Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Paradox of Whale Watching

A few years ago I found myself floating with a snorkel and mask in the Caribbean Sea above a resting humpback whale. Suspended in the water with its head down, tail up and fins stretched out wide, the whale looked like a giant sleeping sea angel a mere thirty feet below me. This was the ultimate in whale watching. Only a few hundred people a year are privileged to visit this unusual marine sanctuary some fifty miles north of the Dominican Republic called the Silver Bank. A two hundred square mile coral reef area, the Silver Bank is considered the largest humpback whale calving ground in the world. Whales from five major feeding areas of the North Atlantic winter in the warm protected area of the reef where they mate and birth their young. Since that extraordinary adventure where I viewed hundreds of humpback whales in a single week, I have wondered: did I have a right to be there? does whale watching harm whales? Or, is any harm done to whales by this activity mitigated by the educational benefit of people learning about whales and wanting to protect them?

Whale and dolphin watching has become a popular eco-tourism activity worldwide in recent years. According to a report done for the International Fund for Animal Welfare: “whale watching is a US$1 billion industry operating in 87 nations.” There are different forms of whale watching that range from the very benign act of watching whales from shore, which obviously poses no threat to whales, to the more common forms now of whale watching boats that take tourists offshore to view different cetacean species in the wild. In my experience, the most extreme form of whale watching consists of the increasingly popular “swim with” activities where people swim in the water, usually with dolphins in captivity or the wild, and lesser so with whales such as my experience described earlier.

The allure of watching whales has developed since the 1940’s when gray whales were first counted by oceanography students from the southern California coastline. (Hoyt 1306). In the Encylopedia of Marine Mammals, Erich Hoyt outlines the significant benefits that have been derived from whale watching:
This key partnership between science and commerce has determined the course of whale watching, as well as the practice of whale research, throughout southern New England. As of 1995, 18 of the 21 whale watching operators that mainly go to the Stellwagen Bank area had naturalists guiding boats and lecturing whale watchers . . . As a measure of the scientific value of whale watching, at least 30 published papers in refereed journals have come largely from research aboard whale watching boats on Stellwagen Bank . . . In several areas, whale watch operations have discovered new populations of cetaceans, accessible for study. In all, whale watching worldwide has led to at least 50 cetacean photo-ID programs supported in part or conducted aboard commercial whale watch boats. (Hoyt 1307)

Erich Hoyt also points out in his article that certain cetacean species have been known to be “friendly” towards boats. Humpbacks whales and gray whales frequently approach boats that are in their territory and dolphins are famous for riding the bow waves in front of speeding boats. These behaviors have endeared marine mammals to humans and has contributed to the rise of whale watching (Hoyt 1306). There is also a mystique around whales and dolphins that is not a new phenomena but rather has been recorded in some of the earliest human records. Dolphins are thought to have healing qualities, which has given rise to the controversial dolphin-assisted therapy with captive dolphins (Carwardine et al. 27). My favorite television show as a child in the 1960’s was “Flipper” which showcased the heroic and friendly dolphin who was the trusted friend and companion of two school boys. This is one modern example of the charm and desire for human interaction with dolphins and whales. Flipper has been considered a great factor in the modern attraction we have with cetaceans.

Ecotourism and wildlife watching on the whole is increasing worldwide as tourists seek out meaningful encounters with the natural world. Whale watching activity is considered a form of ecotourism and is widely considered to provide an increased awareness of ecological and endangered species issues and appreciation for nature. For example, my personal interest in the welfare of whales and dolphins developed largely as a result of my trip to the Silver Bank. While I had always taken an interest in wildlife conservation, that trip spurred in me a desire to study the issue and become more involved in conservation efforts. On my return from the Silver Bank I did some public fundraising for whale conservation efforts for the IFAW. This is the type of common positive result that grows out of seeing these animals in the wild.

Several NGO’s have been largely responsible for the promotion of whale watching, the most notable being the IFAW and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). According to their website, the IFAW “works for the protection of whales by opposing commercial whaling, supporting responsible whale watching, promoting whale sanctuaries, and conducting scientific research. Public education is an integral part of all our endeavors” (IFAW). They teach responsible whale watching guidelines to commercial boat operators in many countries and “promote sustainable whale watching as a sustainable alternative to whaling” (IFAW).

The WDCS also promote whale watching and offer extensive educational material on their website. It is worth noting, however, that the WDCS does not promote swim-with cetacean tours and they strive to steer the public away from such activities. Featured on their website is a document titled “Why WDCS does not feature swim-with-the-dolphins tours on our whale watch website.” Some of the reasons given include the following:
Potential for swim boats to disturb whales and dolphins is greater than for whale-watch boats. . . Swim boats may repeatedly disturb whales and dolphins trying to feed, rest or nurse their young. This potential for constant pressure, day after day, can be a stressful experience for the animals, and may adversely affect their health and ability to reproduce. Longer-term disturbance may even force whales and dolphins to abandon their traditional habitats. There is the risk of accidental physical injury to whales and dolphins from swimmers or by swim-boats. Swimmers also risk injury (WDCS).

While the benefits of whale watching to humans are clear, the fact is that the increase in human activity around cetaceans can have devastating consequences to whales and dolphins and it raises ethical questions. It is just one more human threat to whales to add to the list along with whale hunting from nations such as Norway, Iceland and Japan, ocean pollution, strikes from ships, fishing entanglements, and the deadly navy sonar systems used to detect submarines in military activities. The navy sonar systems are conclusively known to cause damage to cetaceans sensitive acoustic hearing systems and has caused whales and dolphins to beach themselves(IFAW).

Three years ago, on a holiday in the Baja peninsula in Mexico, I observed harmful human activity to dolphins. We were on the Sea of Cortez, which is renowned for its large populations of whales and dolphins. We took a boat trip to a small island offshore and came upon a few dolphins who were feeding in a little cove. We stopped to watch them quietly for a while. We continued to the beach and another boat behind us also saw the dolphins. The boat operator was trying to get his passengers the best view of the dolphins but I watched as he ended up harassing them to the point where they stopped feeding and left the cove. This is a prime example of the worst type of effect from what is considered to be “ecotourism.” Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado, Boulder, has summarized this issue in his article titled “Ethics and Marine Mammals.” Bekoff outlines the fascination that people have with getting close to marine mammals such as swimming with dolphins. He poignantly states:
People often try to interact with wild marine mammals but do not attempt to pet wild zebras or lions. . . It is clear that the increasingly detailed attention being given to various sorts of human-marine mammal interactions is showing that there are innumerable negative effects on the lives of the animals. . . We must be careful not to love these animals to their (or our) deaths. Humans are indeed dangerous to marine mammals and they are dangerous to us. (Bekoff 403)

More evidence of the dangers that we cause to whales in whale watching is provided in an article written by William Rossiter, the President of the NGO Cetacean Society International. He reported on two incidents where whale watching boats struck whales on the Stellwagen Bank, one fatally (Rossiter par.1). His recommendation is that it is the responsibility of the tourist to seek out responsible whale watch operators who put the safety of the whales first. Mr. Rossiter went on to highlight cases in Europe of whale watch boat operators that had harassed whales and he ended his article on this ominous note: “Human impacts from whale and dolphin watching tourism are like an iceberg, with most of the impacts hidden from view” (Rossiter par. 5).

The review of this body of research, most of which has not been included here due to its length, (but available to anyone who may be interested) has led me to conclude that the explosive growth of commercial whale watching worldwide is placing a greater burden on cetacean species already at risk from a myriad of threats already noted. The evidence demonstrates that too much human activity is detrimental to whales.

Most well meaning individuals who seek out whale watching and other ecotourism activities are not aware of the potential danger that wildlife watching can cause. I believe that greater public awareness is necessary around this issue. I had no right to be on the Silver Bank as it is an important humpback whale calving ground but like most whale watching tourists, I was lured by the mystique and charisma that whales and dolphins offer without realizing the risks it brings to these animals. While I agree that whale watching offers good educational opportunities for people, I struggle with reconciling the paradoxical effects that pose joyful, positive experiences for humans while bringing disturbance and the potential for negative risks for cetaceans.

I now believe that certain types of whale watching should be more restricted. For instance, the evidence is there that swim-with programs are a human-centric activity that affords nothing to whales and dolphins and only thrills for humans. I agree with the WDCS that these programs should be stopped as they present many dangers to whale and dolphin populations. Furthermore, commercial boat operators should be monitored and perhaps regulated to ensure that they conduct responsible whale watching tours particularly in areas where whales are calving and mating such as in the Hawaiian and Caribbean waters in winter, and their feeding grounds in the north in the summer.

Perhaps organizations such as the IFAW and the WDCS and other cetacean conservation NGOs need to be more aggressive in their campaigns to warn the public of the dangers of irresponsible whale watching. The public knows only the benefits (to humans) of whale watching. There is widespread knowledge that cetaceans face dangers such as the navy sonar, pollution and whale hunting because these are being publicly reported on, but there is little awareness out there of the potential dangers that whale watching brings to the beloved whales and dolphins. I believe that a much broader public awareness campaign needs to be brought to this issue of whale watching in order to protect cetaceans from this increasing and unnecessary danger from humans.Copyright©Kathy Stanley
Silver Bank Whale and Dolphin Photos by Kathy Stanley
Works Cited
Bekoff, Marc. “Ethics and Marine Mammals.” Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Eds. Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B., Thewissen, J.G.M. San Diego: Academic Press, 2002. 398-404.

Carwardine, Mark, Erich Hoyt, R. Ewan Fordyce and Peter Gill. Whales, Dolphins & Porpoises. New York: The Nature Company-Time-Life, 1998.

“IFAW in Action: Protecting the World’s Whales.” International Fund for Animal Welfare. August 22, 2007.

Hoyt, Erich. “Whale Watching.” Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Eds. Perrin, W.F., Wursig, B., Thewissen, J.G.M. San Diego: Academic Press, 2002. 1305-1310.

Rossiter, William. “Whale Watch Impacts.” Whales Alive! 7.4 October1998. 24 July 2007.

“The Dangers of High Intensity Military Sonar.” International Fund for Animal Welfare. August 24, 2007.

“Why WDCS does not feature swim-with-the-dolphins tours on our whale watch website.” Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. August 22, 2007.

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  1. you hit the nail on the head with this post... there's a huge amount of greenwashing out there of so-called whale watching ecotours... from the atlantic, to caribbean, to pacific...

    how about a cetacean watching standard, voluntary or compulsory, to level the playing field and also give tourists some guidance on what practices are actually good for the cetaceans?

  2. Thanks for checking out the post Rick. I agree - some cetacean watching standards are long overdue now...