Whale watching

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Whale watching off the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine.
Whale watching is the practice of observing whales and other cetaceans in their natural habitat. Whales are watched mostly commonly for recreation (cf. bird watching) but the activity can also be for scientific or educational reasons. Whilst individuals do organize private trips, whale watching is primarily a commercial activity, estimated to be worth up to $1bn per annum worldwide to whale watching operations and their local communities. The size and rapid growth of the whale watching industry has led to complex and unconcluded debates with the whaling industry about the best use of whales as a natural resource.


Whale watching as an organized activity dates back to 1950 when the Carbillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public spot for the observation of Gray Whales. In 1955 the first water-based whale watching commenced in the same area, charging customers $1 per trip to view the whales at closer quarters. The spectacle proved popular, attracting 10,000 visitors in its first year and many more in subsequent years. The industry spread throughout the western coast of the United States over the following decade.

In 1971 the Montreal Zoological Society commenced the first commercial whale watching activity on the eastern side of North America, offering trips in the St. Lawrence River to view Fin and Beluga Whales.

In the late 1970s the industry mushroomed in size thanks to operations in New England. By 1985 more visitors watched whales from New England than California. The rapid growth in this area has been attributed to the relatively dense population of Humpback Whales, whose acrobatic behaviour such as breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping was an obvious crowd-pleaser, and the close proximity of whale populations to the large cities on the east coast of the US.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s whale watching spread throughout the world. In 1998 Erich Hoyt carried out the largest systematic study of whale watching yet undertaken and concluded that whale watching trips were now available in 87 countries around the world, with over 9 million participants generating an income to whale watcher operators and supporting infrastructure (such as accommodation, restaurants and souvenirs) of over one billion dollars. His estimate for 2000 was for 11.3m participants spending $1.475bn, representing a five-fold increase over the decade.

Whale watching is of particular importance to developing countries as coastal communities start to profit directly from the whales' presence, significantly adding to popular support for the full protection of these animals from any resumption of commercial whaling.


Whale watching today is carried out from the water from crafts from kayaks, motorized rafts, and sailboats through to out-of-use fish or whaling boats and custom-built craft carrying as many as 400 people. Land-based watching of species such as the Orca who come very close to shore remains popular. Viewing of species that usually stay some distance from the shore is also offered by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters in some areas.


Environmental campaigners, concerned by what they consider the "quick-buck" mentality of some boat owners, continue to strongly urge all whale watcher operators to contribute to local regulations governing whale watching (no international standard set of regulations exist because of the huge variety of species and populations). Common rules include:

  • Minimize speed/"No wake" speed
  • Avoid sudden turns
  • Minimize noise
  • Do not pursue, encircle or come in between whales
  • Approach animals from angles where they won't be taken by surprise
  • Consider cumulative impact - minimize number of boats at any one time/per day
  • Do not coerce dolphins into bow-riding.
  • Do not allowing swimming with dolphins. This last rule is more contentious and is often disregarded in, for example, the Caribbean.

(Source: WDCS)

Almost all popular whale watching regions now have such regulations. Campaigners hope that a combination of peer pressure, the economic benefit of being advertised and promoted by ethical tourism operators and operators' own passion for marine wildlife forces them to stick such regulations.


To be completed

Excellent whale watching can be had on the commercial car ferries crossing the Bay of Biscay from Britain to Spain.

Kaikoura in New Zealand is a world-famous site for whales (in particular Sperm Whales) and Albatrosses.

Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia offers reliable whale watching conditions for Southern Humpback Whales from the beginning of August through to the end of November each year. Whale numbers and activity have increased markedly in recent years as a result of cessation of whaling. Port Stephens in NSW is another popular port for tours.

On the West Coast of the United States and Canada, excellent whale watching can be found in Alaska (summer), British Columbia, and the San Juan Islands/Puget Sound in Washington. In California good whalewatching can be found in spring, summer, and fall at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, Monterey Bay, and the Channel Islands off Southern California.

In the winter, Baja California becomes an excellent place to watch Gray Whales in their breeding lagoons.

In New England and off the east coast of Long Island, the whale watching season typically takes place from about mid-spring through October, depending both on weather and precise location. It is here that the Northern Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, and the very endangered Northern Right Whale are often observed. For generations areas like the Gulf of Maine and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (the inner waters formed by Cape Cod's hooked shape) have been important feeding grounds for these species and in the past this area was a whaling capital for the U.S. whaling industry. Though strict laws oturight prohibit the molestation of these large wild mammals, it is not unknown for the whales to approach the boats entirely on their own, particularly calves and juveniles. Also seen often are members of the dolphin family and two species of seal.

In Brazil, humpback whales are observed off Salvador in Bahia State and at the National Marine Park of Abrolhos during their breeding season in austral winter and spring. Likewise, Southern Right Whales are observed from shore in Santa Catarina State during the same season, as mother/calf pairs can come as close to shore as 30 meters (about 100 feet). Income from whale watching has bolstered many a coastal community in Brazil and has made the township if Imbituba, Santa Catarina, recognized as a Brazilian ' Whale Capital '.

Whaling and whale watching

All three of the current major whaling nations (Norway, Japan and Iceland) have large and growing whale watching industries. Indeed Iceland had the fastest-growing whale watching industry in the world between 1994 and 1998.

Many conservationists now espouse the economic argument that a whale is worth more alive and watched than dead in order to try to persuade the governments of whaling nations to curtail whaling activities. The correctness of this argument is the subject of much debate at the International Whaling Commission, particularly since argue about the whaling countries the 'scarcity' of whale meat which supposedly has caused it to become an luxury item, increasing its value. However whale meat markets have collapsed and in Japan the government keeps its flow artificially through subsidies and whale meat distribution in schools and other forms of whale meat promotion. In 1997 2,000 tonnes of whale meat were sold for $30m indicating an average value of a Blue Whale at $150,000. There is no agreement as to how to value a single animal to the whale watching industry, though it is probably much higher. It is possible to construct arguments that 'prove' a single whale is worth either much more or much less than this figure. However, it is clear from most coastal communities that are involved in whale watching that profits can be made and are more horizontally distributed thrtoughout the community than if the animals were killed by a whaling industry.

Upon the resumption of whaling in Iceland in August 2003, pro-whaling groups, such as fishermen who argue that increased stocks of whales are depleting fish populations, suggested that sustainable whaling and whale watching could live side-by-side. Whale watching lobbyists, such as Husavik Whale Museum curator Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, counter that the most inquistive whales, which approach boats very closely and provide much of the entertainment on whale-watching trips, will be the first to be killed by whalers. Pro-whaling organisations such as the High North Alliance on the other hand, have said that whale watching is not profitable and that some whale-watching companies in Iceland are surviving only because they receive funding from anti-whaling organisations (statement from the HNA on the issue (http://www.highnorth.no/read.asp?which=336)).

Conservation aspects

The rapid growth of the number of whale watching trips and the size of vessel used to watch whales has led to concerns that whale behaviour, migatory patterns and breeding cycles make be affected. Substantive evidence proving or disproving these concerns has yet to be published. However, as discussed in the following sections, localized research is beginning to bear fruit.

Orca calls off Washington

Writing in Nature in April 2004, scientists from the University of Durham working off the coast of Washington in the northwest United States discovered that Orca are increasing the length of their calls to make themselves heard to each other above the din of boat engine noise. The research examined the length of the whales' calls between 1977 and 1981, 1989 and 1992 and 2001 and 2003. They found that whilst the call length had not changed much between the first two surveys, the third survey saw, at times of day when environmental noise exceeded a certain threshold, the Orca increasing the length of their calls by about 15% in an apparent effort to make themselves heard.

The researchers commented that this was in one sense a positive sign - Orca able to adapt to their environment rapidly. However populations of Orca in the area have fallen since a survey in 1996 and concern remains that the whale watching boats, and private boats that follow them that are less likely to follow local conservation guidelines, are causing intolerable environment stress to the creatures.


  • Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, editors Perrin, Wursig and Thewissen, ISBN 0125512502. In particular the article Whale watching by Erich Hoyt.
  • Whale watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits, Erich Hoyt, ISBN 1901002098.
  • Whale watching, Discovery Travel Adventures Insight guide. ISBN 1563318369.
  • The Whale Watcher's Guide: Whale-watching Trips in North America, Patricia Corrigan, ISBN 1559716835.
  • Whales and Whale Watching in Iceland, Mark Carwardine, ISBN 997951129X.
  • On the Trail of the Whale, Mark Carwardine, ISBN 1899074007

External links

Orca off Washington

it:Whale watching ja:ホエールウォッチング


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