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Posts from the ‘Whale Watching Guidelines’ category

It’s not a show . . .

I wrote the following in my role with the Marine Education and Research Society to accompany the graphic below. Our efforts include workshops on Marine Mammal Regulations and the ethics of imagery and language used by mainstream and social media.

It is so jarring and unfortunate when wildlife encounters are described with language like “the whales put on a show for us”. No, they didn’t.

How I hope my words resound with you.

“It’s not a show.

Wildlife does not perform for humans.
Whales do not “put on a show” for us.

Words matter.
Words reflect, and perpetuate, our values and actions.

Thankfully, society has come a long way in understanding our connection to the natural world.

May our words reflect that we know the privilege of observing wild animals, living wild lives.

Not “for us”.
Not “up close and personal”.

Rather, may we value most that what we observe in the wild happens . . . as if we weren’t there.”

The graphic is available as a sticker or card at our MERS Ocean Store. The card includes the above text.
All sales support our research and education efforts.

Illustration made by friend Dawn Dudek based on a photo I took of Humpback Whale Inukshuk (BCZ0339) while conducting research for the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) under Marine Mammal License MML-57.

Related posts:
Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

To Think Before We Click

To Think Before We Click

Dear Readers,
You are likely already aligned with the ethics and considerations I address in this blog.  I am posting these words and photos to provoke even greater thinking about the ethics of wildlife photography. I do NOT wish to vilify. I wish for this to be a resource.


It is needed because we live in a time when almost all of us:
  • Have a camera at the ready; and
  • Are influenced, and/or are influencing a world fuelled by “likes” and number of followers. The impact of this is so potent, right to the level of our brain wiring and biochemistry.

There is disconnect from Nature for many people that amplifies the taking from, disconnect, and disrespect of the life we share the planet with. Further (deep sigh), often media outlets reward bad photographer behaviour by using close encounters as “click bait” to get more hits on their pages whereby more advertising dollars might be gained.

See background on this photo below. On the left is the 5 m pectoral fin of a Humpback Whale. 

In this relatively new human reality, it is so important to consider the “story” behind the photo. What was the cost to wildlife in terms of disturbance, habituation, perpetuating that others too want to get too close for a photo and, thereby, furthering the vortex?
This is what should be considered before the click . . be it clicking a camera button or a like or share on social media.
For consideration is what it being encouraged and perpetuated; the impact; the cumulative effects of others doing the same; the cost of wild animals being habituated to humans. It never ends well. It has led to the death of wildlife. It has led to the death of photographers. Of course it has.

And yes, I do very much try to hold myself to these standards and am absolutely not without impact and mistakes. I flash big lights at life below the surface. My fins sometimes touch the Ocean bottom, disturbing life. There is almost always fossil fuel use and/or Ocean noise invested in my being able to take photographs. Is there a net gain in terms of education / conservation . . . it’s the question we should all be asking.

To think before we click.

Stories behind the photos (I have chosen to blur out faces):


The two photos above are by Kipp White.  Backstory from Kipp: “The herd was resting in the woods behind the Visitors Center in Cherokee [North Carolina]. One of the cows got up and moved to the river. She started calling for the rest of them. Slowly the rest of the herd got up and started moving towards the water. I told everyone they should move back. They were between the herd and the water. No one listened. Then the bull started moving closer to the people and everyone was trying to get a good picture of him. Once again I warned the people saying “He has already charged at two people this morning, y’all might want to back up”. Then I said it one more time. Nobody listened. Next as you can see, he charged this lady. I talked to her afterwards and she said she was OK”

Conservation photographer and journalist Jared Lloyd Photography provided the following comment about these photos: “I’ve seen so many near misses. And have even had to intervene and charge a bull elk once to save someone’s life. This is why we learn behavior. This is why we need to understand what animals are trying to say to us. This is why we use long lenses . . .”

Mature male Steller Sea Lion photo by Jan de Bree. Location was Cowichan Bay. This violation of Marine Mammal Regulations has been reported to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Yes, the angle from which the photo was taken could influence how distance is perceived. But, by no stretch of any imagination, is this is 100 m.

The two photos above of boaters taking photos with cell phones near an acrobatic Humpback Whale were taken near Campbell River. The photographer wishes to remain anonymous. These are older images where the previous photos are all from October, 2020. Here too the camera angle could influence how close this looks but again, this is NOT 100 m and it IS boater responsibility to know the Marine Mammal Regulations. It is of great value to report violations to increase education, enforcement and legal action. In British Columbia, the DFO Incident Reporting Line is 1-800-465-4336. Video is of even greater value than photographs as evidence of intent, who was driving, etc.

Video below showing a mature male California Sea Lion habituated to being fed who grabbed a girl and pulled her into the water in May 2017 in Steveston, British Columbia. Those striving to sell fish at the dock encouraged feeding the sea lions in order to attract people for fish sales. You’ll note that the sea lion gives warning signs. Feeding marine wildlife is solidly against Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations.Video ©Michael Fujiwara.

  • Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations and best practices re. marine mammal viewing –
  • Associated blog re. considerations in choosing ethical marine wildlife viewing companies, please see “Not Up Close and Personal” at this link 
  • Video of a presentation done by yours truly regarding boaters and marine mammals, addresses Canadian laws. Done in my role with the Marine Education & Research Society. Please request access to “Boaters and Marine Mammals” at this link. We are using a system of having people fill in a form to request access so we have a better idea of how the resource might be of us.

Video below is from January 1st, 2021 in Grant Teton National Park, Wyoming.

For detail and a longer video of this incident, see the article: “Idiots Taking Photos of Fighting Moose Attempt to Win First Darwin Award of the Year”


[Note the following is aimed at those with an association with Telegraph Cove, British Columbia. There have been developments whereby I am being asked many questions and have chosen this as a way to answer and to bundle information. If you do not have an association with Telegraph Cove, this blog item may not have interest for you.]

The emotion:

Yes, I am heartbroken.

It’s the heartbreak that comes when decisions made by people you care about, hurt other people you care about.

It’s the hurt that comes from loving a place and the community associated with it.

It’s about an ending that did not need to be.

It’s about whale watching from Telegraph Cove, British Columbia.

I am sharing this information because of the number of questions I am being asked about what happened. I am being seen as a source of information because of my attachment to Telegraph Cove and my involvement with both parties – Telegraph Cove Resorts and Stubbs Island Whale Watching. I believe this necessitates my explaining my association with them.

Also, candidly, the writing of this is also likely to help me process what has happened. I have only recently learned of the developments myself.

My background in Telegraph Cove: 

For almost 20 years, I have been involved with Stubbs Island Whale Watching which has operated out of Telegraph Cove since 1980. Telegraph Cove is a historic boardwalk community on NE Vancouver Island. For many years it has been owned and cared for by Telegraph Cove Resort Ltd.

It was a whale watching trip with Stubbs Island Whale Watching in 1998 that was the catalyst for my returning to British Columbia after having taught in the Netherlands. I wanted to learn from Nature and, having experienced firsthand the understanding that came from the power of seeing whales in the wild, I hoped I could apply my skills as an educator to contribute more directly to conservation.

In 1999, I began as a Naturalist with the company. I became Head Naturalist and, since 2011, I have served as an advisor to the new ownership for issues related to conservation and education. These roles were aimed at helping to make the experience of seeing marine wildlife count for the sake of conservation because  . . . not all whale watching companies are created equal.

The environmental ethics and contributions of Stubbs Island Whale Watching’s founders (Mackays and Borrowmans) were world renown and tied directly to whale research, and their location and use of larger boats meant that noise and fossil fuels could be better managed.

The aim was to enhance and ensure delivery of a program that could maximize meaningful messaging that might help people undertake life changes for the health of the whales (and future generations). The value of the experience, in terms of potential conservation outcomes, had to be so good that it could make the carbon and noise worth it. The aim was to continue the company’s ethics of being anything BUT about “getting up close and personal”. It was to try really hard to make the privileged experience of seeing whales in the wild count, tangibly.

The education delivered on the boats was a big part of this as was my hiring and training the biologists that had the depth of dedication and ethics to carry out this program. It has been such a source of joy to see how these team members have carried the experience of working from Telegraph Cove, and learning from wildlife, into their careers in conservation-related fields.

My being a co-founder of the Marine Education and Research Society is directly linked to Telegraph Cove and Stubbs Island Whale Watching. It was from their boats that we first documented the return of Humpback Whales and, since 2004, they have been our greatest data contributor as well as providing support in many other ways.

The kindness, generosity and support of Telegraph Cove Resort Ltd. has also played a major role in my life regarding diving, education and research. My boat is moored there. I dive from there. My footsteps have stomped on that boardwalk thousands and thousands of times.

Maintaining the historical flavour of Telegraph Cove is clearly a labour of love and the Whale Interpretive Centre (WIC) could not succeed without the involvement and support of Telegraph Cove Resorts. I am a past director, manager and chair of the society behind the WIC and still provide tours there when asked.

I will say it again, there are many people I really care about whose lives are connected to the beautiful place that is, Telegraph Cove.

The facts: 

So what has happened?

Autumn 2018

  • Stubbs Island Whale Watching was put up for sale by the three owners for a variety of personal reasons.

December 2018

  • Telegraph Cove Resorts Ltd. informed Stubbs Island Whale Watching they would not be renewing their lease.

January 22, 2019

  • Telegraph Cove Resorts announces that another whale watching company will now be operating out of Telegraph Cove.
  • Stubbs Island Whale Watching makes an announcement about the repercussions. There is no more Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

The announcements: 

Media release Stubbs Island Whale Watching – January 22, 2019 

Stubbs Island Whale Watching is closing its doors after 38 years

BC’s first whale watching company, Stubbs Island Whale Watching, is
closing its doors after 38 years in business.  Renowned for its dedication
to ethical wildlife viewing, education and conservation, the company has
welcomed nearly half a million visitors to the North Island experience
since it was established in 1980.

The closure comes following an unexpected change in the company’s office
space lease agreement with Telegraph Cove Resort after more than three
decades operating from that location. Our lease agreement will end on
January 31, 2019.  Stubbs Island Whale Watching was put up for sale at the
end of the 2018 season, but we planned to continue operating the company
until a purchaser was found. The changes to the lease agreement came as a

Guests from all over the world come to experience whales in the wild and
the company’s ethical whale viewing practices have been part of what made
us so renowned. Stubbs Island Whale Watching is informing reservations
holders of the change and attempting to shift reservations to Discovery
Marine Safaris in Campbell River, a smaller company owned by one of the
three owners of Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

For information call: 1-250-928-3185.

Thank you for your years of support.

The owners of Stubbs Island Charters Ltd. Heike Wieske, Geord Dunstan, Roger McDonell” 

Telegraph Cove Resort – January 22, 2019

The following is from the January 22nd article in the Campbell River Mirror with quotes from Telegraph Cove Resort.

“Stubbs Island’s announcement today was quickly followed by an announcement by Telegraph Cove Resort that it was teaming up with Victoria-based Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures “to enhance marine wildlife habitat and research while providing greater opportunities for outstanding eco-tourism.”

Resort owners Gordie and Marilyn Graham said they are pleased to welcome one of the province’s “largest and most-respected whale watching and eco-adventure companies” to their recreational seaside haven. The release made no mention of their relationship with Stubbs Island.

“I’ve always been impressed by the Prince of Whales’ work in marine conservation and academic research,” Gordie said. “Their principled approach dovetails perfectly with our continuing efforts to protect marine wildlife while delighting and educating visitors with awe-inspiring experiences in nature.

The Grahams established a campground and marina at Telegraph Cove in 1979, drawing enthusiasts to the great recreational ocean fishing. Over 40 years, their work restoring original buildings for tourist accommodation has brought life back to the former sawmill town. Today, the resort, which can accommodate up to 500 guests, also includes a restaurant and pub, general store, small hotel and Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretative Centre.

One of the last boardwalk settlements left on Vancouver Island, Telegraph Cove attracts thousands of whale watchers, fishermen, boaters, campers and kayakers every year.

As well as building a tourist mecca, 210 km northwest of Campbell River, the Grahams have invested in marine life protection and education, donating more than $150,000 to salmon enhancement projects.

Meanwhile, Stubbs Island Whale Watching is informing reservations holders of the change and attempting to shift reservations to Discovery Marine Safaris in Campbell River, a smaller company owned by one of the three owners of Stubbs Island Whale Watching. Guests looking for information can call: 1-250-928-3185

Stubbs Island Charters Ltd. started whale watching in 1980 out of Telegraph Cove and has worked to establish a reputation as a company that puts the wildlife first. The company supported research and education efforts, providing meaningful education to guests, modeling best practices, and sharing expertise to help build a community now known as the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association. For the past six years it has received a “Certificate of Excellence” from Trip Advisor for its many five-star reviews.”

There you have it.

Any further factual developments will be added to the content here.

My deep empathy to those for whom this news is difficult too.

Onward, facing reality and being guided by what is best for the whales and what they reveal of human value systems and the state of the environment  . . . upon which our lives depend.


Telegraph Cove in 2008. ©Jackie Hildering.

Related blogs:

Not a Show. Not a Breach. Not a Surprise.

There’s another viral video showing a Humpback Whale very close to a boat.

Here it is, posted on YouTube in June of 2017. Since, it has been used as “click bait” by many news outlets with little to no consideration of the impacts of rewarding bad boater behaviour.

Media coverage includes statements like the following:

“Humpback breaches next to boat”. This whale is not breaching. This whale is feeding; using a strategy called “lunge-feeding”.

– “Boaters in the right place at the right time“. No they are not.

“Whale puts on a show for boaters”. Deepest of sighs – whales do not put on shows for humans in the wild. They are carrying out their lives. In this case, a whale is trying to engulf as many small schooling fish as possible. At the time of this video, the spring, whales are particularly hungry. Likely this Humpback is recently back from the breeding grounds where there is little to no food for them.

“Whale surprises boaters”. This cannot have been a complete surprise. As you can see, their cameras were at the ready. This suggests they knew there was at least one whale in the area and likely the whale had already been feeding at the surface. There would also have been a lot of active sea birds as a clue that there was a density of fish in the area, and thereby a much increased chance of whale presence.

[Update: Via various media sources, it is confirmed that the boaters knew the whale was in the area and that they chose to move closer e.g. “Paul Ziolkowski told WABC his family and friends had been fishing for a couple of hours . . . . and saw the whale a couple of times. The whale was about 60 yards away when they decided to move a little closer to get a better view . . . ” Longer versions of the video also show they had a fishing line in the water when doing so which exposes the whale to further risk.]

It can only be hoped that the result of this video going viral leads to increased awareness of how unpredictably Humpbacks can surface; that they can be astoundingly oblivious of boats; and that they really need their space. Toothed whales like Orca have biosonar. So many boaters are not aware that baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have this biosonar. So many are not even aware that Humpback Whales are now very commonly encountered close to our coasts, having made a remarkable and very recent return from the brink of extinction.

For the sake of whale AND boater safety,  please click here for the Marine Education and Research Society’s “See a Blow? Go Slow!” campaign to reduce the risk of collision with whales.

See to reduce risk of collision with whales.


Key points include:


Another deep sigh –  “The Dodo” put the following video into the world  with the text “Whales Surprise Guy on Kayak. This guy had the cutest reaction when whales surprised him up close.”

No. Just no. This too could NOT have been a surprise. The birds are an indicator of the presence of feed and the whales would have surfaced previously, feeding in the area. This is a boater getting in the way of feeding whales and putting himself at risk. This is another case of the media rewarding boater bad behaviour for the sake of views / “click bait”. 

Enough is enough! Your help needed to stop disturbance of marine mammals in Canada

Update July 11, 2018: Amended Marine Mammal Regulations posted at FINALLY, FINALLY they include the following:

    • Disturbance is defined.
      “ Disturb includes to approach the marine mammal to, or to attempt to:
      (a) feed it;
      (b) swim with it or interact with it;
      (c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found . . .
      (e) trap it or its group between a vessel and the shore or between a vessel and one or more other vessels . . .”
    •  In addition to a minimum approach distance of 200m for all Killer Whales in BC and the Pacific Ocean, there is a 100m general distance for all marine mammals. However, the distance must be 200m if a whale, dolphin or porpoise is resting or with its calf.
    • Mandatory reporting of collisions and accidental contact between marine mammals and vessels or fishing gear.

Original post form May 2017:
You’ve seen it haven’t you, the video of the little girl getting pulled into the water by a sea lion habituated to people feeding him?


And  . . . you’re likely baffled and outraged that there has been no penalization for those humans misguided enough to cause this habituation?

Please then, while there is so much public attention on this “incident” and the limits of the current Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations, let’s make it count.

Let’s ensure that the amendments that would much improve these regulations are FINALLY passed into law. It will take less than 5 minutes of your time to help, I promise. But I need to provide a bit of background to maximize our chances of succeeding. If you are already aware of the limitations, click here to go directly to “This Is How We Create Change”.

The Problem:
Currently, the Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act (Section 7) state “No person shall disturb a marine mammal  . . .” but there is no definition of disturbance. Thereby, there are significant limitations to prosecuting people whose behaviour puts marine mammals at risk e.g. an expert witness is needed to testify that a marine mammal was indeed “disturbed”.  

KW_2016-09-08_JH_Wastell Islands-12598

Vessel under power and almost on top of a member of the A30 matriline of Northern Residents (Threatened population). Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

The Solution:
The solution has been available since 2004 but has yet to be entered into law by the Federal Government.  That’s right, 13 years ago, the “Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations” were drafted. I was part of the process. They have twice gone through a public review process and still  . . . no action.

They are incredibly solid and will allow for b
etter prevention, enforcement and understanding of threats to Canada’s marine mammals because they: 

  • Define “disturbance” as “approaching the marine mammal to (a) feed it; (b) swim with it or otherwise interact with it; (c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found; or (d) tag or mark it.”
  • Specify minimum approach distances to marine mammals for boats and aircraft e.g. that boats must stay at minimum of 100m away.
  • Require reporting to DFO of any accidental contact with a marine mammal (e.g. entanglement or collision).

These regulations would of course also reduce risk to humans e.g. the girl being pulled into the water by a habituated sea lion and injury to boaters as a result of colliding with a whale.

Vessel at high speed near Northern Resident Orca (Threatened population). Did not slow down while clearly aware of the whale’s presence, and presumably, the potential of other whales being in the area. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Here’s How We Make Change

Please, contact your Member of Parliament and insist upon these regulations being passed into law. 

You can find their contact information by clicking this link.

In case it is of help, here is sample text that could be used:

“I am aware of the limitations of the current Marine Mammal Regulations and that, for more than a decade, amendments have existed that would much improve the protection of Canada’s marine mammals (many of which are at risk). It is unacceptable that the Federal Government has yet to pass these into law. Thereby, I ask you, as my Member of Parliament, to urgently undertake action to enable the “Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations” to come into force. If further background is needed to understand why there is such urgency, see this link”

Please also share this information so that more will contact their MPs.

How’s this for astoundingly misguided behaviour? Boats are to remain at least 100m away from seal and sea lion haulouts and rookeries. Steller Sea Lions are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Male California Sea Lion being hand fed. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

HW_2016-09-29_JH_White Cliffs-13974

Boat at high speed in proximity of Humpback Whales “Slash” (BCY0177) and her 2016 calf (on left). Collision is a serious risk for whales AND boaters. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

A video went into the world on May 20th, 2017 entitled “Killer Sea lion drags girl into Steveston waters” (Steveston, British Columbia). When it was brought to my attention, I posted the following on social media:

“NOT a “Killer Sea Lion”. Rather – misguided humans. Please help educate around why a mature male California Sea Lion grabbed a child that was allowed within a metre of him. This is absolutely not natural behaviour. THIS is indisputably a sea lion that has been fed and habituated to humans. This is predictable. By humans not respecting the wild, the wild loses wariness, associates humans with food (or some other “reward”), and most often . . . loses entirely. THIS is yet another reason why the amendments to the marine mammal regulations should finally be passed by our government. They define “disturbance” and enter into law . . . no feeding, no swimming with, no touching, stay 100m away, etc (they have been drafted since 2004!).  Please, if you witness marine mammal distress or disturbance (includes feeding) call the Incident Reporting Line 1-800-465-4336.” 

The resounding response of outrage to the incident is what has led to my believing that we can make this count; that we can ride this wave of awareness to have the amended regulations passed.

Thank you so much for caring as you do and helping to ensure the protection of Canada’s marine mammals.

For best practices to avoid disturbance of marine mammals see

Close passes like this contribute to habitation; animals losing their wariness; and the disruption of life processes like feeding, nursing and resting. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

Click here to jump to the summary of points to consider in making the best choice for a whale-watching company.

This blog is catalyzed by advertisements for whale watching that I perceive to be extremely exploitive of whales, suggesting high adrenaline “up-close-and-personal” encounters.

The problem with such marketing, where boats are in very close proximity with whales, is threefold:

1. It feeds consumer demand for a whale watching experience that is not good for the whales. Close boats (including kayaks) have greater potential for stressing whales; disturbing whales’ natural behaviour; and increasing habituation to vessels whereby risks such as vessel strike are increased. These potential effects have been proven through scientific peer-reviewed research (see references below).

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with new born calves. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with newborn calves. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

2. It creates false expectations and miseducates people. There are Marine Mammal Regulations and guidelines for respectful, legal and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits (200m for Orca and 100m for other cetaceans). However, if people see advertising promoting close interactions between boats and whales, they may believe this is what is to be expected on their tour. Thereby, companies who choose to use this marketing approach are creating increased pressure on whale watching boat operators to fulfill these expectations. And note, it is NOT okay to position your boat in order to “have the whales come to us.”

There will be those who succumb to such pressure, and who will conduct their vessel in a way that violates the regulations and thus creates greater disturbance for the animals. I solidly believe that the average consumer wishes to marvel at whales in the wild in a way that is as benign and natural as possible. Were they to know the potential impacts of close encounters or that the company they had chosen was “blurring” what is right, it would very much taint the experience for them.

Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

3. It creates a “marketplace” where other companies with more solid ethics face the dilemma of how to counteract such advertising and aid consumers in making a better choice. Sometimes, unexpectedly whales do surface within the viewing distance limits but to promote this feeds the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster.
In order to solve this dilemma and counteract the above two points as well, there are whale watching associations where operators have agreed not to show their boats in close proximity to whales.

Resting line of the A12 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of the A12 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


Granted, we’ve come a long, long way.  Public attitude towards whales has changed drastically. We’re not shooting whales anymore and we’re not putting them in captivity. Whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967 and the live capture of orca only ended in 1973/74 (thank you Dr. Michael Bigg).

Now, thankfully, our values and knowledge have largely evolved to where we respect whales as sentient, social, intelligent animals with culture.

So how to make a good choice?

How to choose a whale watching experience that has the least impact on the environment with the greatest potential for learning and conservation?   How to navigate the sea of choice when confronted with the vast array of variables such as location, vessel type, crew, and advertising strategies?

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering


Know that the great truth is that the best possible experience is that your viewing of wildlife happens as if you were not there.

The ideal would be to watch cetaceans from land with interpretation from a knowledgeable guide but there are very few places where whales pass by with predictability.

Going out in a private motorized vessel is also an option but most often means a larger noise and fossil fuel footprint per person and not having the many benefits of knowledgeable crew who can educate and operate the vessel in a way that is more benign. Data collected by the Cetus Research and Conservation Society supports that it is by far more often the case that recreational boaters violate the guidelines / regulations than do commercial whale watch operators.

See the little fin at the far left? That is "Cutter" (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother "Clio" (A50). Sibling "Bend" (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering.

See the little fin at the far left? That is “Cutter” (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother “Blinkhorn” (A54). Sibling “Bend” (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. A30 matriline of “Northern Residents (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


Of course, it would help consumers and marine wildlife greatly if there were a effective system in place that guarded high standards of operation and that sufficient resources were made available for effective monitoring, education and enforcement of boaters around marine wildlife. Sadly, these resources are not available whereby consumer awareness and operator ethics become all the more important, as does reporting violations to the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.


So, here we go . . .

Summary of points for consideration in making a whale watching choice that is better for the whales and environmental sustainability in general.

1. Location:

How close is the vessel departure point from the area where whales are likely to be i.e. how long and how fast will you need to travel? This affects how large your fossil fuel and noise footprint will be.

2. Crew:

How much successful experience and training and what qualifications does the crew have in:

  • Operating vessels around whales?
  • Providing science-based information that would make whale-watching count for the sake of inspiring greater conservation efforts rather than just be about opportunities for photography?

3. Vessel Related:

  • Does the vessel type allow for effective delivery of educational information?
  • How large is the vessel?  This is highly relevant in determining the noise and fossil fuel footprint per person as is the fuel efficiency of the vessel and the engine type.
  • Usually more difficult to determine unless specified on the company’s website: Is the engine of a design where noise is reduced? Do operators shut off the engine whenever possible?

4. Ethics and Approach:

Does the company:

  • Have a holistic and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability e.g. noise reduction measures, avoiding disposable goods, use of organic, energy-efficient, and biodegradable products, etc?
  • Contribute to marine conservation and research efforts e.g. sightings data being relayed to research initiatives, financial or in-kind support, etc.
  • Use language and images, in advertising and social media, that are respectful of the marine wildlife and the guidelines for viewing them? This includes NOT including imagery that feeds the “up-close-and-personal” monster. 

Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water before her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering

Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. The splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water, learning to hunt alongside her. The splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


My life radically changed after going on just one whale-watching trip many years ago. I certainly know how profoundly transformative and powerful an experience it can be.

When done right, ensuring guidelines / regulations are adhered to and solid conservation messaging is shared, whale-watching guests are able to have the best possible experience. An experience that is benign and respectful can lead to greater caring; a sense of connection to the animals and the life-sustaining ocean for which they are ambassadors; and the inspiration to undertake action that is better for the environment (and therefore, ourselves).

Consumers have very significant power to shape how whale watching is conducted. By supporting companies striving to operate in a way that is best for the whales and the environment at large, you are not feeding the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. The resulting reward is to know that your experience will be as wild as can be – best for you, best for the whales and best in not rewarding those who compromise their ethics and the privilege of being a conduit for people to experience the raw beauty of seeing whales in the wild, where they belong.

So please, consider the above points and take particular notice of whale watching companies’ advertisements.  Choosing a company whose marketing reflects respectful whale watching is the first step to ensuring your experience will be as good as you want it to be.

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.


If you witness an incident of concern regarding marine life, please call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.

Resting line of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.