Everything you wanted to know about Whale Watching – Part One

This month, we decided to focus on whale watching and have prepared three posts to tell you all about it: What are good places to go whale or dolphin watching? What are things to keep in mind? And what should you look for in a good whale watching operator? Keep reading to find out more about it. We will also link parts 2 and 3 when we launch them.

Sometime in the 1970s, something happened. People’s attitudes towards whales changed. We collectively went from seeing whales as a resource to seeing them as magnificent giants who need our protection. One of the sparks that started the anti-whaling movement was the album “Songs of the Humpback Whale“. Biologist Roger Payne’s recordings of whale sounds have probably saved (or contributed to saving?) several whale species from extinction.

After the whaling moratorium which came into effect in 1986, whale watching became one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide. In the U.S., for example, whale watching started as early as in the 1950s. There, San Diego became the main spot to observe migrating gray whales from land. Today, whale and dolphin watching is a global billion-dollar industry and more than 13 million people enjoy watching these amazing creatures in their natural habitat each year. More than 100 countries offer such activities nowadays. Therefore, it is important that the passengers enjoy the trip and that the whales and dolphins’ get the privacy and respect they deserve. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Where to watch cetaceans

First things first, you should check the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA)’s website. This NGO has established Whale Heritage Sites around the world. This certification program identifies destinations that implement responsible whale and dolphin watching operations and have their local population supporting a peaceful coexistence with cetaceans. By visiting a Whale Heritage Site, you can support a society/local community that wants to preserve the cetaceans and their habitat and, in many cases, has been shifting its entire economy towards sustainability. Additionally, the WCA has plenty of whale and dolphin watching operators as partners all over the world that promise to comply with a respectful code of conduct. There are also fantastic guide books about whale watching, and also the Wikipedia entry on whale watching is very extensive.

Whale heritage sites
Whale heritage sites – Credit: Whale Scientists

Whale watching guidelines around the world

A code of conduct is a set of rules meant to minimize the disturbance to any whales or dolphins. Different countries have different guidelines regarding whale and dolphin watching. Note: They apply not only to commercial operators but also to recreational boaters. Everybody’s responsibility is to behave respectfully around cetaceans, whether it is a planned encounter or not.   Depending on where you live and if you have a boat, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with guidelines in our area. In some countries, disrespecting the guidelines can get you into deep trouble.  

Most codes of conduct are similar. For example, they typically advise NOT to approach any cetaceans head-on or directly behind. Instead, boats should approach the whales slowly and diagonally from behind. Then, they should slowly move parallel to the animal(s) and remain at a safe distance. Speed and distance restrictions vary depending on the region. Iceland as an example has no minimum distance that vessels need to maintain from animals. In contrast, there is a 400-meter distance implemented for southern resident killer whales in British Columbia, Canada. And beware, Canadians – your home country has a reputation for enforcing their Marine Mammal regulations. In 2019, a boater was fined $ 2,000 and did two days of community service for getting too close to a whale in British Columbia, CA.

Regulations even within a country may depend on the cetacean species and their conservation status, the presence of calves, the behavior of the animals, and even the vessel type. This is why it is so crucial that the crew (especially the captain and guide) onboard is familiar with the behavior of different species and also recognizes any signs of disturbance or avoidance from the animals.

Example of a code of conduct for Iceland – http://icewhale.is/code-of-conduct/

Some VIP whales receive extra protection

Believe it or not, some famous whales even got their own personal protective laws. One of them is Migaloo, an albino male Eastern Australian humpback whale. Australia protects all humpback whales. However, Migaloo (and other white humpback whales) is a “special management marine mammal”, which gives him extra protection. No vessel can approach him within 500 m, aircraft within 610 m. Due to Migaloo’s fame and popularity, it is unfortunately necessary. He already got struck by a boat in 2003 and still shows scars on his back from that encounter.


Did you like this first part? Stay tuned to read our two other posts: One on the DOs and DONTs of whale watching and the other one on the advantages vs. drawbacks of the whale watching industry.

Biologist, Guide, Lecturer | hanna.michel.mb@gmail.com

Hanna is a biologist from Germany with focus on marine mammals. During her university days she was involved in research projects in Italy, Australia and also Iceland. This is where she has spent most of her time since receiving her Master’s degree. Here she has been working as a naturalist for whale watching companies in different parts of the country. Since starting to work as a guide and lecturer on polar expedition cruises in 2017, she has been migrating between Iceland and Antarctica sharing her passion for cetaceans and seals.

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