Many of us have had the privilege of seeing dolphins and whales in the wild, be it in Britain or abroad. While watching from land can be an amazing experience, commercial whale watching boats usually offer a better chance of actually seeing the animals up close.
Today, whale watching is the world’s fastest growing form of ecotourism, with more than 13 million participants each year. Many communities, for example many Oceanic islands and New Zealand, consider whale watching as an important part of the country’s economy. Whale watching is even growing more and more popular in countries that still hunt whales, such as Iceland, Norway and Japan, and the profits made from whale watching often exceed those coming from the sale of whale meat.
Bottlenose dolphin in Tenerife, Canary Islands. Photo credit: Anna Pääkkönen
For us as the participants of whale watching boats the benefits are clear; we get to see these magnificent creatures in their natural environment and take home some amazing memories. A significant amount of whale watching boats today also offer information on the animals and their environment, allowing us to learn more about them and make the experience even more fulfilling.Short-finned pilot whales in Tenerife, Canary Islands. Photo credit: Anna Pääkkönen
However, can there be benefits for the whales and dolphins themselves? What are the risks, and what can be done to reduce them?
The most important value of dolphin and whale watching is to educate people. Most whale watching boats will have a guide who will share information about the animals, including basic facts about their biology and habitat, any threats they may face and conservation efforts. Many people even find the information provided during the trip an important part of the whale watching experience. The whale watching experience can also cause an individual to become more interested in conservation. The information about the ocean during the trips therefore benefits both the participants as well as the animals.
Dolphin and whale watching boats also provide a great research platform for scientists, therefore contributing in the overall knowledge and conservation of the animals.
Unfortunately, as with any form of business that relies on animals or nature for human enjoyment, whale watching can also have some negative effects on cetaceans and the environment.Short-finned pilot whales resting, or logging on the surface. Photo credit: Anna Pääkkönen
The most common effect that a whale watching boat, especially several vessels, can have on the animals is that it changes their behaviour. A boat chasing the animals may cause them to actively swim away, instead of feeding, resting and other important activities. This is often true for example for short-finned pilot whales, which spend most of the day time resting, called logging, on the surface and become active and hunt during the night. The presence of whale watching boat(s) has been shown to change their behaviour and therefore they spend less time resting and more time travelling, which may have a negative impact on the individuals as they use more energy. Some studies have proved this to be true especially same groups that are targeted by boat operators repeatedly over a long period of time, as the number of calves being born each year goes down as a result of the disturbance.
Other threats include direct injury to the animals by boats getting too close to them, separating mothers from calves, noise pollution preventing communication between members of the pod, and polluting the sea as rubbish accidentally, or on purpose, ends up in the water.Bottlenose dolphin playing with a plastic bag, and another with an injured dorsal fin, possibly caused by a boat encounter. Photo credit: Anna Pääkkönen
Whale watching organisations aim to provide an unforgettable experience for the passengers. While many operators consider the respect and wellbeing of the animals a priority, some will ignore these in favour of seeing the animals up closer, or spending more time with them, and thus making the passengers happier.
So how can the risks of boat based whale watching be reduced?
The most popular way of trying to control the effects of whale watching on the animals is by legal regulations, guidelines and codes of conduct. These will often include a minimum distance to the animals, limit the time the boat is allowed to spend with the animals, number of boats allowed in the animals’ presence and limits to speed and approach angle.Gray Whales in Baja, California. Photo credit: www.telegraph.co.uk
However, there are problems with these regulations. Two thirds of whale watching guidelines in the world are voluntary and many are lacking important information such as limitations and/or bans on feeding or swimming with the animals. And most importantly, there is a severe lack of monitoring that these rules are followed and lack of consequences for breaking them.
There is however something that you can do.
Companies that arrange whale and dolphin watching trips aim to please their customers and provide them with the best possible experience; this can mean breaking the rules and going closer to the animals than they are supposed to, chasing them and generally behaviour that is disrespectful towards the animals.Atlantic spotted dolphins bowriding. Photo credit: Anna Pääkkönen
You, as a passenger on one of these trips, can help. Let the whale watching company and crew know that the wellbeing of the animals and the following of these rules is important to you, find out about the code of conduct for the area before embarking on a boat trip, and if you see any behaviour that goes against these guidelines then let the crew know and/or report it. Whale watching boats are able to get away with breaking the rules so easily because the witnesses – passengers – are usually not aware of any rules being broken. Therefore informing them of your awareness and appreciation of respectful behaviour towards the animals and the environment will likely cause them to be more careful as they want to please their passengers.
Before you go whale watching, find out about different companies and choose a company that emphasizes the animals’ wellbeing and conservation. There are many boat operators that respect the animals and the environment and will let it show in their advertising – favour these companies!Whale watching from land in South Africa. Photo credit: www.oceansafrica.com
Last but not least, land based whale and dolphin watching can be equally as rewarding and a truly amazing experience. There are many places in the world where animals travel close to land and can be seen without ever having to get on a boat. Some of these places include Iceland, Gibraltar, South Africa, The Azores, and in Britain for example Cape Clear in Ireland, Moray Firth in Scotland and New Quay in Wales.
Happy responsible dolphin and whale watching!
Written by Anna Pääkkönen, home-based volunteer and Research Intern in 2015.