Whale watching: a humane alternative

Tourists on a whale-watching trip along the New Zealand coast

Tourists on a whale-watching trip along the New Zealand coast

Whale watching is a $1.25 billion (USD) industry enjoyed by over 10 million people each year. Sadly, some tours put the welfare of whales at risk. So how can a compassionate traveller sort the good from the bad?

At their best, whale watching excursions give passengers the chance to appreciate whales in their natural environment, from a respectful distance. At their worst, they get too close, fight with other tour boats for viewing space and even encourage tourists to get close to or touch the animals.

To avoid these holiday horrors, make sure you ask some key questions.

1. What’s the law?

Some countries have laws governing the whale watching industry to protect the animals’ welfare. Countries that rely on unenforceable codes of conduct place the onus to be responsible on the tour operator.

To ensure you are joining a responsible watching excursion, ask about the local laws or codes of conduct that tour operators must follow.

“Two of the most important things to look for in a good code of contact are restrictions on distance and speed” says Claire Bass, WSPA’s Programmes Manager for Marine Mammals. “Approaching animals too close or too fast risks propeller injuries, can cause stress, stop them behaving naturally and can even separate calves from their mothers.”

Additionally, the best tours will:

  • maintain a distance of 100 metres from whales and 50 metres from dolphins, rising to 200 metres if another boat is present
  • maintain a predictable course and speed near the animals
  • keep the engine in neutral (or better still turn it off) if animals approach the vessel
  • keep to one course and speed if dolphins join a moving vessel
  • watch a particular whale or group of animals for a maximum of 15 minutes, especially if other boats are nearby
  • take turns with other boats at the watching distance.

Regulations governing whale watching tours in Argentina, Brazil and New Zealand are available on the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society website.

2. What about education and research?

Good trips will include an informed guide – sometimes a marine biologist – who can provide interesting information about wildlife. Some tour operators are actively involved in research to protect whales and will be able to give excellent insights as a result.

3. How safe is this tour?

Any boat you choose should have: an experienced, approachable skipper and crew; safety and rescue equipment; proper insurance; the required permits for operating such a vessel and guidelines for a maximum number of passengers. You should be given a safety and emergency briefing.

4. What exactly is on offer?

Sperm whale fluke seen from a whale-watching boat, New Zealand

Sperm whale fluke seen from a whale-watching boat, New Zealand

© Claire Bass/WSPA

Tour operators should say what passengers can reasonably expect. They should offer a reasonable price, be honest about their success rate for sightings and explain what happens if a trip is cancelled.

A problem trip?

If, despite all of your questioning, the tour you choose leaves you concerns about the welfare of the, you can make a detailed report to local authorities, or let WSPA know – we will do our best to investigate. Online cruelty report form >>

Join our campaign

At the 60th annual meeting of the IWC (International Whaling Commission) in June 2008, WSPA aims to pressure the IWC into making whale protection a high priority.
We believe that instead of debating hunting bans and kill quotas, the IWC should be working to protect whales and encouraging a sustainable whale watching industry that helps people understand more about these intelligent and sociable creatures.

If you agree, please write a polite letter of protest to the whaling nations.