Gulf of Chiriquí IMMA

Size in Square Kilometres

15 079 km2

Qualifying Species and Criteria

Humpback whale – Megaptera novaeangliae

[Southern – M. n. australis]

Criterion C (1)

[North Pacific – M. n. kuzira]

Criterion A; C (1)

Pantropical spotted dolphin – Stenella attenuata 

Criterion C (1, 2)

Common bottlenose dolphin – Tursiops truncatus 

Criterion B (1); C (1, 2)

Marine Mammal Diversity 

Pseudorca crassidens, Orcinus orca, Balaenoptera edeni

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The IMMA is located in the Gulf of Chiriquí, Azuero Peninsula, Panama. It includes formally protected areas such as Coiba National Park and the RAMSAR site Gulf of Montijo. These zones are made up of a wide variety of gulfs, bays, estuaries and archipelagos within the continental shelf, which dolphins and whales use as breeding and feeding grounds. The most representative species of this IMMA are the pantropical spotted dolphin (Stenella attenuata), the bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). The area serves as a nursing, calving and mating area for both Southern and Northern Hemisphere humpback whale populations during different times of the year.

Description of Qualifying Criteria

Criterion A – Species or Population Vulnerability

The Northern Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae kuzira) that use the IMMA are part of the Central America Distinct Population Segment (DPS), which is classified as ‘Endangered’ by the United States Endangered Species Act (81 FR 62260, September 8, 2016). The Central America DPS is one of 14 DPSs of humpback whales around the world, and one of only four listed as endangered (Bettridge et al., 2015). A DPS is made up of whales that share the same latitude breeding area but migrate seasonally to specific mid-to high-latitude feeding grounds that may differ among individuals (Bettridge, 2019). The Central America DPS is composed of whales that breed along the Pacific coast of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama (Bettridge et al., 2015; Curtis et al., 2022). This DPS wintering area is understood to extend into southern Mexico (Wade, 2016; Curtis et al., 2022). The population estimate for the Central America DPS varies between 500-700 individuals depending on the mark-recapture method used (Calambokidis et al., 2008; Barlow et al., 2011; Wade, 2016). In comparison, the abundance of humpback whales off the United States West Coast, which includes some of the Central America DPS whales, is estimated to be approximately 5,000 individuals (Calambokidis & Barlow, 2020). The Gulf of Chiriquí is used as a breeding area by humpback whales from the Central America DPS, although fewer whales are seen from the Central America during the boreal winter, than individuals from the Southern Hemisphere’s Breeding Stock G during the austral winter (Rasmussen et al., 2017).

Criterion B: Distribution and Abundance

Sub-criterion B1: Small and Resident Populations

Small and resident populations of Tursiops truncatus have been identified in Bahía Muertos in the Gulf of Chiriquí, with three photographic recaptures documented between 2016 and 2021 (Casas et al., forthcoming); and in the Gulf of Montijo wetland where another four recaptures were documented between February 2022 and March 2022 (Casas et al., forthcoming). In both locations populations are estimated to number fewer than 50 individuals (Casas et al., forthcoming).

Criterion C: Key Life Cycle Activities

Sub-criterion C1: Reproductive Areas

There are critical calving and reproductive habitats for both northeast and southeast Pacific humpback whales all along the Pacific coast of Panama (Guerra, 2022; Rasmussen and Palacios, 2013; Rasmussen and Palacios, 2015; Rasmussen et al., 2017). This IMMA is specifically important for humpback whale calves and humpback whale males that have been reported singing in this area (Rasmussen, 2014). 49% of all humpback whale sightings (n=177 sightings) in the austral breeding season around the Gulf of Chiriquí contained calves. In the boreal season the proportion of sightings that contained calves represented 17% of all sightings (n=179 sightings) (Rasmussen et al., 2007; Rasmussen and Palacios, 2013; Rasmussen and Palacios, 2015). In the Coiba National Park 62% of the sightings (n= 58) were of mother-calf pairs (Casas and Trejos, forthcoming; Guerra, 2022).

Pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) observed during surveys conducted between 2018 and 2022 totalled 102 sightings, of which 50% (n=51) were groups with calves, including neonates. Similarly, of 48 documented common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) sightings, 40% (n=19) were groups with calves, (Casas and Trejos, unpublished; Casas et al., 2022a, 2022b). This is evidence that this area is highly important to all three species for reproductive and breeding behaviours. Although it must be acknowledged that calves of spotted dolphins and bottlenose dolphins accompany their mothers for at least 11.2-12 months (Perrin et al., 1976; Gubbins et al., 1999), during which time the mothers could move into and out of the IMMA.

Sub-criterion C2: Feeding Areas

Pantropical spotted dolphins are distributed in shallow waters near coral reefs, where they forage. They are mostly sighted near the islands of the Gulf of Chiriqui (Rasmussen and Palacios, 2014), with a significant distribution in the northeast portion of the Coiba National Park (Guerra, 2022). They are also present near the coast in the Honda Bay (Garcia and Dawson, 2003), and they even reach Cebaco Island in the Gulf of Montijo (Casas et al., forthcoming). Of the 102 spotted dolphin sightings reported in this area, 15% were observed feeding (Casas et al., forthcoming; Casas and Trejos-Lasso, forthcoming).

Two ecotypes of common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) are present in the Gulf of Chiriquí. In the Coiba National Park the inshore ecotype is mostly distributed in estuaries near the coast, but the oceanic ecotype has also been observed in deeper waters near islands and coral reefs where they presumably forage (Guerra, 2022). Rasmussen and Palacios (2014) present sightings inside the estuaries and near the islands, while Casas et. al. (forthcoming) provide data on sightings inside the estuaries (Bahía Muertos). In Coiba National Park there is also this dual distribution, with dolphin presence in the mouth of rivers and near islands (Guerra, 2022). In the Gulf of Montijo the bottlenose dolphin is inside the gulf, mostly in the zone where the river water and the ocean come together (Casas et al., forthcoming). Between 2018 and 2022 29% of sightings of bottlenose dolphin encounters (n=48), included observation of feeding behaviour (Casas et al., forthcoming; Casas and Trejos-Lasso, forthcoming).

Supporting Information

Autoridad de los Recursos Acuáticos de Panamá. 2010. Fortalecimiento de la capacidad técnica de la Unidad Ambiental, por medio de la Elaboración de guías técnicas para Evaluación de impacto ambiental, Documento de referencia para la elaboración de estudios de impacto ambiental (EsIA) en Zonas Marino Costeras y Aguas Continentales, pp. 225.

Autoridad de los Recursos Acuáticos de Panamá. 2014. Guía para la identificación de mamíferos y reptiles marinos de Panamá. Dirección General de Investigación y Desarrollo. Documento Técnico. Panamá. Primera Edición. pp.74

Barlow, J., Calambokidis, J., Falcone, E.A., Baker, C.S., Burdin, A. M., Clapham, P.J., Ford, J. K., Gabriele, C.M., LeDue, R., Mattila D.K. 2011. Humpack whale abundance in the North Pacific estimated by photographic capture-recapture with bias correction from simulation studies. Marine Mammal Science 27. Doi: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2010.00444.x

Bettridge, S., Scott Baker, C., Barlow, J., Clapham, P., Ford, M., Gouveia, D., Mattila, D., Pace, R., Rosel, P., Silber, G. and Wade P. 2015. ‘Status review of the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) under the endangered species act’. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS, NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-540, pp.240

Calambokidis, J., Falcone, E. A., Quinn, T. J., Burdin, A. M., Clapbham, P. J., Ford, K. B., Gabriele, C. M., LeDuc, R., Mattila, D., Rojas-Bracho, L., Straley, J.M., Taylor, B. L., Urbán, J., Weller, D., Witteveen, B. H., Yamaguchi, M., Bendlin, A. Camacho, D., Flynn, K., Havron, A., Huggins J., and Maloney, N. 2008. SPLASH: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific. Final Report for Contract AB133F-03-RP-00078. U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

Calambokidis, J. and Barlow, J. 2020. Updated abundance estimates for blue and humpback whales along the U.S West Coast using data through 2018. NOAA technical memorandum NMFS-SWFSC 634.

Casas, J., Oviedo, L., Urriola, K., Herra, D., Guerra, R., De La Rosa, P. and González, M. Forthcoming. Informe Técnico del Proyecto Definiendo Unidades de Manejo de Cetáceos Odontocetos Costeros en la Porción Litoral del Pacífico de Panamá. Presented to Secretaría Nacional de Ciencias y Tecnología (SENACYT). Unpublished data

Casas, J.J. and Trejos-Lasso, L. Forthcoming. Proyecto Monitoreo de cetáceos en el Pacífico de Panamá UMIP-MiAMBIENTE, 2016-2021. Unpublished data

Curtis, A., Calambokidis, J., Audley, K., Castaneda M, De Weerdt, J., García Chávez, A., Garita, F., Martínez-Loustalot, P., Palacios-Alfaro, J., Pérez, B., Quintana-Rizzo, E., Ramírez Barragan, R., Ransome, N., Rasmussen, K., Urbán, J., Villegas Zurita, F., Flynn, K., Cheeseman T., Barlow, J., Steel, D., and Moore, J. 2022. Abundance of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) wintering in Central America and southern Mexico from a one-dimensional spatial capture-recapture model. U.S. Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-SWFSC-661.

Fundación MarViva. 2013. Zonificación del Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí: Plan de manejo- versión popular / Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente; Adaptadora: Zuleika Pinzón; Editores Literarios: Carlos Iván Saldaña, Nicodemes Jiménez, Ana López y Eddy Arcia; Compiladores: Vicente del Cid, Isis Pinto y Larissa Lineth De León Gutiérrez; Fotografías de Marcelino Rosario, Larissa Lineth De León Gutiérrez y Carlos Iván Saldaña, pp.11. Panamá: Fundación MarViva.

Fundación MarViva. 2014a. Guía de Atractivos Ecoturísticos, Destino Golfo de Montijo y Parque Nacional Coiba, Recomendaciones de buenas prácticas para la visitación / Equipo de revisión, edición y adaptación: Vicente del Cid, Larissa De León Gutiérrez, Magdalena Velázquez, Rosa Dixon y Francisco Cedeño, pp.86. Panamá: Fundación MarViva.

Fundación MarViva. 2014b. Zonificación del Parque Nacional Coiba: Plan de manejo- versión popular / Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente; Adaptadores: Vicente del Cid, Lacina Lineth de León Gutiérrez, Eddy Arcia, Eduardo Donoso y Daniel Nuñez, pp.13. Panamá: Fundación MarViva.

Fundación MarViva. 2021. Atlas Marino-Costero del Humedal Golfo de Montijo, Panamá. Editores: Juan M. Posada y Antonio H. Clemente. pp.162. Panamá: Fundación MarViva.

Garcia, C. and Dawson, S.M. 2003. ‘Distribution of pantropical spotted dolphins in Pacific coastal waters of Panama’. LAJAM, 2(1):29-38. Available at:

Gubbins, C., Mcowan, B., Lynn, S. K., Hooper, S., & Reiss, D. (1999). MOTHER-INFANT SPATIAL RELATIONS IN CAPTIVE BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS, TURSIOPS TRUNCATUS. Marine Mammal Science, 15(3), 751–765. doi:10.1111/j.1748-7692.1999.tb00841.x

Guerra, R. 2022. Ocurrencia, abundancia relativa y distribución de cetáceos en el Parque Nacional Coiba, Provincia de Veraguas. Tesis de licenciatura no publicada. Panamá: Universidad Marítima Internacional de Panamá

Instituto Geográfico Nacional Tommy Guardia. 1988. Atlas Nacional de la República de Panamá. Ministerio de Obras Públicas, Panamá, República de Panamá.

Kwiecinski, B. and Chial, B. 1983. ‘Algunos aspectos de la oceanografía del Golfo de Chiriquí, su comparación con el Golfo de Panamá’. Rev. Biol. Trop., 31(2):323-325.

May-Collado, L., M. Amador-Caballero M., Casas, J.J., Gamboa-Poveda, M., Garita-Alpizar, F., Gerrodette, T., Gonzalez-Barrientos, R., Hernandez-Mora, G., Palacios, D., Palacios-Alfaro, J.D., Perez, B., Rasmussen, K., Trejos-Lasso, L, and Rodriguez-Fonseca, J. 2017. ‘Ecology and Conservation of Cetaceans of Costa Rica and Panama’. In: Rossi-Santos, M., and Finkl, C. (ed.) Advances in Marine Vertebrate Research in Latin America, pp.293-319. Switzerland: Springer Press.

Perrin, W. F., Coe, J.M., and Zweifel, J.R., 1976. ‘Growth and Reproduction of the Spotted Porpoise Stenella attenuate in the offshore Eastern Tropical Pacific’. Fishery Bulletin: Vol. 74, No. 2, 1976.

Rasmussen, K., Palacios, D.M., Calambokidis, J., Saborío, M.T., Dalla Rosa, L., Secchi, E.R., Steiger, G.H., Allen, J.M. and Stone, G.S. 2007. ‘Southern hemisphere humpback whales wintering off Central America: Insights from water temperature into the longest mammalian migration’. Biol. Lett., 3:302-305

Rasmussen, K., Calambokidis, J. and Steiger, G.H. 2011. ‘Distribution and migratory destinations of humpback whales off the Pacific coast of Central America during the boreal winters of 1996-2003’. Mar. Mamm. Sci., 28(3): E267-E279. Available at: 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2011.00529.x

Rasmussen, K. and Palacios, D.M. 2013. ‘Highlights from a Decade of Humpback Whale Research in the Gulf of Chiriquí, Western Panama, 2002-2012’. International Whaling Commission, SC/65a/SH04, pp.8

Rasmussen, K., and Palacios, D.M. 2014. ‘Update on Humpback Whale Research in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Western Panama, 2013´. International Whaling Commission, SC/65b/SH15.

Rasmussen, K., and Palacios, D.M. 2015. ‘Update on Humpback Whale Research in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Western Panama, 2014’. International Whaling Commission, SC/66a/SH/16, pp.8.

Rasmussen, K. May-Collado, L. and Palacios, D.M. Forthcoming. Odontocete occurrence in the Gulf of Chiriqui, Panama

Rasmussen, K., Palacios, D.M., Calambokidis, J. and Steiger, G.H. 2017. Sighting and environmental characteristics of humpback whale breeding habitat off Pacific Central America: comparison of Northern and Southern Hemisphere populations. IWC Report SC/A17/NP/07 for the Workshop on the Comprehensive Assessment of North Pacific Humpback Whales. 18-21 April 2017. Seattle, WA. 17pp.

Venegas-Anaya, M., Del Rosario, S., Venegas, M., Aguilar, M., Alonso, Y., Rivera, B. and Escobedo-Galván, A. 2019. ‘Geomatics in conservation: Habitat status and population ecology of crocodiles and alligators of the Gulf of Montijo Wetland, Panama’. 7th International Engineering, Sciences and Technology Conference (IESTEC), pp.114-119. Available at: 10.1109/IESTEC46403.2019.00029

Wade, P. R., Quinn, T.J., Barlow, J., Baker, C.S., Burdin, A. M., Calambokidis, J., Clapham, P. J., Falcone, E., Ford, J.K., Gabriele, C. M. 2016. Estimates of abundance and migratory destination for North Pacific humpback whales in both summer feeding areas and winter mating and calving areas. Paper SC/66b/IA21 submitted to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, June, 2016, Bled, Slovenia. Available at


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