Eco-tourism offers many exciting ways to explore our planet: mountain climbing, trekking through jungles and vast deserts — and for the marine enthusiast — whale watching for the chance to observe and help protect the largest creatures on Earth.
Majestic, awe-inspiring, colossal, highly intelligent. Whales have been described in many ways, and personal discovery can increase our understanding of the lives of whales and how to safeguard them.
Whale watching vessels carry thousands of visitors yearly on the lookout for these giant marine mammals. Whether child or adult, the thought of experiencing whales breach, spy hop, or sing in the wild often quells up excitement and anticipation.
“When that first whale emerges next to the boat is when I get goose bumps, because that’s when I get to hear the moment of pure, simple, and uninterrupted human amazement,” said Karolina, an intern for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC).
Around the world, concern over global warming and negative environmental impact has helped stimulate public interest for ecotourism activities such as whale watching. Today, responsible whale watching aids conservation efforts through research funding and by educating about marine mammals.
“Responsible whale watching has long term benefits which can help whales, the economy and the environment in general. Informing people about the issues impacting whales and the oceans can result in behavioral changes – recycling, become involved in policy, and making (better) consumer choices,” said WDC Senior Biologist Regina Asmutis-Silvia. “It also demonstrates that whales have a value alive, rather than hunted, from an ethical, environmental and economic standpoint.”
Thanks to media campaigns by private and governmental conservation groups, whale watching is recognized globally as an important activity to promote conservation.
Collectively, the whale watching industry has an estimated commercial worth of over 2 billion U.S. dollars annually, according to WDC Senior Whale Researcher Erich Hoyt.
Whale watching tours are a common site along many coastlines visited by whales. Many nations have realized the destructive nature of whaling, however, not all have recognized the value of whale watching or established whale watching regulations supported by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
Experts caution that time with the whales should not be taken for granted. Just as with other tourism activities, whale watching can have negative effects on the animals if guidelines or regulations are lacking.
Both immediate and enduring impacts can result from irresponsible whale watching, said Asmutis-Silvia. “An obvious immediate negative impact is striking the animal(s) which can result in an injury or death.” A less obvious impact, she added, is when stressed animals exhibit physiological reactions and avoidance of areas important for their survival, such as feeding grounds.
Location and time of year are important factors to consider when choosing a whale watching tour.
Various species of whales inhabit different parts of the world during different seasons. Whale watching operators cannot guarantee that whales will be seen on every outing, but they visit spots known to have good viewing of local or visiting pods.
If you are interested in a specific whale species, confirm with the whale tour organizer to learn which whales are expected on the tour before booking.
Choosing Eco-Friendly Whale Watching
camera or video camera
sunglasses in case of glare on the water
It can be difficult to know whether a whale watching company runs an ecological operation, despite that many advertise the designation. In the absence of an international monitoring program for whale watching businesses, WDC, IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) and other conservation groups offer guidelines for choosing a whale watching tour.
By asking the right questions you can get the information you need to choose a whale watching company that supports whale conservation.
- Does their vessel produce minimal noise so not to disturb marine life?
- Is there a naturalist or biologist aboard the whale watching vessel to answer questions?
- Is there a strong emphasis on educating guests about the whales?
- Are hydrophones available to listen to whales underwater?
It’s also important to determine if the whale watching company takes safety precautions for passengers and whales alike.
- Is the vessel fit for sea, without damage that could pollute the environment?
- Does the operator provide life vests & life boats, and carry emergency signals/radio?
- Does the boat operator remain at least 50 meters from the whales in order not to stress them?
What constitutes good whale watching practices by operators can also vary. According to biologist Heike I. Vester, founder of Ocean Sounds research organization, whale and whale group behavior toward boats can differ from day to day depending on the whales’ daily or seasonal activities, and boat crews should understand and react to these behaviors to minimize whale disturbance.
Some whale watching companies also support whale conservation directly through collaboration with whale research projects. On whale tours, researchers may gather data and act as educational guides for passengers.
If you want to support whale or marine mammal conservation while on vacation, asking for information at the local aquarium or tourism office is a good place to start.