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Is Whale Watching Damaging to Whales?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

It is an industry worth over two billion US dollars but questions have been raised about the safety of whale watching. This is not whether it is safe for us, but whether it is safe for the whales. According to at least one major conservation group whale watching can have a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of pods. What might adversely cause these magnificent animals harm and what should be done about it?

The group which has raised the issue is The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), dedicated solely to the worldwide conservation and welfare of all whales, dolphins and porpoises. The organisation acknowledges that to see whales in their natural environment is a wonderful and even emotional experience and that many of those who see whales in the wild go on to raise awareness (and money) to help save the animals.

Yet there are many companies who do not promote responsible whale watching and it is to the actions of these that the WDCS wishes to draw attention. Trips which ignore the needs of the pod risk increasing the respiratory rate of the whales which means that they will use more energy. That in turn means that they will have less inclination to hunt for food and so sometimes go hungry because of the intrusion of humans upon their habitat.

It has even been suggested that our ever more frequent interaction with the biggest mammals on the planet could stop them from foraging, and so have a knock on impact when it comes to the survival chances of their calves as the females will produce less milk. If young die in any numbers then the future of their pod becomes less than certain.

The organisation, together with the International Fund for Animal Welfare will be setting out measures which they believe will help both those running whale watching expeditions to treat the animals more sensitively and the whales themselves. Their study also shows that the continued hunting of whales is in breach of modern commercial slaughter standards – something which we knew already but an issue which needs to be addressed with some immediacy.

The figures around whale watching are staggering. As well as the money involved, around 13 million people (a couple of million more than the entire population of Greece) from 119 countries go whale watching each year. Although it started in the 1950s it has only been the last decade in which whale watching has really developed, and has outpaced other varieties of global tourism considerably.

For human communities living along the coastline of whale habitats the fiscal benefits are obvious. Jobs are created and this can help develop local infrastructure. As wealth has been accrued and more tourists attracted, then the number of trips to see the cetaceans in the wild has increased. Hereby lies the rub: although human communities have benefited hugely the real participants (the whales!) have not been on the receiving end of any real advantage – in fact there is strong evidence to say that they are suffering for our pleasure.

There are reasons. Cetacean-focused tourism more often than not targets the same groups of whales time and time again. The demand for encounters increases – as well as their intimacy – and the whales may suffer. Several papers have been written on the effects unrestricted whale watching has on pods. One (Lusseau, 2005) has shown that pods attempt to move away from the areas the boats are likely to visit. Yet it would not be too much of a problem if it was simply a case of moving away from noisy neighbors (as it were) – the oceans are large, after all.

The same report showed that there was a big reduction in the social behavior of the targeted pods as well as a decline in the amount of time that the whales rested when the watching vessels were around them. Another report (Bejder, 2005) showed that whale watching vessels had a great impact on the reproductive success of the pods that they were targeting. In other words the whale watching expeditions were having a negative impact on the chances of the pod surviving the next generation or two.

It is not only behaviour in certain pods (which can have an impact on the wider population). Two further reports (Laist et al, 2001 and Jensen and Silber, 2004) have shown that serious and often fatal injury has been caused by whale watching vessels through impact with the cetaceans. This has mostly been caused by the vessels trying to approach the whales too closely and a failure to handle the vessels with due care and attention.

The WDCS has put together recommendations which it hopes whale watching vessel owners will follow. These include making sure that the whales are watched with the lightest possible ‘footprint’. Actions include making sure that the vessels are fit for purpose and approaching the whales with extreme care and attention. Other measures may include setting approach distances from a pod and a legal limit on the time which can be spent in their company.

For tourists, the best way to check that the whale watching vessel upon which you will visit a pod respect the whales is to ask before you purchase tickets. By asking about the welfare of the whales you are helping to local human populations to self regulate. Do not ask, for example, how close you will get to the whales: rather, enquire about whether the boat will be at a distance sufficiently away from the pod for the whales to continue their normal existence unhindered. Be adamant that you will demand a refund if you feel that the whales have been exposed to undue danger.

The WDCS and the IFAW are hoping, too, to promote situations where the cetaceans that are the focus of this burgeoning industry are long term monitored. The modern world already presents whales with many pressures and the monitoring will hopefully help to determine the sustainability of activities like whale watching.

Ark in Space would like to thank all the Flickr photographers featured here for their generosity in making their amazing photographs of whales available under Creative Commons. We would just like to point out that there is no inference, in the choice of pictures, that the whale watching trips featured were in any way detrimental to the welfare of the pods involved.

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