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.