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, who shared the objective of reducing threats and disturbances to cetaceans, recognized the need for regulation of the whale watching industry. In this context, the Port-Cros National Park, the body officially responsible for the implementation of 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 region. 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 were offering in-water encounters 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 for some form of regulation of commercial whale watching to ensure more sustainable practices and the well-being of the target populations.
However, at that time whale watching was not formally recognized under either French or Italian law as a formal category of commercial activity, and no formal regulations were in place regarding in water encounters, vessel approach distances, or standards for whale watching tours2,3. To help address this gap, Souffleurs d’Ecume collaborated with whale watching tour operators, the Port-Cros National Park 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 between Parties to the Agreements, scientists, NGOs, industry representatives and managers, the framework and content for the certificate, jointly developed by the two Agreements, were ready for testing, and the first pilot training course was held for operators in 2012. The course was offered by the French government-appointed NGO — Souffleurs d’Ecume (founded and run by authors of the 2005 study) - with support from Port-Cros National Park. In 2014, ACCOBAMS registered the High Quality Whale Watching® (HQWW®) certificate and brand as well as the "High Quality Whale Watching®" logo and the Regulations governing its use, at the World Intellectual Property Organization. The HQWW® Certificate was then issued, through a French ACCOBAMS/Pelagos Partner, to 11 French operators who followed the course and committed to adhere to the joint Pelagos/ACCOBAMS Code of Good Conduct set forth in the HQWW® registered ACCOBAMS brand4.
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 ACCOBAMS HQWW® Partners. The HQWW® Certificate implementation was timely, as a 2014 study documented 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.