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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.

The Pronghorn – The American Almost Antelope

Sunday, 16 October 2011

If you were asked to think of a large mammal of the American prairie you might well say the bison, coyote or wolf, a measure of how much these species have settled in to our general consciousness. Yet there is one unique American animal which is less known but is perhaps the most charismatic of the Great Plains. Many refer to it as an antelope but that is far from the truth. A true American native, the Pronghorn has sojourned across the deserts and plains of North America for at least a million years: but an antelope it is not. Its closest relative is the giraffe.

The pronghorn is found nowhere else in the world except the interior western and central north of America. At first sight it certainly does resemble the antelope of the Old World but it is thought to be a classic example of convergent evolution. This is where species develop to inhabit at least two separate places in the world but which share features and behaviors which mean they may resemble each other despite no shared ancestry. To the untrained eye, their appearance would suggest that they are related species even when they are not.

Think of the wing.  Birds and bats both have them but their last shared ancestor did not. Yet the wing developed in two very different species - the same biological trait appearing in unrelated lineages. So it is with the pronghorn – the demands of its habitat meant that it developed features very similar to the Old World antelope despite having no relation to it in terms of ancestry.

The lone member of its family, the Antilocapridae, the closest relativeof the pronghorn is in fact the giraffids family, which itself now contains only two species, the okapi and giraffe. Yet they do resemble the bovids (to which the antelope belongs) much more than the giraffe. This is because on the plains of North America they filled a niche similar to that of the bovids that evolved in the Old World. They were highly successful too and for a million years there were more than a dozen species in the family. Then we arrived.

Though in decline in terms of the number of different species, when humans entered the New World there were still five antilocaprid species on the Great Plains. The pronghorn (or to give it its scientific name, Antilocapra americana which means American goat-antelope) is now all that remains (with a number of sub-species). Yet how lucky we are to have this remnant of a once thriving family of mammals among us!  The fastest animal in the western hemisphere, the pronghorn is quite remarkable.

Its speed and its astonishing eyesight are features which have adapted to suit life on the prairie. First the eyes – the lack of trees on the prairie for cover meant that it had to be able to spot its predators, today the wolf, bobcat, eagle and the coyote, from a great distance. This lack of cover also means that when it spots danger, it has to be able to leg it as quickly as possible.

And boy can it run! It can gallop away from danger at an incredible 60 miles per hour and is able to sustain 30 miles an hour longer than any other animal on the planet. Unlike that other speedy mammal, the cheetah, which tires after a couple of hundred meters, the Pronghorn can sustain speed over a long distance. It is unlikely a modern cheetah would ever catch a pronghorn, unless by stealth and surprise.

 It is thought that this amazing speed evolved as a defense against a number of species which are  now extinct, rather than those which still try their luck with this most speedy of species.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the extinct predator which scientists believe encouraged this adaptation is the long departed American cheetah (left).

The pronghorn also has evolved quite an unusual technique to pass on the message to the others in the herd that danger is approaching.  It flares out the white hairs on its rump when it is scared and this serves as a warning to the others. When it gives birth (more often than not to twins) this is the time at which it is most susceptible to predators. However, it has a defense here too.  When they are born the young pronghorn do not have an odor. They remain motionless on the prairie floor for hours until they have the strength to move at speed.

Its extremely large lungs and heart as well as the fact that it has hollow hair allow great speeds to be attained. Yet the pronghorn is a poor jumper and this has meant that their ranges have been affected by ranchers’ fences. They also try to run under these barbed fences at great speed which can have unfortunate consequence for the animal. As such, ranchers are now encouraged to use barbless metal for the bottom wire. At one point along its length the migratory passage has been reduced to a mere one hundred meters in width so allowing these animals greater access to the prairie has become a real political issue.

As a migratory animal the barbed wire has proven a major obstacle to the pronghorn even though there are widespread measures being taken to ensure that it can migrate without hazard from humans. It is unfortunate for this animal that although the pronghorn eats many plants that sheep and cattle find unpalatable there is competition for food which has disinclined some ranchers to aid its plight.

The pronghorn was, until the 1920s, heading the way of the dinosaur, due to hunting. Its numbers were reduced to around ten thousand yet then the progressive habitat and hunting laws of the National Park System (introduced in 1916, just in time) came in, the species was able to recover. Although there is no completely accurate number it is thought that there are now up to a million pronghorn in the United States (yet three sub-species remain critically endangered).

Conservation measures mean that the future of the pronghorn is ensured, despite the fencing issue. It can only be hoped that this unique and remarkable species will continue to populate the Great Plains for another million years.

Amung Feedjit