Research has shown that including a structured educational element in whale-watch tours can serve as a type of insurance to manage tourists’ expectations, and ensure that they have a pleasurable and enriching experience even if no whales dolphins are observed, or those that are observed are distant and/or do not engage in any spectacular behaviours1. Tourists appreciate and look for good environmental education during their tours2.
Since research has proven that boat-based whale and dolphin watching has the potential to disturb the animals that are being watched3, many supporters of this form of eco-tourism focus on the scope to compensate for a potential negative impact with a positive contribution to conservation by educating tourists who take part4. Counter to some expectations, simply participating in a whale-watching tour and having the opportunity to see whales or dolphins in their natural habitat, is unlikely to have any lasting impact on tourists’ conservation outlook5,6. Being close to whales or dolphins is likely to create feelings of satisfaction, well-being, and emotional connection, but real changes in tourists’ understanding and willingness to contribute to conservation efforts will only take place when the tours include a deliberate and structured educational component7,8.
When an educational element is included in a whale-watch tour, it has the potential to be tourists’ first and most important source of information about whales and dolphins9. When structured properly, and followed up with repeated whale watch experiences and post-tour communication, it can actually change tourists’ outlook and willingness to engage in conservation activities6,8,10. Research shows that tourists appreciate structured educational programmes or “interpretation” on their tours and miss it when it is not offered2.
Marine tours range from four-passenger wooden canoes in Bali to 400-passenger dedicated whale-watch vessels off the east coast of the USA4. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the way that educational components of responsible whale-watch tours are delivered. In some cases it may be a very personal and informal commentary from the boat driver, who will also act as an interpreter/guide on a small open-decked vessel with few tourists. Tours using larger vessels for more tourists may use videos or screen-based multi-media presentations, commentary over a loudspeaker system, or multiple guides moving around the vessel and engaging tourists. There are, however, a few key elements that are the hallmarks of effective educational whale-watching programmes. These can perhaps best be summarized in the five stage approach developed and presented by Johnson and McInnes in 20147. This approach is based on a model first presented by Forestell and Kaufman in 199011,12 (later modified by Orams13), using principals of learning theory and pedagogical practice. It is also based on research that shows that passengers ask different types of questions and are receptive to different types of information as their mind-set changes during different phases of a tour14: