Guide to Organizing an Ethical Whale-Watching Tour

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Responsible Whale-Watching

This guide is brought to you by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

The mesmerizing sight of a whale’s tail disappearing beneath the waves, the lingering mist from a blowhole on the horizon, or the vast silhouette of a whale gliding past a ship — the allure of whale-watching is undeniable.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t necessarily have to travel far and wide to witness these magnificent creatures. For instance, Orcas can be spotted as nearby as the Shetland Islands, as portrayed in Sir David Attenborough’s Wild Isles series on BBC One. Moreover, humpback whale sightings, which used to be a rare occurrence in UK waters, have risen in number, with over 75 reported by Cornwall Wildlife Trust since 2019. Earlier this year, a humpback whale was sighted off the coast of Kent.

The demand for whale-watching has skyrocketed globally, turning it into a multi-billion-pound industry. However, not every company prioritizes a responsible approach. Inadequate practices may cause undue stress for the marine mammals, disrupt their feeding routines, separate calves from their mothers, or force them to dive and swim faster than necessary. It might seem challenging to choose a responsible trip, but there are steps you can take to minimize your impact.

Why are regulations a challenge?

The regulations differ due to the varying whale species and coastal communities in different regions. Measures effective in the Azores might not be applicable in Norway. According to Danny Glover, spokesperson for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), a single, globally accepted set of whale-watching guidelines doesn’t exist. In some regions, strict laws govern whale-watching activities, while in others, the responsibility falls on the operators’ discretion. In certain areas, whale-watching is entirely unregulated, which allows irresponsible operators to get their passengers as close as possible to the whales without any restrictions.

Is tourism beneficial for whales?

Despite the issues, tourism isn’t entirely detrimental to whales. At a minimum, whale-watching promotes appreciation for cetaceans and draws attention to severe threats like pollution, vessel collisions, net entanglements, and ocean warming. Often, tour boats serve as the first responders to spotting and reporting incidents and also contribute valuable data. For instance, photographs of humpback whales’ unique tail fluke patterns (akin to human fingerprints) uploaded to the Happywhale app assist researchers in tracking whale migrations. This data has led to the enforcement of speed limits on busy marine pathways, reducing whale-vessel collisions. Moreover, the whale-watching tourism industry has fostered economic shifts from commercial whaling in countries like Iceland, attracting around 350,000 visitors annually and generating €20m (£17m).

What constitutes an ethical tour?

Glover emphasizes that a responsible tour is one that provides an enjoyable, informative, and safe experience for the passengers while ensuring the whales’ well-being. This implies that vessels should approach whales slowly, avoid direct paths, and maintain a minimum distance of 100 metres. Ideally, the trip should include a marine biologist to provide insights into sightings and oversee the animals’ welfare. Tours that encourage swimming with or touching whales should be avoided, as these interactions can stress the animals, according to the WDC.

How to make the right choice?

Resources for good practices are provided by the WDC, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA). You can easily find reviews about whale-watching operators, but certified accreditation may be inconsistent. Try to choose companies operating near marine sanctuaries or Whale Heritage Sites, a global programme run by the WCA. As WCA honorary president Jean-Michel Cousteau states, Whale Heritage Sites represent the global benchmark for responsible whale-watching, and operators within these sites are accredited.

This guide was published in the July/August 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Click here to subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine. (Available in select countries only).

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Responsible Whale-Watching

Can you watch whales in the UK?

Yes, you can indeed watch whales in the UK. For instance, Orcas can be seen as locally as the Shetland Islands. Additionally, the number of humpback sightings in UK waters has increased, with more than 75 recorded by Cornwall Wildlife Trust since 2019.

Why are whale-watching regulations different across regions?

Whale-watching regulations vary because whale species and coastal communities differ from region to region. For example, what works in the Azores may not work in Norway. Thus, there is no single, internationally agreed-upon set of whale-watching guidelines.

Does tourism harm whales?

Tourism can cause stress for whales if not managed responsibly. Poor practices can alter whales’ feeding patterns, separate calves from their mothers, or force them to dive unnecessarily and swim more quickly. However, responsible whale-watching can help nurture love for cetaceans and highlight pressing issues such as pollution and ocean warming.

How can I choose a responsible whale-watching trip?

Choose companies that prioritize the well-being of whales. Good practice suggests vessels should approach whales slowly, never head-on, and maintain a minimum distance of 100 metres. Avoid tours that encourage swimming with or touching whales. Resources for good practices are provided by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA).

What does an ethical whale-watching tour look like?

An ethical tour provides an enjoyable, informative, and safe experience for passengers while ensuring the well-being of whales. It should ideally include a marine biologist to provide insights into sightings and oversee the animals’ welfare. A responsible trip puts the interest and comfort of the whales first.

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5 comments

SarahJ July 19, 2023 - 12:02 am

This is such an informative article. i never knew whale-watching was such a big thing in the UK. will definitely keep these tips in mind if i ever go.

Reply
AmyR July 19, 2023 - 4:04 am

So, tourism can be a good thing for whales, huh? Interesting. Never really thought about it that way.

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James_Carter July 19, 2023 - 5:24 pm

I’m confused about one thing, how do they actually track the whales? Is it like they know where they’ll be at a certain time?

Reply
whalelover101 July 19, 2023 - 7:07 pm

Brilliant piece! As a regular on these trips, I couldn’t agree more with the points raised. We gotta respect these beautiful creatures.

Reply
Steve_B July 19, 2023 - 7:58 pm

Good read! Its important to remember that we’re in their territory, not the other way round. Lets be responsible.

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