Whale Watching: Good or Bad?

Whale Watching: Good or Bad?

Whale watching is a worldwide industry worth more than $2 billion. Seeing a whale in the wild is a bucket list item for countless people all over the globe.

But are you actively harming whales when you go on a whale watching trip?

Whale watching is a hot topic, particularly in the debate over keeping cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in human care. Avid proponents of cetacean captivity often vilify the practice of whale watching, claiming it harms cetaceans and is unsustainable, while extreme anti-captivity activists typically paint whale watching as a harmless activity that does not impact wildlife. The reality is that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Whale watching is a multi-faceted issue that depends on many factors, such as region, species, and even the individual population. Whale watching can be done from boats, kayaks, paddle boards, and even while snorkeling or diving. Each type of whale watching has its benefits and its drawbacks. When is whale watching harmful, and when is it benign? Are there any benefits? Many biologists have attempted to answer these questions by doing studies on whale watching all around the world. Let’s examine this issue in more detail below.

Negative Aspects of Whale Watching

Though we might like to think that whales and dolphins enjoy being around us as much as we enjoy being around them, it’s usually not the case. Vessel traffic, including that from whale watching boats, can put stress on the animals. Here are some examples of when whale watching can have negative impacts on the animals:

  •  Minke whales in Iceland have been documented reacting to approaching whale watching as if they were predators, and whale watching in this region appears to disrupt normal feeding behavior. [X]
  • Hawaiian spinner dolphins rest during the day and are often disturbed during prime sleeping hours by dolphin watching vessels and snorkelers [X] 
  • Whale watching vessels in Panama directly killed at least 10 cetaceans in 2012 and 2013 [X]

These are just a few examples. Other studies document whale watching’s negative impacts on the the St. Lawrence belugas, killer whales in Norway, Irrawaddy dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand. Whale watching can change the activity budgets of animals, increase their respiration rates, cause avoidance behaviors, alter feeding patterns, and even change vocalizations. In more extreme cases, animals can be killed during whale watching trips by vessel strikes. 

Benefits of Whale Watching

Not all whale watching is doom and gloom, however. There are plenty of reputable companies and programs that responsibly view wild cetaceans, minimize their impact, and contribute to education, conservation, and meaningful research. When whale watching is conducted properly, there appears to be little impact on the animals.

One endangered population of killer whales, the southern resident killer whales, is subjected to high amounts of whale watching. Whale watching and its impacts on this imperiled population have been studied extensively and is greatly debated among whale advocates, whale watching companies, and scientists in this region. One particular study showed that whale watching does not actually have as much of an impact as other stressors, such as lack of prey. The biologists measured stress hormones in the whales and found that concentrations of stress hormones were lowest during the highest levels of vessel traffic, and this coincided with peak salmon availability [X]. This indicates when the whales have access to adequate prey, whale watching and other forms of vessel traffic do not have as much of a negative impact on them. That is not to say that whale watching doesn’t affect them at all: other studies have documented changes in behavior, but it’s likely not as negative as many people make it out to be. 

What benefits does whale watching provide? Eric Hoyt provides a list of benefits in his paper “Sustainable ecotourism on Atlantic islands, with special reference to whale watching, marine protected areas and sanctuaries for cetaceans”

  • Recreation
  • Scientific 
  • Education
  • Financial 
  • Cultural 
  • Heritage
  • Social 
  • Aesthetic 
  • Spiritual
  • Psychological 
  • Political 
  • Remote viewing
  • Environmental quality value 
  • Ecological function value

Choosing a Responsible Whale Watching Company

We now know that whale watching can be harmful if not done right. How can you choose a company that will respect the animals and minimize your impact? In some regions, there are special voluntary programs and organizations that companies can become part of that add an extra layer of protection to the animals being observed. 

In the United States, the NOAA sponsored program Whale SENSE provides extra training for whale watching companies to ensure they are conducting their whale watches in the safest and most responsible way possible. Whale SENSE certified companies can be found in Alaska and in New England. 

The Pacific Whale Watch Association is a group of whale watching companies in Washington State and British Columbia that have implemented even further regulations (more than what federal law requires) upon themselves in order to reduce their impact on the animals they view. 

So far, such programs are mainly restricted to the US and Canada. 

Conclusions

The pros and cons of whale watching are nicely summarized in the book “Ecotourism’s Promise and Peril: A Biological Evaluation” and the authors come to the conclusion that: 

“Marine mammals are charismatic animals, and many of them represent top predators and iconic species often referred to as keystone and umbrella species. They are keystone because their disappearance may lead to the loss of other species, and umbrella because conservation actions that mitigate threats to them are expected to improve the protection of other organisms and the ecosystem itself. In many areas around the world, the importance of these animals as keystone and umbrella species is being increasingly recognized and, consequently, so is the need to protect this captivating megafauna. Marine mammal-based tourism, if conducted properly and on a sustainable basis, is a “benign” industry. Ecotourism done right cannot only work, but it can work well. Marine mammals’ welfare should, however, remain the main objective of this industry because, without these animals, there will be no ecotourism at all.”