Arches of splashing water hover over the massive tailfin, or fluke, of a lob-tailing humpback whale in the Icy Straits of southeastern Alaska. Seen among whales as well as dolphins, it is most common amongst animals that live in complex social structures, as opposed to those animals that hunt or live alone.
Whale Watching – Long Read

Rapid rise of a $2 billion industry

Photo by Duncan Murrell

Whale Watching – Long Read Rapid rise of a $2 billion industry

Whale watching has grown from a relatively small-scale activity in the 1990s to a $2 billion industry. However, the rapid rise of this global phenomenon is not without problems.

Vassili Papastavrou
Vassili Papastavrou Whale Biologist

When whale watching started to take off as a viable business, in our more optimistic moments, it seemed that commercial whaling might soon be consigned to history. After all, it was an industry few people wanted, and which produced products no one really needed. In those early “Wild West” days, there was no regulation in most places, and no clear ideas about how whale watching should be conducted; there were no aims at ensuring the whales would not disturbed. Few suspected there might be problems on the horizon.

A 2009 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare said whale watching stands as an estimated US$2.1 billion industry globally, with the number of participating countries jumping from 87 in 1998 to 119 in 2008. Newer figures show few signs that the industry is slowing down.

But, with such rapid growth, it is no wonder problems have begun to appear, being documented first in scientific literature and later in the press. Most effects are subtle. Take, for example, the orcas of Vancouver that have to ‘shout’ to make themselves heard above the din of whale-watching boats. Then there are cases where a whale-watching boat ran into a whale at high speed.

So should the true eco-tourist stay at home, as one wag from the High North Alliance (an association of whalers and sealers) once suggested? Or can whale watching be conducted in a way that genuinely benefits both whales and people?

“Whale watching in Iceland – that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard,” said an Icelandic politician before a 1993 whale-watching trip in Iceland. Whale watching had yet to start in a formal sense and, on this day, a party of British tourists had gone to Höfn, a small fishing town on the southeast corner of Iceland. Their boat was a trawler, beautifully clean and modern, but it still smelled of fish.

Nowadays, whale watching is an important part of the tourist itinerary and Húsavík, a town on the north coast of Iceland, has been transformed as a result. It has a whale museum, which, like most things in Iceland, is modern and beautifully designed.

With such rapid growth, it's no wonder problems appear

There are various companies, like North Sailing, to take you out to sea from Húsavík Bay. Set up by Hordur Sigurbjarnarson, it grew partly out of his desire to restore some of the beautiful wooden fishing boats that were now too small to be competitive with larger, more modern vessels, and would have otherwise been consigned to the scrap heap.

By 2003, when Iceland decided to resume whaling, it had a viable whale watching industry already in place, organized into IceWhale, The Icelandic Whale Watching Association. Leading the opposition to commercial and scientific whaling from within Iceland, IceWhale represented a commercial interest that not only depended upon live whales and not trade in whale products, but an industry that depended on the goodwill of tourists, many of whom came from the UK and Germany, just the countries where opposition to whaling was strongest.

The range of species seen in Iceland has included everything from Blue Whales – the largest creature ever to live on Earth – to Humpback, Fin and Minke whales, together with a range of dolphin species and an occasional Orca.

When the locations of the whale kills became public, members of IceWhale were horrified that the great majority were close to shore, many in areas where there were whale watching operations. Quite apart from the damage to Iceland’s international reputation, the whale watching operators were concerned by the real possibility that the very same friendly whales, the ones which approached the boats, were the most likely to be harpooned. And by now the whale watchers had the greater economic interest in whales: whale watching generated more money than whaling ever could.

With the whole Icelandic economy now hanging in the balance, it remains to be seen whether Iceland will want to continue to antagonize its nearest neighbours and closest allies by continuing commercial whaling. But regardless of any credit crunch effect, Iceland’s whale watching operators are now a voice for whales in a country which, prior to whale watching, saw the animals as little more than big slabs of meat. The same changes of attitude are taking place, albeit more slowly, as a result of whale watching operations in Japan – a country that happens to be one of the primary consumers of Icelandic whale meat.

Whale watching first started as an organized activity in the 1950s, with shore-based lookouts and boat trips to see migrating California Grays just off the coast of California. By 1970, boatloads of tourists were visiting the whales in their sheltered breeding lagoons to the south in Baja California.

By now the whale watchers had the greater economic interest in whales

The California Grays are a success story. Numbers had reduced so drastically that by 1946, when the International Whaling Commission was created, the species was completely protected. Now the population has recovered and currently supports a viable whale watching industry all along the California coastline.

Perhaps predictably, Gray whales were also the first species for which concerns were expressed with regard to the possibly adverse effects of whale watching. It was 1976, and a scientific paper on Gray whales was submitted to the International Whaling Commission.

At that stage, the Commission was still rubber-stamping catches of 25,000 whales so, not surprisingly, attention was focused elsewhere. Since then, the population of California Gray whales has increased substantially and there seems no real cause for concern. But to be on the safe side, the Mexican government has regulated whale watching activities and limited the number of permits to local operators.

And the ‘friendly’ whales, which seemed to enjoy approaching whale watchers, have changed attitudes to whales the world over. On a family trip to Baja two years ago, the most memorable part was camping on a windy sand spit and waking up to the sound of Gray whale blows just meters away, and watching my children waking up, still cocooned in sleeping bags, and moving caterpillar-like towards the shore for a better view.

In so many places the history of whale watching is inextricably linked with whaling but nowhere more than the Azores Islands. In the Atlantic, far west of mainland Portugal, these islands were a regular stopping off point for the Yankee whalers of the 19th century, best known through the novel Moby Dick. Many Azoreans joined those voyages and learned how to catch Sperm whales using handheld harpoons thrown from canoas, or long wooden boats, that could either be sailed or rowed.

Long after the Yankee whaling industry ended, the Azoreans kept it up, finding a small market for whale oil, and latterly for carved teeth. In 1987, the last Sperm whale was killed, at the same time that scientists were studying live whales using a small sailing boat. Not long after this, I personally led the first whale watching trip to the Azores. Peter’s Café on the island of Faial, once the haunt of whalers, has become a focus for the whale watching industry.

Whale watching is inextricably linked with whaling

Some former whalers are now employed from vigias, or lookout stations. They scan the seas with binoculars and radio the positions of whales, but this time to the whale watch boats. The traditions are very much still alive; the canoas remain seaworthy and these elegant boats are often raced by sail and oar, challenging the skill of Azoreans young and old.

New England, along the north-easterly coast of the United States, can legitimately lay claim to being one of the whale watching capitals of the world, bringing in over $30 million each year. The Humpback whales, the focus of the industry, are probably the most spectacular species to watch. Reliable in their presence, few whale watchers go home without seeing a whale and many are treated to spectacular displays of leaping whales, with 30 tons of exuberant humpback aerobatics almost clearing the water.

Whale watching in New England is a competitive business and there is pressure on the boat operators to come up with the best trips, sometime regardless of industry standards. US researcher Dave Wiley and colleagues put undercover “passengers” on board boats during the consecutive summers.

Each was equipped with a portable GPS and laser-range-finding binoculars and thus able to record the speed of the vessel and the range to the whale. The uncomfortable truth was the boats were not complying with guidelines, and were heading forward too fast and getting too close to the whales. The scientific paper caused a shockwave in the industry and regulators are still considering how best to respond.

With around 100 countries now involved in whale watching enterprises on a great variety of species, regulations and guidelines need to be put together on a case by case basis: no one size fits all. Perhaps the real problem in deciding how best to regulate whale watching is to tie any short-term behavioural effects to a population level result, such as a decline in numbers.

With so many different variables to consider, it’s hard to be sure that a mother disturbed by a vessel one day will as a result, fail to look after her calf over the next year. Population-level effects could be the result of so many different factors, from changes in food supply to other forms of disturbance, perhaps thousands of miles away at the other end of the migration cycle. So, it is usually hard to pin any singular problem on whale watching.

Humpback whales are the most spectacular to watch

A simple solution is to look after the short-term welfare of the whales that are being watched. Who knows what the long-term effect might be of driving a boat between a mother and calf? What we do know is that it is not nice for the whales in the short-term and should be avoided purely on welfare grounds.

Beyond regulations and guidelines that specify minimum approach distances and maximum speeds, another solution is to limit the number of operators through a permit system. Sperm whale watching in Kaikoura has been regulated in this way for more than two decades.

The Kaikoura trips are run by local Maoris. They take people out in fast inflatable boats to see large male Sperm whales using directional underwater microphones to position their boats close to diving animals. When the whales surface, it is usually close to the boats, which don’t then need to move fast to get a good view.

Whale watching has transformed Kaikoura, putting it on the tourist trail and providing incomes and status to Maori members of the community. South Africa followed the New Zealand model and whale watching for Southern Right whales is carefully regulated through a permit system. In both South Africa and New Zealand, the number of operators is carefully limited.

The “Wild West” days of whale watching are long-gone and the industry is being regulated, albeit imperfectly in some places. In contrast, the whaling industry, despite a moratorium adopted in 1986, is considered by some to now be less regulated than it was in 1950. In many cases, the whalers decide themselves how many whales to kill and DNA analyses of whale meat in the market in Japan show protected species on sale, some extremely endangered.

No doubt problems will continue to come to light, but on balance the important role that whale watching has in changing attitudes probably outweighs the problem of disturbance. Whales are also brilliant self-publicists, and could help avoid going back to the days of 1976 when the IWC issued catch limits for 25,000 whales in one year.


A humpback whale calf’s spectacular breach is frozen in time as it leaps out of the waters near Chichagof Island, Alaska. This particular calf became very surface active while its mother was busy bubble-net feeding with a group of other adult humpbacks – a highly organized feeding tactic that involves the whales intentionally blowing rings of bubbles to drive disoriented krill to the surface. Photo by Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan

Michael Nolan

Canon EOS 30D

98 mm

A humpback whale calf’s spectacular breach is frozen in time as it leaps out of the waters near Chichagof Island, Alaska. This particular calf became very surface active while its mother was busy bubble-net feeding with a group of other adult humpbacks – a highly organized feeding tactic that involves the whales intentionally blowing rings of bubbles to drive disoriented krill to the surface.

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