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No way is this responsible whale watching Norway

As a new year dawns, how I wish that for once I could be writing something positive about Norway’s relationship with whales. After Norwegian whalers killed a record number of minke whales last year, despite little domestic demand, and the Norwegian government licensed trapping minke whales in nets to forcibly test their hearing, there must surely be some more positive news to report? But sadly this is feeling more Groundhog Day than New Year’s Day, as once again, whales are in danger in Norwegian waters and this time, people are too.

humpback - WDCNA/Sue Rocca

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Utter chaos

The danger zone lies in the Norwegian Arctic off Skjervøy northeast of Tromsø, where whale watching – and in particular, the dive-with-orcas industry, is in chaos. What I am about to recount is probably as sad and sorry a tale of how not to run whale watch operations as it is possible to imagine.  And this isn’t new - back in December 2019, I wrote a blog on this, but the situation is markedly worse this season, as pent-up demand following travel bans appears to have fuelled an explosion of tourists and created a ‘gold rush’ as new and inexperienced operators move in to exploit the demand. Here, orcas and humpback whales are the main quarry as they feed on herring in these near-freezing waters.

In mid-November things came to a head, causing guide Krisztina Balotay to post a harrowing report on Facebook, drawing attention to the deteriorating situation there. Krisztina herself offered dive- with-orcas tours until a couple of years ago when she saw the way the industry was going and so moved to exclusively offer above-water viewing.

A snorkeller perilously close to orcas
A snorkeller perilously close to orcas

First-hand account

Krisztina said: ‘… Today we found a big group of humpback whales and the madness started … we’re talking about 20 humpback whales and probably 50 snorkelers on 5 small dinghies. They cut across the path of other boats and dropped people in the water directly in front of moving boats … People are floating around in the water without visibility markers. They are far away from their “support boats” and getting in the way of the other boats.  The boats are cutting in front of each other to get closer to the whales. It was literally like the wild west … people do NOT care about safety. They risk the lives of themselves but the life of others too. I absolutely cannot imagine what the whales are going through, but I am sure that all this puts an immense amount of stress on them.'

Her post sparked an outpouring of responses with a common theme: too many boats speeding around the whales, cutting off their direction of travel and even separating mothers and calves in a free for all. Commentators described boats jockeying for position and dive boats dumping snorkellers in the water virtually on top of the whales.

The dive-with-orcas industry is chaotic
The dive-with-orcas industry is chaotic

This is clearly no way to run a whale watch industry and it is terrible in whale conservation terms. Orcas and humpback whales are in the region to feed and this repeated harassment can impact the whales’ ability to carry out their essential daily life processes, including foraging, caring for their young, resting and socialising.

Doesn’t Norway have regulations?

Whale watch regulations were put into place in December 2019, but they are brief and widely ignored. The main problem is that there is very little detail, just an umbrella statement that 'it is forbidden to practice whale watching in a way that contributes to the whales being disturbed in their natural habitat.'

These are admirable sentiments, of course, but totally subjective and very woolly, especially in light of the number of new and inexperienced operators who cannot be relied upon to recognise how whales behave when they are disturbed, as this takes expertise.

Unlike regulations in many other parts of the world, which give operators specific guidance on how to behave and handle their boats around whales, the sole guidance in the Norwegian regulations prohibits close approach to working fishing vessels. It would seem that the safety and welfare of snorkellers and whales is less important than avoiding inconvenience to fishers - possibly unsurprising, given that whale watching activities are managed by the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate.

What is WDC doing?

We've been working with local experts to call for the Norwegian Fisheries Directorate (NFD) to enact whale watch regulations, including an outright ban on snorkelling on safety and welfare grounds.

In 2016, WDC endorsed the excellent guidelines developed by Visit Tromsø, with the help of our local partners, Giovanna Bertella and Mario Acquarone at UiT and whale expert Russell Baker. These guidelines explicitly warned against getting in the water with whales.

In 2017, WDC joined a coalition of local experts to approach the NFD to raise urgent concerns and call for regulations.

In June 2019, we worked with our in-country partners to provide detailed input to draft whale watch regulations (although sadly we don't believe that the resultant regulations are fit for purpose).

The town of Skjervøy
The town of Skjervøy

What happens next?

Last month, I attended remotely a meeting held in Skjervøy which attracted more than 80 operators, agency representatives and community members.  A similar meeting was held in Tromsø and it was clear that our concerns were widely shared. WDC also wrote to the NFD, and co-authored a wider sign-on letter calling for the following measures to be implemented urgently:

  • A ban on people entering the water with any species of whale or dolphin
  • A scientific definition of what constitutes ‘disturbance’ of whales in the vicinity
  • Development of a permit system to cap vessel numbers
  • Detailed whale watch regulations which draw upon best practice internationally, but which are region specific. These should contain provisions relating to speed and angle of approach; minimum approach distances; behaviour around mothers with calves, etc
  • The establishment of a system for official licencing, training and accreditation of all commercial operators, and monitoring and enforcement of all whale watching activities

It seems that the official agencies have taken note of the outcry as well as the concerns expressed at last month's public meetings. The Norwegian Maritime Service has started to patrol the region, checking vessel licences and talking to operators. This is a step forward of course, but there is still a feeling that their main concern is to monitor fishing rather than safety concerns around the whale watch and dive industry.

How can you help?

Remember that there are many responsible operators in the region, so if you are considering a trip to Norway or elsewhere, please follow our guide to what to look for in a good whale watch trip, check online reviews of operators and above all, please stay out of the Arctic water, for your safety and welfare as well as that of the whales.

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