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Responsible whale-watching holidays

Posted by Richard Hammond at 11:41 on Saturday 15 May 2010

One of the best places in Europe to spot cetacea is the Bay of Biscay.Photo: Brittany FerriesOne of the best places in Europe to spot cetacea is the Bay of Biscay.Photo: Brittany Ferries

Whale watching is big business. Last year, 13 million people went on a whale-watching holidays, spending more than US2$billion. But what effect is the incredible growth of the industry having on the whales themselves? asks Richard Hammond

Sitting in a boat within a belly flop of a forty-tonne animal is what whale-watching is all about. If you’re lucky, you may see one breach the water, flip its tail-fluke over in a sweeping arc, and slap it back down with a crashing thump. It’s a mesmerising sight, and one that has become one of the must-do nature watching experiences.

Whale-watching is now big business. According to a report published in 2009 by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the roots of commercial whale-watching, which it defines as viewing all cetacean species, including whales, dolphins and porpoises (though not whale sharks or basking sharks) can be traced back to the southern California coast in 1955. Since then, the number of whale watchers worldwide has grown remarkably – up to 4 million by 1991, 9 million in 1998, and in 2009, a whopping 13 million people went on a whale-watching trip, spending US$2.1 billion in 119 countries, with growth highest in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and South America. Worldwide, 3,300 operators offering the chance to see whales from the comfort of a luxury cruise and glass-bottomed boats to closer encounters on board high speed RIBs and kayaks. In some of the most popular places, whale watching is a core component of the country’s overall income from tourism. One in every eight visitors to Iceland go whale watching, a business that attracts annually more than 100,000 people and is now worth nearly $17 million a year.

Enormous popularity
However, the enormous popularity in whale-watching has led to concerns over the welfare of these magnificent creatures, not least because nearly a quarter of all whale and dolphin species are in the ‘threatened’ species category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) reports that recent findings offer a “cautionary tale” about the effect whale-watching can have on the animal’s physical condition, reproductive rates, distribution and habitat. Vanessa Williams-Grey, Responsible Whale Watching programme manager of WDCS says “The most serious problems exist in areas where vessel density is highest; or where a small or vulnerable cetacean population is repeatedly targeted by multiple vessels; or where the geography of the area means that the targeted cetacean population – usually a coastal or near-shore species - is literally fenced in by a small bay or cove and thus cannot escape unwanted vessel attention.”

An example of the kind of pressure put on whales given by Williams-Grey is on the southern resident orca population of Washington State, USA whose population numbers only 88 yet during the high season she says researchers counted 126 vessels trailing the beleaguered animals for up to twelve hours at a time. According to Williams-Grey, “recent research specific to the southern resident orcas has shown that vessel presence causes these animals to adopt more erratic swimming paths and reduces the time they spend feeding”.

A study of bottlenose dolphins living off the coast of Zanzibar that was published in March in the academic journal Endangered Species Research, reported that “the many tourist boats operating in the area are harassing the animals, preventing them from resting, feeding and nurturing their young”.

“Overall, the dolphins are using more energy than they are taking in because they aren’t resting or feeding as much but are swimming more as they try to avoid the tourist boats,”

The report was led by Dr Per Berggren of Newcastle University, who explained: "The current situation in Zanzibar is unsustainable. The local community is dependent on tourism - and therefore the dolphins - but unless the activity is regulated the animals will leave.”

Responsible whale-watching
So how can you go whale-watching responsibly? Colin Steedie, a former whale-watching skipper and now Director of Wildlife Safe (WiSe) – a UK-based training and accreditation scheme for marine operators – says “I would recommend anyone who is going on a whale-watching holiday anywhere in the world to do your homework first. You should look for countries where whale-watching is at least well-regulated… and secondly, you should look for those trips where there is a resident naturalist onboard, which you’ll find in countries such as Iceland, New Zealand, the United States, which implies a commitment towards passing on knowledge that is worth quite a lot to research organisations.”

Unfortunately there is no international regulation for whale-watching, though WDCS’s Vanessa Williams-Grey says that in some areas there are voluntary codes of conduct as well as operator training and accreditation schemes, such as the Dolphin Space Programme in Scotland’s Moray Firth (www.dolphinspace.org), Dolphin SMART in the Florida area, and a sister programme, Whale SENSE in New England www.whalesense.org. WDCS is currently campaigning for adequate monitoring and enforcement provisions in each whale-watching region, and has drawn up a list of criteria that it believes should be adhered to, including minimum approach distances, stipulations on speed, angle of approach, how long the vessel may spend in the vicinity of whales, and specific advice relating to whether vessels may approach females with calves, as well as offering licenses to a limited number of vessels in line with the optimum “carrying capacity” of the region. WDCS also recommends a ‘one third rule’ whereby one third of every whale watch area, and one third of daylight hours be kept free of whale watching activity. Williams-Grey says this is a rule of thumb, “but the aim is to give the animals much needed ‘time out’ from vessel presence”.

Though WDCS is campaigning for better regulation, it remains committed to encouraging whale watching because of the valuable contribution it makes to conservation. In a study WDCS carried out in 2008, it found that “increased empathy and support for whales can result from encountering whales in the wild in tandem with onboard educational commentary from a trained naturalist guide. Many people report that the experience of viewing whales and dolphins in the wild is invigorating, awe-inspiring - even life-changing”.

It’s a sentiment with which the IFAW report agrees, concluding: “with its educational, scientific and community‐based economic benefits — [whale-watching] remains largely a positive force for conservation. People must come to know the animals if they are truly to care for them and about them. An economic incentive helps make that happen.”

See also: Five best conservation-based whale-watching holidays

This article, by Richard Hammond, was first published in the May issue of Geographical magazine, available in WHSmith and many independent newsagents. Subscribe online or order your copy by calling +44 (0)1795 414 881.

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