Whale and dolphin watching


Whale and dolphin watching tourism (subsequently referred to whale watching) mostly involves boat trips on a range of vessel types and sizes that allowing paying customers to observe cetaceans (whether whales, dolphins and porpoises) in their natural habitat. These activities provide tourism income and associated economic activity and employment for many (often relatively small) communities around the world [1].

Well-managed whale watching operations also lead to secondary benefits. Local communities can develop a sense of responsibility for the marine mammals that benefit their economy, and the educational benefits both locally and in the broader sense are by now well-known [1]. A high-profile whale-watching industry raises the value of cetaceans in their natural environment as a natural financial resource, encouraging greater protection and increased motivation to eliminate other marine threats, such as strikes/collisions and net entanglements. Finally, whale-watching operations can allow the collection of valuable data for cetacean research [2].

Potential impacts of whale watching?

Most impacts from whale watching activities relate to disturbances to cetacean behaviour. Vessels may trigger predator avoidance responses such as deeper and more frequent dives, or rapid changes in direction. The strength of this response, and thus the behavioural impacts, tend to increase with vessel proximity and larger numbers of boats. Cumulative effects, with subsequent energetic costs, may occur when specific individuals or group of cetaceans are consistently exposed to whale watching activities. Thus, resident whales or dolphins that are repeatedly interrupted during feeding or resting may be impacted more greatly over time than migrating animals.

Although whale watching activities have on a few occasions been linked to a decrease in population size or a movement of animals away from the area targeted for tourism, dolphins have been more noted for their longer-term behavioural changes, such as avoidance of vessels and swimmers, and population decreases.

Whale and dolphin watching, therefore, must be carefully managed in order to maximise the benefits of education, public awareness, and conservation, while minimising the impacts on species and populations, particularly given that some species are threatened or vulnerable[3].

Whale and dolphin watching management strategies

Impact minimisation mainly involves strategies to reduce stress to the animals, and reduce the likelihood of other adverse behavioural changes. Strategies will vary depending on the species concerned but should be based on the best available science.

Stress to the animals can be limited through the application of regulations governing the rules of approach to cetaceans (e.g. direction of approach, vessel speed, proximity to cetaceans, numbers of vessels allowed in the vicinity of an ‘encounter’ etc.). In addition, physical contact with cetaceans and the use of scuba should be prohibited, and loud noise should be discouraged.

Other adverse behavioural effects can be reduced by bans on feeding, and cumulative effects on individuals, groups or populations can be reduced through limits on the number of operator licences and frequency and/or duration of trips.

Regulations or voluntary Guidelines?

Given that tourists often wish to have a ‘close encounter’, pressure may be felt by operators to bend or break the guidelines. Therefore, regulations with penalties are preferable to guidelines. National or State government laws or regulations may also provide added management power. Enforcement of whale-watching regulations, particularly in offshore areas, can be enhanced by the presence of observers and trained (and importantly empowered) naturalists on board, and the use of vessel tracking systems.

Scientific research

Whale and dolphin watching operations provide an opportunity to collect valuable data on whales or dolphins through the recording of encounters and submission of photographs and videos. This assists research into species distribution and abundance, habitat use through space and time, and many other ecological and conservation questions [4].

Case study – The high-quality whale-watching certification

Created to supervise an expanding tourism activity and guide volunteer operators, the High-Quality Whale-Watching® certification is an ACCOBAMS (Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Backs Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area) trademark jointly developed with the Pelagos Sanctuary. This certification is in line with a naturalist approach. Cetaceans are wild animals moving in a vast environment and their observation during every trip cannot be guaranteed. That is why certified trips do not target exclusively whales and dolphins. Operators will be keen to show you the marine biodiversity in general: marine birds, fish, turtles, etc. Besides, the certification guarantees a whale and dolphin approach respectful of the code of good conduct for the observation of Mediterranean cetaceans enacted by the Pelagos and ACCOBAMS Agreements. Moreover, educational information acquired during a training course is provided to you by the certified operator all along the trip. The training course is organised by Souffleurs d’Ecume, in charge of implementing the certification in the French Mediterranean Sea. Finally, in the framework of responsible ethics certified operators commit to waste sorting on-board their vessels.

Source: http://www.whale-watching-label.com/label

Additional resources:


  1. Whale watching- International Whaling Commission- https://iwc.int/whalewatching
  2. Benefits of Responsible Whale Watching- https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/industry- support/benefits-of-responsible
  3. Conservation and Values – Global Cetacean Snapshot – a progress report- https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7d10d39e-828c-4e99-aa07- 852c8fb7b1ae/files/cetacean-snapshot.pdf
  4. Contributing to science and conservation: https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/preparing-for-a- trip/contributing-to-science-and-conservation

This work is implemented under the EU funded project “Ocean Governance: Protecting and Restoring Marine Ecosystems, Catalysts for Building Peace and Security and Fostering Sustainable Economies”.