Whale-Watching Can Actually Be Harmful To Whales

Ecotourism can give people a closer look at wildlife, but in the case of whales, it could also harm the wildlife they’re looking at

whale watching
Matthias Breiter/Minden Pictures/Corbis

Getting a chance to see whales and dolphins up close and personal in their natural habitat is a fantastic experience, from the human point of view. But recent research suggests that whale-watching trips might inadvertently put some species at risk by altering how these animals behave. 

A news article in Nature magazine reports, from a meeting of the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) last week: 

Most of the speakers at the IMCC meeting agreed that more should be done to protect dolphins and whales from tourists. “Although whale-watching is not as bad as whaling,” says New, “it might be that last piece that pushes a species over.”

The problem with whale-watching is that there aren’t many firm regulations around the trips: Nature cited a study that noted only 38 percent of codes relating to whale-watching were binding. The rest, if they exist at all, are purely voluntary, and even with those, animals can still be hit by boats. 

Sometimes, it isn’t even a matter of collisions. For obvious reasons, whale and dolphin-watching tours frequent areas where the animals can be found, and the presence of boats can cause animals to avoid valuable feeding grounds or to expend energy trying to get away from the boats.

But an end to whale-watching isn’t likely to happen overnight. The industry's been valued at over $2.1 billion, and it is possible to find tours that are run responsibly, as the BBC reports:

The WDCS, which produces its own guidelines, says people should ask tour operators whether any regulations or voluntary codes apply in their area. Also, it is usually a good sign if a trip includes an onboard naturalist to provide educational commentary about the whales and the marine environment.

It's also worth remembering whale watching can be done from dry land. This is safest option and what the WDCS recommends whenever possible. 

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