Enjoyable trips for both people and whales

by Tom Walmsley

Whale watching is an exciting and deeply rewarding way for somebody to experience some of the world’s largest animals. I have taken people whale watching the world over, no matter what their background, they are reduced to words of awe and wonder.

KILLER WHALE orcinus orca, ADULT LEAPING, CANADA

My best experiences were all with the operators who most respected the animals, since they allow the whales to feel more natural and ‘at ease’. I remember a grey whale resting its chin on the gunnels of our small boat in a lagoon in Baja California, before lifting the boat and us out of the water on its back then carefully putting it back down again. In Iceland a blue whale, the size of two buses, chose to surface right alongside our stationary boat blowing a jet of steam ten metres into the air in front of our faces, which you should know smelt terrible.

California gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and excited whale watchers, San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California Sur, Mexico, North America

Flying light aircraft over whales also requires a lot of skill but one pilot in South Africa has often flown me over Southern Right whales without disturbing them. Often they are in mating frenzies where the females were dealing with up to 6 males weighing 50 tons each.

There are many accessible places to watch whales and you can find operators or suitable travel agents through google: California and New England  in the USA are great destinations, as are the Azores, Scotland and Southern Spain.

Simply by taking a boat trip you are stepping into the whales’ domain which heightens your sense of awareness even before you encounter an animal. Since whales are inquisitive and good boat drivers don’t scare them off, they might actually approach your boat and circle it. When this happens on the first encounter some people experience a sensory overload, bringing up an array of emotions, often resulting in tears.

Whale watching started in the mid-1950s, but since the millennium it has been growing faster than any other form of global tourism. The International Fund for Animal Welfare carried out a survey in 2009 showing that this was mainly in Europe, Asia, the Caribbean and South America but it has also been established in 119 countries and overseas territories. It is an important source of local income since 13 million participants were generating $2.1 billion USD at the time of the survey.

Orca, Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, Canada / (Orcinus orca) / Killerwhale

While it is clear that whale watching has huge potential for good for people and whales, it must be undertaken responsibly. Whales in areas with irresponsible operators have been shown to change their migration routes, spend less time resting, dive for longer and show a drop in reproductive success.  I spoke to whale watch expert, Vanessa Williams-Grey, who works for WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a global organisation headquartered in the UK. WDC has over two decades’ experience in promoting responsible whale watching around the world, offering training workshops for operators and encouraging community-based whale watching. Vanessa commented:

Minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) associating with North Sailing whale-watching boat Husavik, close to the arctic circle at the top of Iceland.

“When it’s done well, whale watching is an incredible, even life-changing, experience for watchers, often inspiring people to support whale conservation efforts. However, in many cases, whale watching involves targeting specific whale communities that are repeatedly sought out for prolonged, often close-up, encounters. In these situations, it is vital that well-crafted regulations are put in place. The best whale watching involves all stakeholders, so ideally, the relevant government agencies will work closely with researchers, operators and local communities to benefit the whales.”    

Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) spy-hopping near Zodiac near the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, Southern Ocean. MORE INFO Humpbacks feed only in summer, in polar waters, and migrate to tropical or sub-tropical waters to breed and give birth in t

So if you are planning on whale watching experience here are some tips for you to read in advance. You can then contact operators in the location you are going through their websites.

Tips for Quality Trips
The tour operators’ online and onboard communication should: –
1 – motivate you to care about marine mammals and the sea.
2 – promote local codes of conduct about timing and positioning around the animals.
3 – clearly state that the guides are professionals or scientists, ideally using the boat to collect data as well.
4 – show active involvement with the local community generating interest, both financially and personally, in whales and their habitat.

WDC can be found at www.whales.org

Tom Walmsley was an expedition leader and cameraman across the world’s major oceans, focusing on whales, dolphins and sharks for a decade.  He then built up a photo agency on marine and environmental themes before switching recently to work in the educational sector.

See more photos of whale watching here

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