Responsible whale watching

Whale watching has huge potential for good for people and whales, but it needs to be undertaken responsibly. WDC has been working to develop best practice guidelines and help for those who wish to see whale and dolphin watching develop in the best way possible

Since its inception as a commercial endeavour in the mid-1950s, whale watching has grown immensely. Public interest in these charismatic mammals has never been greater and latest figures show that the industry now attracts more than 13 million participants across 119 countries and overseas territories and is valued at $2.1 billion USD annually (IFAW 2009). Over the past decade, growth has been particularly dramatic in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and South America, significantly outpacing other forms of global tourism.

The potential fiscal benefits of whale watching are numerous and include, amongst others, the generation of income to local communities, the provision of jobs and the funding and development of the local tourism infrastructure and attendant services. However, while whale watching is arguably also at the forefront of ‘ecotourism’ - and viewing whales and dolphins in the wild is considered by most to be preferable to visiting a captive facility - it is essential that the experience on offer is of a sufficiently high standard to benefit not only the operators and local communities seeking a livelihood, but also the participants, whales and dolphins and the marine environment as a whole.

WDC's concerns

Regrettably, in the majority of cases, cetacean-focused tourism involves the targeting of specific whale and dolphin communities that are repeatedly sought out for prolonged, often close up encounters. As the demand for more frequent and intimate encounters increases, it can be argued that is the responsibility of conservation authorities and the scientific community to assess the effects of these activities upon the animals (Corkeron, 2006). It can also be suggested that the industry itself has some responsibility in this matter as well. So, while the advantages to the industry in pursuing whale and dolphin focused tourism are clear there is, equally, a need to address the issue of whether or not the effect on the species themselves is negligible and whether tourists do actually achieve heightened, long lasting appreciation of the marine environment (e.g. Manfredo et al. 1995; Goodwin, 1996).

While short-term behavioural responses by whales and dolphins to boat-based operations have been well documented (Janik and Thompson, 1996), until recently, our understanding of how these short-term responses translate to longer term changes such as physical condition, reproductive rates, distribution and habitat has been poor.

However, recent findings offer a ‘cautionary tale’ and have provided biologically-significant evidence showing:

• Mass movement of whales and dolphins away from areas where boat-based whale and dolphin watching tourism occurs (Lusseau, 2005);
• Significant impact on the reproductive success of targeted whales and dolphins (Bejder, 2005);
• Significant reduction in resting and socialising behaviour of targeted individuals in the vicinity of watching vessels (Constantine et al., 2004; Lusseau, 2004).

Negative effects of poorly-managed nature tourism are not restricted to behavioural changes in targeted whales and dolphins, which, as we now know, can have consequences for the wider population, but can also include serious and often fatal injury caused by vessel strike, as documented by Laist et al. (2001) and Jensen and Silber (2004). Whale-watching vessels are documented as having caused injuries to whales on various occasions as a result of trying to approach too closely, failing to handle their vessels with due care and attention when in the vicinity of whales or simply by unfortunate accident.

The recent increase in long-term behavioural studies is welcomed and these studies are finally providing regulatory bodies, wildlife managers and NGOs with the scientific data to inform enlightened, precautionary and effective management actions. Moreover, long-term strategic planning will help mitigate the impact of tourism on targeted whales and dolphins and ensure a responsible and sustainable approach in appreciating them and their environment (Higham et al., 2008).

Defining Responsible Whale Watching

For this reason, WDC has codified the criteria which we believe must be met in order for whale watching to be truly responsible and sustainable to whales and dolphins and the marine environment, and truly beneficial to passengers, operators and communities.

In order to qualify, trips must offer:
• A prime recreational and educational experience for participants which motivates them to care about marine mammals and the sea, and to work for marine conservation;
• An experience that seeks to reduce the impact on whales, so that whales are watched with the lightest ‘footprint’ possible: this includes respecting relevant regulations or codes of conduct; ensuring vessels are fit for purpose; approaching with extreme care and attention,; respecting approach distances, and limiting time spent in their vicinity ;
• Opportunities for researchers to gather scientific information and disseminate findings to managers and the public;
• An experience built around a naturalist or nature guide who can provide accurate information, help to find the whales and describe their behaviour, and successfully build the bridge between the urban participant and the sea; and
• The active involvement of the community or region in its work, enabling communities and regions to have a financial as well as a personal interest in whale watching and the conservation of cetaceans and the sea. (Source: IWC, 19961, Hoyt/WDCS, 2005, and Lott et al. 2006).

In addition, we seek to promote situations where research is being conducted so that the whales and dolpins are also being carefully monitored over the longer term. Whale and dolphin species are subjected to many pressures in the modern world and we believe that such monitoring can help to determine their status and the potential sustainability of the factors that may be affecting them, including whale watching.

In the United States,  Whale SENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program offered to commercial whale watching companies (Maine through Virginia) by NOAA Fisheries Service, NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Another collaborative progamme is Dolphin SMART, which aims to promote responsible viewing and stewardship of wild dolphins. The programme currently has participating operators in Florida, Alabama, and Hawaii. Launched in the Florida Keys in 2007, Dolphin SMART is the result of a collaborative effort between WDC and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Sanctuary Program, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Dolphin Ecology Project, and local dolphin-watch tour operators.


Bejder, L. (2005). Linking short and long-term effects of nature-based tourism on cetaceans. PhD thesis. Biology Department, Dalhousie University, Canada.

Constantine, R., Brunton, D.H., Dennis, T., (2004). Dolphin-watching tour boats change bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) behaviour. Biological Conservation 117, 299-307.

Corkeron, P. (2006). How shall we watch whales? In Gaining Ground: In Pursuit of Ecological Sustainability. Ed: David M. Lavigne. Published by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Guelph, Canada, and the University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland. pp161-170

Goodwin, H. (1996). In pursuit of ecotourism. Biodiv. Conserv. 5:277-91.

Higham, J.E.S., Bejder, L. and Lusseau, D. (2008). An integrated and adaptive management model to address the long-term sustainability of tourist interactions with cetaceans. Environmental Conservation 35 (4): 294-302.

IWC. 1996 General principles for whalewatching

Janik, V.M. & Thompson, P.M. (1996). Changes in surfacing patterns of bottlenose dolphins in response to boat traffic. Marine Mammal Science, 12: 597-602.

Jensen, A.S; Silber, G.K. (2004). Large whale ship strike database. Large whale ship strike database. U.S Department of Commerce, NOAA Technical Memorandum. NMFS-OPR-, 37pp.

Laist, D. W., Knowlton, A.R. Mead, J. G., Collet A. S. and Podesta, M. (2001). Collisions between ships and great whales. Marine Mammal Science 17(1):35-75.

Lott, R., Williams-Grey, V. and Simmonds, M.P. 2006 Responsible whale watching: the way forward. 3pp. SC/58/WW4. Paper submitted to the Scientific Committee of the IWC. 3 pages

Lusseau, D. (2004). The hidden cost of tourism: Effects of interactions with tour boats on the behavioural budget of two populations of bottlenose dolphins in Fiordland, New Zealand. Ecology and Society 9 (1):2.

Lusseau, D. (2005). The residency pattern of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.) in Milford Sound, New Zealand, is related to boat traffic. Marine Ecology Progress Series 295: 265-272

Manfredo, M. J., Vaske, J. J., and Decker, D. J. 1995. Human dimensions of wildlife management: Basic concepts. In Wildlife and Recreation-ists: Coexistence through Management and Research. (EdsR. L. Knight, and K. J. Gutzwiller) pp. 33–50. Island Press: Washington, DC.

O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez H., & Knowles, T., 2009, Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits, a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth MA USA, prepared by Economists at Large, pp. 295.