Gentle Giants of the Straits
The waters off Tarifa attract a large and colourful diversity of marine life. Just as humans are drawn to its golden beaches and the winds and waves that make conditions ideal for water sports, so the submarine environment forms the lively breeding ground for countless species of aquatic life. The whales and dolphins that congregate in the deep waters off Tarifa are not only the largest representatives of these, they are also among the most graceful and spectacular creatures you could expect to find anywhere.
Tarifa's location at the meeting point of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea makes it uniquely important not only from a strategic, but also from an environmental point of view. Here, at the fourteen kilometre-wide point of contact formed by the Straits of Gibraltar, the sheer differences in temperature, salt content, currents and nutrients between these two huge bodies of water create a set of highly distinct animal habitats which, curiously enough, need each other to survive. Off Tarifa, where the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the cool Atlantic-here an offshoot of the current that flows northwards from the Canary Islands-engage one-another, a zone of convergence produces conditions that are unique to this small region.
Fed by cold, highly oxygenated water from the Canary's Current, the region around Tarifa provides a rich source of nutrition for its abundant marine life. A great many species on land and water therefore use this bountiful environment for breeding, feeding or simply protection, making it a meeting point of sea life rich in both diversity and numbers. The huge schools of tuna, sardines and anchovies to be found here form the basis of an ancient fishing industry, but the large numbers of whale and dolphin species that congregate in these waters are making Tarifa the centre of an altogether more modern occupation-eco-tourism. Thousands of visitors come to these shores each year to witness the graceful movements of whales or the playful ballet of dolphins, and they can choose from a variety of whale or dolphin-watching operators who provide anything from wooden sailing boats and coastal barges to specialised craft with glass bottoms that allow one to see the animals underwater.
Among the more serious of these is Firmm, a Swiss foundation based in Tarifa, which endeavours to promote research and awareness of cetaceans, and marine life in general. Although Firmm works together on research projects with marine biologists and other scientists, the organisers are also keen to involve ordinary enthusiasts and volunteers. As Katharina Heyer says, "It is our intention to learn from the sea and its creatures, but also to pass this knowledge and appreciation for our environment on to everyday people."
Whale and dolphin-spotting trips similar to those of commercial companies are organised, but they serve mostly to help finance the research project and to offer normal visitors a chance to see the cetaceans up close. "Out of respect for the animals we cut our engines and do not steer too close to them, allowing our visitors to see them in a natural way. In the information we provide we emphasise this need for respect and many of our visitors are so inspired that they come back for a spell as volunteers on research projects."
Whether you are a keen nature lover or simply wish to take a short excursion, seeing the whales and dolphins of the Straits up close is an experience you won't forget in a hurry.