitat and during swim encounters. Next to short-finned pilot whales ( more than 20 free-ranging whale and dolphin species were reported to be encountered by human swimmers, snorkelers, divers and waders.

As for short-finned pilot whales (, cetacean individuals or groups self-initiate a variety of behaviors which they address towards humans. Own research showed ( that these behaviors can be affiliative, aggressive-threatening and sexual in nature. Though most interactive behaviors were affiliative, food-provisioned and solitary dolphins were reported to self-initiate -next to affiliative- aggressive-threatening and even sexual behaviors. It is believed that these behaviors are responses to inappropriate human behaviors.

Research is authorized by the Ministerio de Agricultura, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente, Madrid, Spain. Commercial or private swim encounters with wild cetaceans in Canary Island waters are prohibited by law.