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 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 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; 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
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 “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.
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.
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.
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. 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; 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; telephoto and cropped image.
Pacific Harbour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.
- BC Cetacean Sightings Network; Boat Disturbance
- BC Cetacean Sightings Network; Be Whale Wise Guidelines
- Be Whale Wise – New Regulations (USA)
- Canada Gazette, June 2018, Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2009. Management Plan for the Pacific Harbour Porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. v + 49 pp.
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada; 2018; Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) Recovery Strategy (2018). Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa.
- Fisheries and Oceans Canada; 2007; Recovery Strategy for the Transient Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa.
- Holt, M.M, Noren, D.P., Viers, V., Emmons, C.K., Veirs, S. 2009. Speaking up: Killer whales (Orcinus orca) increase their call amplitude in response to vessel noise. Journal of Acoustic Society of America. 125 (1):
- Lachmuth, C., Barrett-Lennard, L.G., Steyn, D.Q., Milsom, W.K. 2011. Estimation of southern resident killer whale exposure to exhaust emissions from whalewatching vessels and potential adverse health effects and toxicity thresholds. Marine Pollution Bulletin 62: 792-805.
- Lusseau, D., Bejder, L. 2007. The long-term consequences of short-term responses to disturbance experiences from whalewatching impact assessment. International Journal of Comparative Psychology 20: 228-236.
- Marine Education and Research Society; See A Blow? Go Slow!
- North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (NIMMSA); The Whale Watch Flag
- Williams, R., Lusseau, D., Hammond, P. 2006 Estimating relative energetic costs of human disturbance to killer whales (Orcinus orca). Biological Conservation 133(3): 301-311.