Whale watching responsible tourism

Responsible whale watching


Say no to Orca circuses
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We believe it is wrong to keep whales and dolphins in captivity for public entertainment purposes.

Across the globe, these highly intelligent, social animals live in small tanks and are trained to perform tricks for tourists' amusement every day.

It is now widely believed here in the UK that using lions, elephants and other wild animals in circuses is morally unacceptable. We think that it's time the tide turned for captive whales and dolphins too.

Please help spread the word. The argument is simple. It's time to stop this orca circus.

Whale watching in the wild

Travel right when whale watching

Can watching and swimming with whales ever be ethical?

If you haven't seen the 1992 film Whale Rider, it's a must. As well as portraying the thought provoking mythology of the Maori people and their connection with whales, it is a film about leadership. And it is fine leadership that makes the difference between responsible whale watching and dodgy, dollar-driven day trips. When you have a skipper at the helm whose eyes light up when he or she talks about cetaceans and conservation, then you know you are in good hands. A good leader will persuade tourists to shelve their bucket list attitude and just watch and listen; to breathe in the magnificence of these creatures in a way that protects and respects them. Here are a few pointers to help you find that leader figure in advance, rather than just jumping on board with any old Jonah. They will also, hopefully, help you have one of the most memorable experiences of your life.

Responsible tourism tips


  • Find a responsible tour operator for your trip. A good starting point is conservation rather than tourism when doing your research. Responsible Travel has spent a lot of time screening all the tour providers listed on our site, and has transparent responsible travel policies. We also publish unedited, warts-and-all reviews of our guests' experiences - which frequently include conservation issues.
  • responsibletravel.com has also worked closely, for many years, with the Born Free Foundation, as well as the World Cetacean Alliance. The latter is a global partnership which was formed to protect the world's cetaceans from a plethora of threats. Read about the gamut of businesses and individuals, charities and conservationists, working together to save the whale. This is THE portal to the people who really get whales, as opposed to just getting business out of whales.
  • Remember: just as we are encountering the animals in the wild, so they are encountering us. We are in their territory, and these highly intelligent animals are studying us at the same time. It's a two way process, with a lot of fascinating interaction going on in the wild. This is what often brings people to tears when they come eye to eye with a dolphin or whale. It is an intense interaction.
  • A good quality and responsible whale watching trip will have an expert guide on board. This may be the skipper in some cases, but whoever it is, the focus of the trip should be on education rather than sensation. A responsible company will have details of guides on their website, their experience and qualifications. It will also have a responsible whale watching policy of some sort, with all of the following basics being adhered to.
  • It is important to support whale watching in the wild because the only other alternative is to watch them in captivity, which we at responsibletravel.com do not support in any way. However, by catering for the growing number of people who are starting to get to grips with the impacts of cetaceans in captivity, we are going to crowd out the whales in the wild. Which is why it is even more important to watch them in a very well managed destination.
  • A good nature and environmentally aware guide will give a detailed talk before the trip as well as during. They should create a vivid understanding of the truly wild nature of the creatures you are hoping to see, and have a good scientific knowledge of species and their respective behavioural patterns. Alternatively, your skipper may already be an expert in the field.
  • Operators that replace guides with a pre-recorded are only interested in cutting costs rather than caring for cetaceans. They might charge less for their service, but for a once in a lifetime experience, do you really want the no frills-no fairness experience?
  • Be wary of false flags. Some whale watching operators stick a load of eco flags on their website, showing a plethora of affiliations. However, it can happen that these organisations no longer exist due to lack of funding, or lack of interest. So follow up with the flags by having a quick look at their Facebook or other social media page just to check that they aren't being 'flown' for cynical purposes. Sadly there is still no global accreditation scheme, but watch this space, as this is a dynamic area in tourism.
  • Your skipper should always approach whales slowly and sideways, never from the front or rear and they should never cross the path of a whale. If there is a second boat, they should follow behind the first boat, never having the dolphins or whales in between them. This is called corralling and cetaceans don't like that. There is also a practice known as 'leap frogging' whereby the boat can speed up a little to overtake the whales and then let the whales catch up with them, so that they have to pass the boat. This is frowned upon by many experts as it involves revving engines and distracting the animals.
Geoff and Susanne Magee, Dolphinwatch, Carrigaholt, Ireland: "Watching any animals is about common sense and compassion. Whales and dolphins should be seen as part of the bigger picture and ecosystem, not just a trophy or a box to tick, and a good skipper can convey that. Sadly, bad skippers can get around Codes of Conduct - they work within them technically but not with the spirit of the Codes themselves. Patience usually yields a good encounter and the skipper should imbue that patience to the passengers so that they aren't expecting a circus. This is why it is important to always read traveler reviews of whale watching operators, to see if there are consistent comments on skippers being responsible. Even if an operator appears on a responsible website, it may be because they paid to appear on it and does not guarantee that they are sticking to the rules. Many of them do, but it is not a guarantee."
  • Boats should always slow right down when whales are spotted and the general guidelines are that you should never spend more than twenty minutes with cetaceans. The fact is that when boats are always precautionary, they are most likely to get the best encounters. Whales are intelligent, they know the boats and understand when an encounter is on their terms. This makes the animals relaxed, which is when they start to interact, and do all the amazing behaviours we love to see.
Dylan Walker, Planet Whale: "Whale watching is growing at an alarming rate in some parts of the world and needs to be managed carefully to provide the best customer experience and minimise impact on the whales. Most tourists have no idea that there are issues associated with watching whales in the wild, as it is difficult to know when a whale is under stress if you aren't an expert. But when done well, whale watching is also a tremendous force for good. It should be about having a mind-blowing experience, and for those who get it right it can be life-changing. There are only a small number of companies really providing a quality, first class experience. The leaders in the field are the whale watching destinations that are thinking beyond competition, such as Madeira, where the whale watching companies all work closely together, following the national park's whale watching guidelines. Often guidelines are simply imposed, but on Madeira, the park was wise to consult with the people doing the whale watching, not just scientists. This empowered all the operators and created a tight knit network and, therefore, a better experience for everyone."
  • A pod or group of cetaceans must never be split by a boat, and nor must they ever be crowded out or encircled. If there is already a boat or two near a group of whales, then a responsible operator will turn away, not steer into it. You may feel desperate to get the Facebook photo of the day, but let it go and put your trust in the skipper. A good skipper will go in search of another group of whales if there are already two boats with one group of whales. So if you read the reviews and see that there are many operators in one patch, it is time to become a little whale wary and go elsewhere.
  • It seems obvious, but whales should never be fed. You do not want to perturb their natural feeding habits, which may cause big problems in the long run.
  • If anyone suggests whale watching on a jet ski, just say no. In fact when it comes to protecting the marine environment generally, always say no to jet skis.
  • One of the best things you can do is report any bad practice on the part of whale watching operators. In many countries the whale watching Codes of Conduct go unpoliced, so sometimes it is only the passengers who can be the enforcers. You don't have to have a degree in marine biology to realise that a skipper is not doing what he should be doing. There are so many ways and means now of spreading good and bad words, using Tripadvisor, social media, and so on - but if you can name and shame to leading conservationists in the country, this will have more impact. And, if possible, take photos as proof of bad practice.

Watching whales on land

The growing trend for land-based whale watching (and this does not mean watching them in a tank in captivity, horrors of horrors) is taking off big time in South Africa, Hawaii, Scotland and Norway. Land-based whale watching is so much less invasive not only in terms of human contact but also from diesel and other pollutants. They are also a dream for anyone who suffers from motion sickness. In the Azores special lookout towers called 'vigias' exist that were built to assist whaling boats back in the day. Now they are used for tourism purposes and you can climb some of them to try your luck.

One of the most popular places is Hermanus in South Africa which has become famous for its land based whale watching between June and December, when southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to these warmer waters. The town even has a 'whale crier' to let people know what sightings are to be had.

Book by Tim StentonTim Stenton, wildlife photographer and author Moray Firth Dolphins: "In some locations for example Moray Firth, Scotland and Monkey Mia, Western Australia there are excellent land based opportunities. Other than the impacts of getting to the locations, land based will always have a lower environmental footprint - both in terms of CO2 emissions and impact on the animals than boat based watching. It is also cheaper, more suitable for younger children with no risk of being seasick."
  • Be wary of peak season fallout. A particular operator might have great reviews and a top record for responsible practices but, when the tourists are flooding in, they may have to put a less experienced skipper behind the wheel who does not adhere to the normal best practices. So, if you know of an excellent skipper by name, make endeavour to get him or her behind the wheel for your trip or at least check out the credentials of their replacement.

From whaling to whale watching

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) was originally formed to regulate commercial whaling, but since the global moratorium on whaling was put in place in 1986, the IWCs role has broadened to include the coordination of global efforts to research threats to cetaceans, including habitat degradation and entanglement in nets. They also research the impact of whale watching on whales, and have compiled in-depth information about best practices, and are a font of information on the subject, ensuring guidelines are available to operators and national regulators, who are ultimately responsible for the management of whale watching in their countries.

However, even though there are guidelines and codes of practice, there is very little policing or control. Blanket codes of conduct are ineffective. It is purely good, compassionate and ethical practice that makes a good responsible whale watching adventure the best thing in the world for animals and people alike.

Kate Wilson, IWC: "One key bit of information that helps customers identify responsible, sustainable operators is whether they adhere to safe approach distances. Of course this is hard to judge when youre out on the water, but many national regulations include maximum approach distances and you might expect to see these referred to in promotional literature for responsible operators."

Swimming with whales

Many countries or regions within countries, such as European Special Areas of Conservation, have laws about not swimming with whales, and if the country you are visiting hasn't put this in place yet, then you should only swim with an operator that is experienced in swimming with cetaceans and that has an excellent record for doing so responsibly. One good example is in Tonga where you swim with a team of conservationists and marine biologists who know their stuff. Your movements while in the water should be smooth, you must never touch the whales and stay completely clear of mothers and calves. A good operator will spot the calves well in advance. Scuba diving is a no-no, as whales feel under threat from the air bubbles in the water. Responsible swimming companies also have strict swimming guidelines, such as holding on to a line attached to the boat, not swimming toward the whales and no flash photography.
Photo credits: [Too close: marc uhlig] [On land: Brian Snelson] [Taking photos: Luca Nebuloni] [Swimming: "Mike" Michael L. Baird, flickr.bairdphotos.com]
Written by Catherine Mack
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