By Dr Kathryn Shutt
Dr. Kathryn Shutt is a conservation primatologist. She works for Fauna and Flora International as the West Africa Conservation Programme Coordinator.
Whale watching is an increasingly popular activity, and can be hugely exciting and rewarding. However, it needs to be organised responsibly in order not to disturb or threaten the whales.
Whale watching is the fastest growing form of ecotourism. With millions of participants, the industry is worth billions of dollars annually. Whale watching can help incentivise the protection of whales, by providing local income and employment opportunities. However, whale watching needs to be carefully organised, in order to prevent disturbance and injury to the whales.
What is it?
The term ‘whale watching’ is used to cover a range of activities involving the observation of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans). Commercial whale watching most often takes place from boats, or sometimes from the air. Whale watching opportunities also exist from the shore.
What you should know
- An estimated 13 million people go whale watching each year, making the industry worth more than US$2 billion.
- While most people believe that whale watching benefits whales, by generating income, increasing knowledge, and incentivising the protection of these magnificent creatures, the industry needs to be carefully managed to prevent the disturbance of or injury to whales, and reduce the risk of accidents to people.
- Most people engaging in commercial whale watching activities watch whales from boats, some from aircraft. Many opportunities exist for the non-commercial observation of cetaceans from the shore.
- The presence of boats can cause problems for whales, particularly when certain groups are repeatedly targeted by whale watching operators for prolonged close-up encounters. There are many reports of whales changing their behaviour when being pursued by boats, with the animals spending more time actively swimming to get away, and therefore less time on feeding, resting and other important activities.
- Noise from boats or aircraft may disturb whales, or prevent them from effectively communicating with each other. If boats get too close to whales, the animals may suffer injuries which can be fatal, and the people on the boat may be put at risk. Boats approaching too close to whales may separate animals, which can be very damaging, particularly if the animals involved are mother and calf.
- Whales may recover quickly from individual instances of disturbance, but repeated disturbance may cause them to avoid areas altogether. Most whales spend much of their time offshore where whale watching is impractical. When they do come inshore it is often at critical points in their life-cycle, such as mating, giving birth, or nursing young. During these times they may be particularly vulnerable to disturbance. Frequently targeted populations may suffer reduced breeding success, and reduced nutritional status.
- Excessive unregulated whale watching boat activity has been cited as one possible cause of the decline in southern resident killer whales off Vancouver Island, Canada.
- A large number of different codes of conduct exist; there is currently no single code. Codes of conduct are voluntary. Regulations also vary enormously from place to place, and it is not always clear how marine protection legislation applies to whale watching.
What you can do
- There are many opportunities to watch whales from the shore in many parts of the world. These experiences can be just as rewarding as watching from boats or aircraft, and the risk of disturbing the whales is much reduced.
- If you do go offshore to watch whales, make sure the operator advertises and adheres to local regulations and a recognised code of conduct for whale watching. This should restrict how many boats are allowed to follow a group of whales, how close they get to the whales, how much time the boats spend in the vicinity of the whales, and stipulate when they should cut their engines.
- Where you can, choose a responsible local operator to ensure your money benefits the local community, and continues to give them the incentive to protect the whales in their area.
- If you can, use an operator who guarantees to donate a part of your payment to research which benefits whale conservation.
- Never get into the water with whales. You risk disturbing or injuring them, and you risk injury to yourself.
- Never use an operator who attracts whales or dolphins to the boat or shore by using food, since this may change the animals’ behaviour increasing their dependence on people, and may lure animals into potentially dangerous situations.
- If you take part in a whale watching experience which you are concerned about, or during which you feel the operator has acted inappropriately or in contradiction to any regulations or codes of conduct, let them know your concerns, along with the hotel, resort or agent who arranged or advertised the experience. If you are particularly concerned, you can write to the consulate, high commission or tourist board for the country you have visited.
Where does this occur?
Whale watching experiences are available in over 119 countries, including countries that still hunt whales such as Japan, Norway and Iceland. The industry has grown particularly rapidly in parts of Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and South America, although the US, Canada, Spain, Australia and South Africa remain the most popular whale watching destinations.