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Puerto Vallarta Whale Watching Season Opens December 8
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December 7, 2011
Every year from December to mid-March, Pacific Humpbacks migrate from their summer feeding grounds off the coast of Alaska to the warmer waters of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. (Larry Bennett Photography)

Puerto Vallarta, Mexico - There are many ecological tours and exciting activities to enjoy in Puerto Vallarta, but nothing compares to the thrill of whale watching trips on Banderas Bay. This year, December 8th is the first official day of the whale watching season in the Bay of Banderas area, but it is important to engage in responsible whale watching procedures.

Commercial hunting, indiscriminate use of fishing nets, shipping, development of tourist infrastructure on the beaches, pollution of the seas and weather events such as "El Niño" and "La Niña" threaten the lives of whales.

In our country there are places where whale watching is most important, and civil society organizations and researchers have noticed an increase in the number of deaths of cetaceans caught in fishing nets.

That is why on October 17, 2011, in the Official Journal of the Federation (DOF), changes were published to the Mexican Official Standard NOM-131-SEMARNAT-established guidelines and specifications for the development of whale watching activities relating to their protection and conservation of their habitat.

It should be noted that the development of the rule involved the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), the Directorate General of Primary Sector and Renewable Natural Resources, the Department of Wildlife, the Federal Environmental Protection (Profepa), the National Commission for Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO), the National Ecology Institute (INE), the Chamber of Deputies and Senators, among others.

Persons providing whale watching services must obtain the appropriate authorization from SEMARNAT, pursuant to Wildlife Act provisions and regulations.

SEMARNAT has granted 200 permits to Banderas Bay whale watching tour operators for the 2011-2012 season, which runs from December 8 through March 23. Every crew member aboard authorized vessels has been trained to offer the best possible experience to visitors without affecting the natural habitat of the whales.

According to the new SEMARNAT-established guidelines, at the beginning of each trip, the service provider must inform participants about the legal procedures for whale watching activities, which are as follows:

• In the presence of whales, the speed limit and navigation within the area of observation must be less than 5 knots (9 km/h), and speed must be reduced to 2 knots (4 km/h) upon entering the observation area.

• Only 4 boats at a time can closely observe the same whale or group of whales.

• In areas authorized for observation, authorized vessels can remain in the vicinity of the whale or pod for a period of no longer than 30 minutes.

• The minimum distance between any vessel and the whale or pod of whales is established according to vessel size and species under observation.

Tips for Responsible Whale Watching

• When you are offered a Puerto Vallarta whale watching trip, make sure the boat has the proper permit. Each authorized vessel is required to have a copy of their permit onboard and raise the whale watching flag.

• If you are sold a whale watching trip and the boat does not have a permit or flag, return to the person who sold you the tour, demand a complete refund, and report the incident to the local authorities.

• Scuba diving or snorkeling in the vicinity of a whale is very dangerous and is forbidden by law. Jet skis, water skis, kayaks, canoes, etc. are also forbidden in the vicinity of whales.

• Trash, especially plastic bags and such can suffocate a whale if it is sucked into this blow hole. If you see plastic bags floating in the water please take the time to retrieve them. This small action may in fact safe the life of an endangered whale.

Following these few simple steps will ensure a safe whale watching experience for you and your friends and, more importantly, help protect these gentle giants that call Banderas Bay their home for a few months every year.