BAHIA BALLENA, Costa Rica – In good years, more than a hundred thousand tourists flock to this marine park on Costa Rica´s Pacific coast to see humpback whales breaching in the blue waters.
But warming temperatures – driven by climate change and strengthening El Niño events – are beginning to threaten the region´s tourism economy.
“When temperatures rise two or three degrees (Celsius) above the region´s average, we have very few whale sightings compared to normal years,” said whale specialist José David Palacios, who works at the Marino Ballena National Park with the Keto Foundation, a Costa Rican marine conservation organization.
“Typically, there are many sightings a day. When temperatures rise, there are only one or two a week,” he said.
Whales are one of the main tourist draws for Marino Ballena National Park, one of Costa Rica´s most visited natural areas. As climate change hits the country´s parks and biodiversity, it is also threatening local economies highly dependent on tourism, scientists and local people say.
Scientists similarly have noticed a drop in whale sightings in the park, mainly in warmer-than-average years, they said.
Although more study is needed, they believe rising water temperatures may be altering the migration routes of humpback whales moving past Costa Rica from the north.
When the whales descend in search of warmer waters to reproduce, they may now be finding them before reaching the park, scientists believe. The problem is that, as the whales spend time elsewhere, the community of Bahía Ballena could see its income dry up.
A study published in the journal Nature in 2014 estimated that extreme El Niño events, like the recent one in Costa Rica, will become twice as likely due to climate change.
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