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A guide to ethical whale tourism in the 21st century

The more we learn about whales, the more fascinating and complex they appear to be. But what role does whale-watching play in their conservation? And what positive practices are destinations employing to protect them?

Published 22 Apr 2021, 09:36 BST
A humpback whale breaches the water. 

Whale-watching fees typically include a donation to a conservation fund, but it's worth doing your research before booking a tour. Some outfits also contribute to scientific research: crews and guests add ID photos to a database, expanding knowledge of whale populations and their movements.

Photograph by Getty Images

Sperm whales survive on their wits. According to a recent study by researchers from Nova Scotia, California and Scotland, they’re both adaptable and collaborative. Delving into the logbooks of 19th-century North Pacific whale hunters, the team discovered that once the whalers’ onslaught began, sperm whales quickly switched from forming protective huddles around their young — their instinctive response when threatened by predatory orcas — to fleeing at speed while sending danger signals to pods yet to be attacked. The strategy worked, halving the whalers’ hit rate within a few years.

The more we learn about whales, the more complex they appear to be. Scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa have discovered, for example, that their huge brains have a built-in heating system to ensure they function properly in cold seas. We also know that whales have a large repertoire of sounds, which can vary according to geographical location.

With such discoveries fuelling fascination, it’s no wonder travellers flock to witness whales' seasonal migrations, and that whale tourism forms the economic backbone of numerous coastal communities, world over.

Read more: Why do whales beach themselves? We’re partially to blame

Unlike most megafauna, whales regularly cross international boundaries as they migrate. As living examples of interconnectedness, it’s apt that nations should unite to protect them, and advocate for responsible tourism practices. This is the thinking behind the Whale Heritage Sites, a programme that was launched by the World Cetacean Alliance in 2016 and is steadily gathering pace. Its aim is to recognise places where whales, dolphins and porpoises are celebrated and protected through art, education, research, cultural events and sustainable working practices, including wildlife-friendly whale-watching.

The first places to meet the stringent standards required for certification were Hervey Bay in Australia and The Bluff in South Africa. These were joined in 2021 by Dana Point in California and Tenerife-La Gomera in the Canary Islands. Other sites being considered include the Azores, Vancouver Island in Canada, Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica, Cabo Polonio in Uruguay and Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand. At these locations, guidelines are in place to minimise disturbance to the animals and their habitat. For example, responsible skippers approach whales slowly and sideways, without hemming them in, and limit each sighting to a maximum of 20 minutes.

Humpback whales make a ‘heat run’
After a 4500 km migration across the open ocean, these humpback whales are ready for one of nature's wildest mating rituals. Footage taken from the show Wonders of the Ocean.

Are whales in danger?

Despite the conservation successes of the 20th century, humans are still hounding some cetaceans to the brink of extinction, either by hunting or carelessness. Six out of the 13 great whale species are classified as endangered or vulnerable. It’s common for beached carcasses to bear scars from collisions with ships, and it’s estimated that more than 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed each year as a result of fisheries’ bycatch.

According to Dr Nadine Lysiak, of the University of Massachusetts Boston, commercial fishing gear presents a real threat to endangered whales in the industrialised waters off the east coast of North America. “Most living North Atlantic right whales have been entangled at least once in their life,” she says. Once caught, whales suffer stress and prolonged starvation. Whale-friendly fishing methods exist, but fisheries have been slow to adopt them.

Does whale-watching contribute to conservation?

Whales are surprisingly tolerant of humans. They’re graceful to watch and the element of luck and surprise involved in each sighting makes watching them supremely exhilarating. But given that noisy, closely-circling boats could potentially distress the animals, disrupting their communication, feeding and parental care, what’s in it for the whales?

To minimise your impact on the whales, you could choose a location such as Hawaii, Seattle (US), Hermanus (South Africa) or Dominica, where, in season, they can be seen from shore. However, even here, you’ll need to set out by boat if you want to get reasonably close.

Ben Williamson, executive director of World Animal Protection, argues that whale-watching trips can play an important part in stopping whales being kept captive as tourist attractions. “Much to my remorse, I went swimming with captive dolphins as a teenager,” he says. “From that moment, I developed an affinity with marine mammals. But the more I thought about it, the more I regretted it. The sad paradox is that it’s often animal lovers that contribute to animal suffering — they want to interact with animals, but don’t realise what goes on behind the scenes. At World Animal Protection, we believe that whales and dolphins shouldn’t be exploited for entertainment. Whale-watching in the wild is a good alternative to captive animal shows. It’s far less exploitative.”

Whale-watching fees typically include a donation to a conservation fund. Some outfits also contribute to scientific research: crews and guests add ID photos to a database, expanding knowledge of whale populations and their movements.

Can you watch whales in or near the UK?

The first time Dylan Walker, CEO of World Cetacean Alliance, saw a whale, he was on the west coast of Scotland. “It wasn’t a conventional experience,” he says. “We took a little island ferry that kind of doubles as whale-watching boat and we got ‘mugged’, as they call it, by a minke whale, halfway across. It came to the boat, the boat stopped, and it started circling. It was one of the best whale-watching experiences I’ve ever had, because it got people of all ages running from one side to the other. The impact it had on them got me hooked. To this day, I still think that whales and dolphins have something very special: they grab people emotionally.”

Walker went on to co-found the charity ORCA, which runs citizen science projects in the Bay of Biscay, France, and places volunteer wildlife guides on Brittany Ferries between Portsmouth and Santander, to talk to passengers about whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Some species, including the short-finned pilot whale, are resident all year in Tenerife, making sightings possible in all seasons. 

Photograph by Getty Images

With all this in mind, here are five whale-watching destinations to consider when planning a responsible encounter. 

Whale-watching tours and destinations


1. CANARY ISLANDS

Tenerife & La Gomera
Geographically, the Canaries are off the coast of North Africa. However, since they’re Spanish, the channel between Tenerife and La Gomera is officially Europe’s first Whale Heritage Site, with 28 cetacean species swimming its deep, nutrient-rich waters. If your ideal experience involves massive flukes and fins, temper your expectations: the largest whales seen here, fin whales, are a relatively modest 20–25 metres in length. On the plus side, some species, including the short-finned pilot whale, are resident all year, making sightings on short trips from Puerto Colón or Las Galletas practically guaranteed. From €24 (£21) for a two-hour trip or €55 (£48) for 4.5 hours. whalesanddolphinsoftenerife.org

2. AZORES

São Miguel & Pico
The locals call this breezy stretch of the Atlantic the ‘Gulp Stream’. Huge gatherings of blue, fin and humpback whales pass through between April and June, when a phytoplankton bloom ensures plentiful food. For the best chance of seeing an ocean giant, plan several guided trips by catamaran or rigid inflatable. You can also spend a day with a marine biologist, who’ll set your mind buzzing with insights and facts as you gather data and listen to vocalisations on the hydrophone. Eight days from £760, excluding flights. dolphinandwhaleconnection.com

3. SOUTH AFRICA

The Bluff
Almost half a century after its closure, memories of KwaZulu Natal’s notorious whaling centre — one of the world’s largest — have faded. The Old Whaling Station is now a museum, and Durban is the hub for Africa’s first Whale Heritage Site. Umhlanga Ocean Charters, a whale-watching outfit with a policy of training guides from disadvantaged local communities, runs boat trips from May to November, the best time to see migratory humpback and sperm whales. R500 (£25) for a two-hour trip. whaleanddolphintours.durban

4. CALIFORNIA

Dana Point
If size matters, head for Dana Point in Orange County. It’s famous for marine mammals that can weigh the equivalent of around 15 elephants each: blue whales. Other whale species are present all year round, resulting in over 2,000 sightings each year. These waters are also said to have more dolphins per square mile than anywhere else in the world. Captain Dave’s offers trips on a boat with windows in the hull for underwater views, or on a rigid inflatable for the advantage of speed and a water-level line of sight. From US$65 (£47) for a two-hour group trip or $350 (£252) for a private charter. dolphinsafari.com

5. AUSTRALIA

Hervey Bay
The calm, shallow waters between Fraser Island and Queensland’s east coast are something of a holiday resort for humpbacks. It’s common for whales and their young to spend time here between July and November, breaking their journey from Antarctica to the tropics. Eco-certified trips launch from the port of Urangan, and there’s an inspiring whale exhibition at the Fraser Coast Discovery Sphere in Pialba. From AU$94 (£53) for a three-hour cruise. visitfrasercoast.com

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