Dolphin Whale Watching Boat Tours Unexpected Menace

Dolphin and Whale-Watching Boat Tours – An Unexpected Menace?

While dolphin and whale-watching boat tours have often been promoted as an animal-friendly way for tourists to view cetaceans in their natural habitats, recent research is suggesting that these tours could actually be having negative impacts on the dolphins and whales.

Dolphin in the wild

By Charlotte Louise Regan

Since the first commercial whale-watching activity took place in California in the 1950s, cetacean-watching has become an increasingly popular activity for tourists and travellers alike. Our desire to get close to whales and dolphins in their natural environments has generated a global industry. According to a report by IFAW, over 13 million people across 119 countries participated in whale-watching tours in 2008, amassing a total of $2.1 billion of expenditure (Whale Watching Worldwide, 2009).

While many environmental and animal welfare groups have promoted the scientific, educational and conservation benefits commercial dolphin and whale-watching activities can bring, there are concerns over the effects that increasing numbers of boat tours are having on marine mammal populations. This article explores some of the animal welfare concerns surrounding whale and dolphin-watching boat tours, as well as looking at a few of the ways in which we can try and minimise our footprint when observing these amazing creatures in their natural habitats.

When compared to viewing whales and dolphins in captivity, boat tours seem like a benign and animal-friendly alternative. However, recent research indicates that boat tours can have a disruptive, negative impact on the natural resting, socialising, feeding and travelling behaviours of whales and dolphins.

A 2006 study of the behaviours of killer whales in the Johnstone Strait, British Colombia, demonstrated that the whales reduced the time they spent on key feeding and social activities when vessels were nearby (Williams, Lusseau, and Hammond, 2006). A similar study on the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins in western Australian waters drew comparable conclusions as the dolphins were observed spending more time travelling, and less time feeding and resting, in the presence of tour boats than without (Arcangeli and Crosti, 2009).

whale watching

Boat tours affecting natural behaviours

As well as distracting cetaceans from essential natural behaviours, increased boat traffic can also reduce the quality of their habitats with greater noise pollution affecting communication (Jensen et al., 2009) and the potential for exposure to higher levels of boat exhaust and emissions (Lachmuth et al., 2011). Repeated and prolonged tour vessel presence can also lead to changes in ranging patterns and habitat use (Bejder and Samuels, 2003) with cetaceans showing preference towards, or avoidance of, certain habitats based on the presence or absence of boats (Allen and Read, 2000).

While the long-term impact of boat tours on cetacean behaviours are less well understood than the short-term effects, some trends are beginning to emerge, such as the more permanent displacement of cetaceans from areas with boat-based tourism and long-term impacts on the reproductive success of those creatures ‘targeted’ as part of cetacean-watching activities (Bejder and Samuels, 2003).

The unavoidable conclusion from contemporary research indicates that, however benign the intent, boat tours are having a worrying impact on the natural behaviours of some of our cetacean populations. The good news is that organisations and governments are increasingly introducing regulations and establishing best practices to make the dolphin and whale-watching industry as responsible and sustainable as possible. Such regulations and codes of conduct can cover a variety of issues including special permits for commercial operations, basic principles for boat behaviour around cetaceans (such as maintaining appropriate distance and speed), limiting the number of whale or dolphin-watching operations in a particular area, and restricting the duration of time tour boats spend in the water (IWC).

Whale watching

How to minimise your impact

While regulation of the cetacean-watching industry is gradually improving, the strength of the regulations and the extent to which they are followed does vary quite considerably from country to country. This means that we each still have an individual responsibility to mitigate the negative impacts of our own tourist activities on wildlife and to ensure that our actions support a responsible and sustainable approach.

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation organisation (WDC), we can help by choosing responsible, registered operators which, ideally, are recommended by a research group, educational facility or conservation organisation. We can ask about the company’s operational policy regarding any governmental guidelines or regulations and what ‘best practices’ they implement to minimise potential disruptive effects. Informational materials with a strong educational or marine conservation content can also reflect a genuine commitment to the welfare, preservation and protection of marine mammal populations, rather than a purely commercial interest.

Finally, it’s worth remembering that there are other ways of observing and experiencing whales and dolphins in the wild besides boat tours. Great vantage points for whale and dolphin-watching can be found all over the world, on land, without the need to leave the shore or to purposely intrude into their natural habitats. Shore-watching may not always promise the same degree of proximity as a boat tour, but you can rest assured that you are leaving the lightest possible footprint whilst watching the natural behaviours of these awesome creatures at sea.

RIGHT-tourism on whale-watching

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Allen, M. C. and Read, A. J. (2000). Habitat selection of foraging bottlenose dolphins in relation to boat density near Clearwater, Florida. Marine Mammal Science. 16 (4), 815-824.

Arcangeli, A. and Crosti, R. (2009). The short-term impact of dolphin-watching on the behaviour of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) in western Australia. Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology. 2 (1). [online]. Available from [Accessed 15 September 2014].

Bejder, L. and Samuels, A. (2003). Evaluating impacts of nature-based tourism on cetaceans. In: N. Gales, M. Hindell, R. Kirkwood (eds.). Marine Mammals: Fisheries, Tourism and Management Issues. CSIRO Publishing, 229-256. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 14 September 2014].

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Williams, R., Lusseau, D., Hammond, P. (2006). Estimating relative energetic costs of human disturbance to killer whales (Orcinus orca). Biological Conservation. 133 (3), 301-311.

WSPA, 2012. The Contribution of Animal Welfare and Tourism for Sustainable Development.