As more evidence surfaces that whale watching tours are having a negative impact on individuals and populations of whales and dolphins, a new coalition of whale and dolphin watching companies from across the world is launching a unique partnership to do something about it.

To see a dolphin or whale in the wild is one of the greatest experiences that nature has to offer. Regularly rated by the public in opinion polls in the top ten of ‘100 things to do before you die’, an encounter with these spectacular marine mammals in their ocean realm often stirs up unexpected emotions, and is even described as ‘life changing’ for many people.

It’s an idyllic image that many of us aspire to experience, yet in recent years a murkier side to whale watching has begun to unravel. No longer a minority interest, whale watching is now an important component of mainstream tourism, with 13 million people taking tours each year worth an estimated £1.32bn ($2.1bn), according to the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare). Unsurprisingly, this sudden and growing pressure on whale and dolphin populations, some of which are endangered, has raised questions about a lack of regulation in many areas and the long-term future of the industry as a whole.

An increasing body of research is suggesting that unless carefully managed, whale watching can be detrimental to whales and dolphins by disrupting activities such as hunting and resting. Earlier this month at the University of Washington’s Orca Recovery Conference, for example, Associate Professor David Bain revealed that noise from whale watching boats might be muddying the echolocation signals that help orcas to hunt for fish.

Yet whale watching is also recognised as a force for good. The industry offers substantial economic, social and educational benefits to local communities and visiting tourists, and is often promoted by marine charities as a financially lucrative and sustainable alternative to whaling.

Now, with a clear need to improve the way whale watching is managed, 12 whale and dolphin watching businesses from across the world have joined forces to work together to highlight new ways in which the industry can become more responsible and sustainable than ever before. Led by eight businesses from the UK, Ireland, Spain, Gibraltar, Norway and Iceland, working alongside companies from as far afield as Mozambique, Dominican Republic, Panama, and the USA, the partnership represents the first concerted effort to improve whale watching by those whose livelihoods depend upon it.


“Each partner has committed to share their ideas on sustainability, education, and limiting disturbance, by contributing ‘case studies’ to a report which will be launched at the first global gathering of whale watching companies scheduled for 25th October 2012 in Brighton, UK.”, says Dylan Walker of Planet Whale, an independent advisor to the industry managing the project.

“It is to the huge credit of those businesses involved that they wish to share their knowledge about responsible whale watching with colleagues around the world and shows how committed they are to the whales themselves”, said Mr Walker.

'Working in partnership is a great step forward for whale and dolphin watch operators”, said Duncan Jones, co-owner of Marine Dicscovery Penzance. “We joined the scheme because it will enable us to learn from and share ideas with others. In the UK, particularly England, the industry is in its infancy and lacks regulation.  Drawing on the experience of companies working in other parts of the world is both inspiring and helpful.  Equally there are aspects of our business that we have developed since our launch in 2005 that we feel can benefit others, as we have always strived to develop our business as sustainably as possible.”

Captain Gene Flipse, who runs trips to swim with Humpback Whales in the Dominican Republic through his company, Conscious Breath Adventures, also recognises the benefits of working with colleagues to improve whale watching:

“Our goal is to create a mutually supportive operational and business model where ethical interactions with the animals, combined with valuable knowledge and an integrated support of research, add value to the watcher’s experience and place our partners as leaders in the industry. Interested and perceptive whale watchers will recognize and reward these whale watch operators with their business, which will then ideally inspire other operators to follow the model as well.”

During 2012 each partner will play an important role, becoming an advisor for the industry in their specialist area and contributing to the first industry-led report entitled ‘2012 Report on Responsible Whale & Dolphin Watching – the commercial advantages of a sustainable approach’.

“We have to take every little chance to do whatever is needed to improve whale watching”, said Joern Selling of Spanish whale watching company FIRMM. “We believe that every company can and should look to improve. The information we provide and the way of approaching the animals is critical, but even if we look at our boat, we have so many choices to make, including whether we use fuel or electric engines, or fit protected propellers. These are the kinds of things that can be improved in every company.”



It is hoped that the report, which will be free to download, will represent a significant and positive step forward for whale watching, and its launch will be celebrated this October with the first awards ceremony for those businesses leading the industry into a more responsible, and sustainable future – something that can only be good for both people and whales.


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