Whale watching can do so much good but can sometimes get out of hands

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. You can check out the first and second parts of this series first. They focused on where to go whale watching, the codes of conduct, and the practical aspects of whale watching. Today, we dive into the advantages and drawbacks of the whale watching industry.

Credit: Pixabay

Why whale watching can do so much good

Done the right way, whale watching can have so many positive effects – for people and for whales. It is a great way to educate people about whales and dolphins, as well as the threats that they are facing, and small things we can do to help. Thie guide always hopes their passengers leave the boat with long-lasting memories that inspire them to get involved in conservation projects or live more sustainably.

Many whale-watching companies carry out conservation efforts as well, from beach clean-ups to supporting local stranding networks. And many operators collect data for research on the species they encounter. They also offer their vessels as a platform for data collection for student projects or researchers.

Research & Whaling

One research method many companies are utilizing is photo identification. They take pictures of the whales and dolphins they encounter to catalog the individuals. Photo-ID is the pillar of whale research. It allows us to learn bout the social life of cetaceans, their movements, and their migrations. Earlier this year, one of my colleagues photographed a humpback whale here in Iceland. This photo was matched with a photo taken off Cape Verde. This whale is thus a member of a population of humpback whales that is still endangered.

In some countries, whale watching is a counterweight to whaling. In April this year, Greenland passed a law that prohibits hunting whales in the fjord outside the country’s capital Nuuk. This happened after a study from 2014 indicated that killing just a few whales can cause a huge drop in the overall sighting success for whale-watching tours. Iceland is also technically still a whaling nation, even though it has not caught a whale since 2018. Whale watching companies in Reykjavík have been campaigning against whaling for years. Since tourists represent the majority of the whale-eating demographic, whale watching tours are a great way to raise awareness of this issue and advice against eating whale meat.

Whaling is prohibited off Nuuk to allow whale watching activities. Think bowhead whale was caught in 2009 – Credit: Greenland Institute of Natural Resources from NAMMCO – © Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

Looking at the bigger picture, whales are large animals that cover great distances and impact the oceans’ ecosystems. Protecting them means protecting entire ecosystems. Marine protected areas that a great way to protect the whales and their environments.

In conclusion, even though it has become increasingly obvious that cetaceans have intrinsic value, whale watching provides an economic incentive to preserve whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. And, finally, as a guide, it’s great to see people’s happy faces at the end of a successful tour.

Downsides: When whale and dolphin watching goes wrong

Without oversight and/or competent crew onboard, whale watching can surely have negative impacts. Short-term effects include longer and deeper dives for the whales, and changes in swimming direction, presumably to avoid the vessels. The effects are typically stronger the closer a vessel gets and the more vessels are present. This is especially important if vessels disturb biologically important behaviors like feeding or resting. In that case, short-term behavioral changes can have long-term consequences for individual whales or even for an entire population.

Earlier this year, for example, U.S. regulators banned swimming with Hawaii’s spinner dolphins. The species is nocturnal and the new regulation protects them during the day when they rest and socialize and nurse their young. Generally, however, it is challenging to study population-level consequences of human disturbance. You can find more information about the decline in the numbers of different cetacean populations in different parts of the world here.

And again, limiting the disturbance comes back to the captain and guide of the whale watching company. It is important to be able to recognize signs of distress. A whale breaching or tail-slapping is definitely impressive to watch, but those behaviors do not necessarily mean that the whale is happy. Humpback whales can also show more subtle signs. When they are agitated, they tend to make certain sounds while exhaling which are known as trumpeting. A well-trained crew can recognize these signs, and act accordingly.

Where can we go from here?

A first step in the right direction would be the implementation of an international certification requirement for guides and captains to ensure they have sufficient knowledge about the animals and their behavior. Then hopefully a tour will be a complete success – for the passengers and for the whales and dolphins alike. And if it doesn’t work right away, please give these great creatures another chance. It’s worth it!

We hope you enjoyed our series on whale watching! If you are curious, check out our post on whaling:

Will whales be hunted for profit in the future?
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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