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The ACCOBAMS High Quality Whale Watching® Certificate A multi-stakeholder certification scheme developed for sustainable whale watching in the Mediterranean Sea

History and context

Commercial whale and dolphin watching in the Northwest Mediterranean Sea began to take hold in the 1980s, and has steadily grown over the past 40 years1,2. Tours off the coasts of France, Monaco, and Italy can include encounters with striped, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins,  as well as long-finned pilot whales, Cuvier’s beaked whales, fin whales, and sperm whales. As the industry steadily grew, NGOs, managers and scientists began to question the impact that vessel-based and ‘swim with’ encounters might be having on target whale and dolphin populations.  Meanwhile, the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans of the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea and contiguous Atlantic area (ACCOBAMS) and the Pelagos Agreement on the creation of a marine mammal sanctuary in the Mediterranean Sea, which shared the goal of reducing threats and disturbances to cetaceans, recognized the need to regulate the activity of whale watching. In this context, the Port-Cros National Park (PnPC), the organization in charge of implementing France’s commitments in the Pelagos Sanctuary, developed the first Code of Good Conduct for whale watching in 2001. Shortly afterwards, in 2002, ACCOBAMS adopted Resolution 1.11, proposing region-wide guidelines for commercial whale watching activities.

As a following step, stakeholders in the region collaborated to identify and to assess whale watching activities in the ACCOBAMS area. In 2004, another study was conducted to identify whale watching operators in Italy. A second study was conducted in 2005 by the French NGO, Souffleurs d’Ecume, in collaboration with other NGOs and the National Park of Port-Cros. It concluded that many of the 25 operators offering tours off the French coast of the Mediterranean were engaging in practices that were not sustainable3.  At least five operators offered swimming with whales or dolphins, necessitating close approaches and placement of swimmers in the path of oncoming cetaceans.  Thirteen of 19 operators were documented making intrusive approaches, raising concerns about the long-term impacts of this activity.  

This first complete assessment clearly demonstrated a need to regulate commercial whale watching to ensure more sustainable practices and the well-being of the target populations.

However, at that time no formal regulations were in place2,3.  To help address this gap, Souffleurs d’Ecume collaborated with whale watching tour operators, the PnPC and the two Agreements  to develop a ‘Cahier des Charges’. This document was a refinement of the Code of Good Conduct, and included clear guidelines and a list of commitments that operators would make to limit their impacts on cetaceans and the marine environment.

After seven years of consultation and collaboration with those involved in the monitoring, supervision and practice of the activity, the framework of the certificate, developed jointly by the two Agreements,  was ready for testing, and the first pilot training course was organized for operators in 2012. It was conducted by the French association Souffleurs d'Ecume.  In 2014, ACCOBAMS registered the High Quality Whale Watching® (HQWW®) certificate and trademark, as well as the High Quality Whale Watching® logo and the Rules governing its use, with the World Intellectual Property Organization. The HQWW® certificate was then issued, through a French ACCOBAMS/Pelagos partner, to eleven French operators who attended the course and committed to adhere to the joint Pelagos/ACCOBAMS Code of Conduct set out in the HQWW® trademark registered by ACCOBAMS4.

The HQWW® certificate was formally launched in 2016 through the adoption by ACCOBAMS Parties of Resolution 6.20 on commercial cetacean watching activities in the ACCOBAMS area and the adoption of a mechanism of national implementation through ACCOBAMS Partners having applied to become HQWW® Partners. The HQWW® Certificate implementation was timely. Indeed, in 2014 a study reported a 3.5% annual increase in the number of operators offering whale watching in the French Mediterranean, and described a number of high risk areas for vessel strikes and disturbance related to whale watching2

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Implementing the High Quality Whale Watching® certificate

 By the time the HQWW® certificate was launched, the partners in its development had planned for every aspect of its implementation.  Operators who wish to obtain the certificate must commit to a number of actions, through signing a ‘Cahier des Charges’ (i.e. specifications) which are as follows:

  • Mandatory participation in a three-day training course in France and a two-day training course in Italy, that includes information on  marine ecology and conservation. It also includes information on responsible whale watching practices, and how to contribute to research and conservation.  
  • Compliance with the joint Pelagos/ACCOBAMS  Code of Good Conduct – which covers approach techniques, speed and duration of interactions with cetaceans (see details here).
  • Offer excursions focusing on marine biodiversity (avifauna, fish, turtles, etc.), rather than excursions focusing solely on cetaceans, and to include an educational/awareness-raising component in the tours, including information on marine mammals and the Mediterranean ecosystem, as well as on conservation issues and existing protection.
  • Participate in research and conservation activities, compiling and sharing observation data with ACCOBAMS and research groups by regularly transmitted to the mark's coordinating structure.
  • Offer participants the opportunity to complete satisfaction evaluation forms and to host follow-up/monitoring visits by members of the HQWW® brand training and implementation team during an evaluation visit.
  • Contribute to a multi-stakeholder group that regularly updates the certificate specifications and evaluates its implementation measures to ensure that it remains relevant and effective.  This group meets every four years to review and determine whether any of its measures require revision or adaptation. For example, from 2021 onwards, with agreement from all stakeholders, the managers, captains and guides of each tour boat will be required to have undergone HQWW® training,  whereas previously it was sufficient for the guide or another crew member to have been trained. This will ensure that the approach guidelines are followed and that the boats are properly guided around the animals.

Also, operators commit to: 

- Not offer swimming with cetaceans

- Not combine any form of fishing with cetacean watching

In France, Italy and Monaco, in addition to what is included in the common 'cahier des charges', operators commit to not use airborne detection systems to locate cetaceans (such as aircraft or drones).

The certificate is supported by clearly defined sanctions for non-compliance with any of the above commitments, ranging from a warning letter, to expulsion or removal from the certificate and a ban on reapplication for serious or repeated violations.

The HQWW® certificate has been successfully implemented in France by Souffleurs d’Ecume and has been run since 2021 by the association MIRACETI. In 2022, a total of seventeen whale watching structures will have received the HQWW® certificate.

Based on the success of the programme in the French Mediterranean, it has also been adapted for use in the French overseas territory of Mayotte, where the National Marine Park acts as the implementing agency with support from the French appointed NGO in the Mediterranean.  This required significant adaptations to the content of the training and the commitments to be made by the operators, so that they are applicable in a totally different context in terms of cetacean species, the marine environment and local cultural values. This deployment of the certificate ended in March 2022 following three years of experimentation. This was due to various observations, in particular the low number of operators involved in the process since it was set up and, in general, a low level of local support for a national label-type scheme.

In Italy, the HQWW® certificate has been successfully implemented by the CIMA Research Foundation. The implementation of the Certificate in Italy started in 2019 within the framework of the EcoSTRIM project, thanks to the funds from the EU for the INTERREG Italy-France Maritime Program. In 2020, 18 operators were certified. Each certified operator is now licensed to fly the HQWW® flag onboard (see photo).  In addition, to encourage operators to collect and share observation data from their tours, a smartphone application – IlogWhale -  has been developed for the EcoSTRIM project following the criteria of ACCOBAMS Resolution 6.20 Annex 4.

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Lessons learned and recommendations for the future


Although the certificate is a success in many respects, the teams working on its development and implementation have faced a number of challenges and limitations. For example, the participation in the certification scheme is still voluntary and sanctions imposed by the implementing bodies have no legal force. Non-certified operators who wish to offer their clients swimming with cetaceans or using aerial support to locate cetaceans can still do so. Operators committed to the HQWW® certification may thus lose clients and revenue in areas where non-HQWW® certified operators continue to offer cetacean swimming trips and/or use aerial tracking.

However, today, in light of these challenges, the organizations responsible for implementing the HQWW® certification are continually seeking to strike a balance between making the certification commitments ambitious enough to minimise disturbance to target cetacean populations, but not so ambitious that they are fully acceptable to operators for voluntary adoption.  The International Agreements and Partners involved in the certification are working to develop effective ways to use social media to raise awareness and educate the public so that they are equipped with the understanding and knowledge that will make them choose a responsible HQWW® operator over an operator that does not have the certificate.

While regulations of the Pelagos Sanctuary prohibit endangering or ‘harassing’ cetaceans, a formal legal framework stipulating the conduct of boats during whale watching activities, as well as launching with cetaceans, could be more effective in reducing the impacts of this tourism on these species.  In France, the eight resident cetacean species are protected by ministerial decrees at the national level and prefectoral decrees at the local level. Since 2020, the decree of 3 September prohibits "[...] intentional disturbance including the approach of animals to a distance of less than 100 meters in the marine protected areas mentioned in Article L. 334-1 of the Environment Code, and the pursuit or harassment of animals in the natural environment." In 2021 this ban was extended to all territorial waters of the Mediterranean coast.


After 13 years of experience from conception to implementation and adaptation of the ACCOBAMS HQWW® certificate, the partners involved in its development and implementation can provide the following advice to other organizations or regions that are considering a similar system:

  • Involve a wide range of stakeholders from the beginning of the program, and ensure their input. Most importantly, this should include the operators themselves, so that they feel a sense of ownership and involvement in the certificate. However, it should also involve international authorities, NGOs, research bodies, park authorities, and local authorities6, among others.
  • If a system is being transferred from one geographical location to another, make sure that local stakeholders, including operators, in the new area are consulted and have the opportunity to provide input.
  • Incorporate mechanisms that will allow the certification to evolve and adapt to changing conditions, such as an increase in the number of operators (and pressure on animals), a shift in cetacean distribution, new knowledge concerning the consequences of tourism, or a new legal framework6

These are themes that are strongly echoed in other case studies and advice in this handbook, particularly with regards to a stakeholder engagement and adaptive management.


For more information about the ACCOBAMS High Quality Whale Watching® Certificate please consult:

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Show / Hide References
  1. O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H. & Knowles, T. Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits; a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare. (Yarmouth MA, USA, 2009).
  2. Mayol, P. et al. Le whale-watching en Méditerranée française: état des lieux et recommandations. Sci. Rep. Port-Cros natl. Park 28, 133-143 (2014).
  3. Resolution 4.5 of the Pelagos Agreement on the creation of a label for the activities of Whale watching, 4th Meeting of the Parties of the Pelagos Agreement (Monaco, 19-21 of October 2009).
  4. Mayol, P., Beaubrun, P., Dhermain, F. & Richez, G. Le whale watching en Mediterranee. Les enjeux d'un developpement durable. Espaces 244, 42 (2007).
  5. Record of decisions of the meeting on the governance of the certificate “High Quality Whale Watching®” (Hyères, France — 7th of July 2015).
  6. Chazot, J., Hoarau, L., Carzon, P., Wagner, J., Sorby, S., Ratel, M., & Barcelo, A. (2020). Recommendations for sustainable cetacean-based tourism in French territories: a review on the industry and current management actions. Tourism in Marine Environments, 15(3-4), 211-235.

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