Most visitors to Lovina beach in Buleleng, in the northern part of Bali, are there for the dolphins.
Tourists generally make the trip out to the beach in June, July or August, when the weather is good and the waters blue and clear.
The rising number of visitors to the beach is good for the local economy because of the jobs it creates.
There are more than 300 dolphin spotting guides in Kaliasen village in Kalibukbuk near Lovina beach. During peak season, nearly all of them are busy taking tourists on trips out to sea. The cost of the hour-long tour is Rp 60,000 (US$6.60) a head. Each boat seats 4-6 passengers.
The best time for dolphin spotting is about 6 a.m., so tourists are advised to turn up at about 5:30 a.m., before sunrise.
Dolphin watching is much like fishing in that if one is lucky they will get a “big catch” and see the dolphins up close, but if they are not, they will go home “empty-handed”, without seeing so much as a fin. One man returning after a disappointing trip snapped at his guide, “Are you sure there are dolphins here?”
The management of the dolphin watching business has also been criticized. “Can you imagine, during peak season hundreds of boats head out to sea in the same direction to watch the dolphins,” said Made Rudita, the head of the Catur Karya Bhakti Sraga group in Kalibukbuk.
Once dolphins are spotted, the boats race to get into the best position. Many people are satisfied by the experience, but others return from sea complaining the dolphins were chased and cornered by the boats.
“I like watching dolphins, but I don’t like it this,” said an American tourist identified only as Ronald.
The dolphins can become sick from exhaustion after being trailed by the tourist boats, or separated from their pups.
Some of the guides acknowledge there are problems with the way in which the trips are conducted, but say there is nothing they can do about it.
“When we used traditional boats, the scenery was beautiful and there were plenty of dolphins; but we could not keep up with the dolphins, so we started using motor boats,” said guide Wayan Rene.
Marine scientist Putu Liza Kusuma Mustika said the tours endangered the health of the dolphins. “Dolphins are very sensitive animals. If they feel uncomfortable or disturbed, they will swim away.”
She said dolphin health was a good measure of the pollution level of the water.”If there are many sick dolphins, the water is probably very polluted.”
Putu Liza said the guides’ awareness of dolphin behavior needed to be raised so they understood why they should stop using motor boats.
She said many dolphins preferred to settle in one area, like those in the Lovina waters.
Based on Putu Liza’s observations, the dolphins around Lovina belong to the spinner dolphin family (Stenella longirostris) or are bottlenose dolphins (Trusiops). Nearly every day these dolphins can been spotted from Lovina beach.
Rudita said there were some 300 dolphins in the area, “many less than in the old days”.
Buleleng Tourism Office head IB Puja Erawan said the existing method used to get up close to the dolphins was harmful to their health.
“We are in the process of approaching the local people to stop them going after the dolphins like that,” he said.
Erawan said fishermen in Gerokgak, another beach in Buleleng, did not chase the dolphins but waited for them to come closer instead.
“They have found another way, and it works,” he said.