Contributing to science and conservation

Responsible whale watching activities can have many benefits, with one of the greatest being their potential to serve as platforms of opportunity for the collection of data that can be used to better understand and protect whale and dolphin populations1-3. Most types of whale research are more effectively conducted from dedicated research vessels that can design field research to address questions in a methodical manner.  During dedicated scientific surveys, research questions, rather than the pressure to please tourists, determine which whales or dolphins will be approached and how long the research vessel will spend with them. Many types of research, such as biopsy sampling, satellite tagging or prey sampling are not suitable to combine with whale watching operations, as they require research permits, precise and tailored vessel approaches, bulky specialist equipment and/or extended time following individual whales4.  However, running dedicated research vessels is expensive and time consuming.  Whale watching vessels collectively spend more time on the water and run trips with greater frequency than any research vessel could hope to over a particular season.  With training, a GPS and suitable cameras with good zoom lenses, guides and (in some parts of the world) passengers on whale watching vessels can collect data that can be shared with scientists to make valuable contributions to photo-identification studies and the long-term monitoring of whale populations.  

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Some of the most practical and valuable types of data that can be easily collected from whale watching platforms include:

  • Positional data on whale and dolphin sightings:  Whale watching platforms can use simple GPSs (now built into most smart phones) to record the exact location of sightings made during their tours.  This information can be accompanied by information on the species observed, the group size and whether or not calves were present.  If collected regularly and by guides or vessel captains who are known to be experienced and reliable in their identification of whale and dolphin species, these data can have enormous value in mapping the seasonal presence and distribution of different species in a target area.  The submission of photographs with sightings data can help researchers to confirm species identification if the data are coming from less experienced/trusted sources.
  • Effort data: Positional data on whale and dolphin sightings can be made even more valuable if they are accompanied by effort, or track, data.  Many commercial whale watching vessels are equipped with GPS systems that allow the vessel to record its track from the time that it leaves the harbour until it returns. The mapping of whale or dolphin sightings in relation to these track data or search effort provides insight not only into where the animals are, but where they are not, allowing researchers to better identify areas of preferred or important habitat that merit extra conservation measures.

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  • Photo-identification data: While many different methods are used by researchers to study whales and dolphins, photo-identification of individuals is one of the cornerstones that underpins many other aspects of research.  Individual humpback whales are recognizable over time by the unique colouration on the underside of their tail flukes, as well as the serrations on the trailing edges of their flukes and permanent scarring and notches on their dorsal fins5.  Many other species can be recognized over time by scarring and nicks on their dorsal fins.  Right whales can be recognized by the pattern of callosities on their heads.  While it used to be necessary to have high quality camera equipment with zoom lenses to take photos suitable for individual identification, the image quality and zoom functions of smaller “point and shoot” cameras are continually improving, making it possible for a wider range of individuals to obtain images that could be useful for photo-identification.
  • Data on the demographics and values of whale watchers:  Several useful studies on the value of whale watching have involved interviews or questionnaire surveys with whale watchers, conducted in collaboration with whale watching tour operators who either distribute questionnaires to their clients or allow researchers to approach their clients during or immediately following tours.  The results of these surveys have proven useful in evaluating the trends and potential for improvement to whale watching industries around the world. 

These principal types of data are usually only useful if they are shared with scientists who can place them into a wider context and analyse them together with data collected during dedicated whale and dolphin surveys.

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Data can be shared with researchers in the following ways:

  • Hosting researchers on board: Whale watching operators who host researchers on their tours usually find that the extra place taken up on the vessel is more than compensated by the data they collect and share (for example, providing insight into hotspots and seasonal trends that allow them to find whales more easily), as well as the knowledge they can share with guests.  This model has worked well in the Gulf of Maine and the Antarctic, among other places where data collected on board whale watching vessels has contributed to peer-reviewed studies that aid conservation efforts1,3
  • Partnership with local research groups:  Whale watching tour operators can also partner with local research groups by collecting data themselves and sharing it with the researchers.  In the Gulf of Maine, the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) has provided a research protocol to a number of NGOs and tour operators from Nantucket to Nova Scotia, which contribute data to its humpback whale catalogue and research. The CCS Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog contains photos documenting each time that an individual whale was encountered, accompanied by detailed information for each individual, including age, sex, relatedness to other whales, number of offspring, observed behavior, distribution of sighting locations and evidence for human impacts (e.g. scarring or entanglement events).  Today the catalogue includes photographs of approximately 3,000 individuals seen at least once since the 1970s. Over the years, whale watching data shared with scientists have contributed to over 75 peer-reviewed papers on aspects of their biology and life history1, including some of the first information on frequency of humpback whale calving and reproduction6,7; site fidelity and timing of annual arrival on the feeding grounds8; distribution and habitat choice9,10; and stock identity and movements between feeding and breeding grounds11-13.  Sightings data from whale watching platforms helped to identify Stellwagen Bank as an important area for whales, and served as a foundation for its designation as a US National Marine Sanctuary.  Whale watching data were also among those used by managers of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to justify the re-routing of shipping traffic away from the highest areas of whale density14 in an effort to better protect endangered right whales. 

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Citizen Science Apps:  An increasing number of citizen science Apps allow tourists or guides on whale watching tours to report sightings with positional data or upload good quality photos that can be used for photo-identification.  These Apps include:

  • Whale Alert is an App originally designed to allow real-time reporting of whale positions that could be relayed to ports and vessels to reduce the risk of ship strikes for the Endangered North Atlantic right whale population.  It is now also used on both the east and west coasts of the USA to allow citizen scientists to upload sightings data that can inform researchers and government bodies as well as the shipping industry on whale distribution and conservation needs.
  • Wildme/ is an App that allows citizen scientists to upload photo-ID quality photos of humpback or sperm whales (with additional species envisaged for the future) for comparison with an existing digital catalogues of ID photos.  The App uses ‘computer vision’, a combination of search algorithms to conduct automated matching, and is improving in accuracy as time goes on.  The platform has been used to archive and analyze a long term dataset collected through the SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales) initiative, as well as a long-term sperm whale research project in Dominica.
  • HappyWhale allows citizen scientists to upload sightings data and ID quality photos for automated matching. Images will be matched to known whales in a global dataset, and contributors are notified when their whale is identified and in the future whenever their whale is re-sighted.  It has been used by guides on board tours in the Antarctic, Arctic and North Pacific, resulting in useful contributions to the Antarctic humpback whale photo-ID catalogue15.
  • Seafari allows reporting and tracking of marine mammal activity. It also includes species information, pictures and distribution maps for marine mammals specific to the Eastern and Southern African coastlines. The App allows citizen scientists to contribute to the body of knowledge about marine mammal behaviour, distribution and movements.
  • Whale & Dolphin Tracker has the ability to both record GPS track (effort) and sightings of whales and dolphins from any location around the world. The platform provides an opportunity for both professional scientists and members of the public to contribute to a synoptic view of cetacean sightings over a wide area and over long periods of time16. Sightings are curated in a global database that can help researchers determine patterns of species distribution, and have been used to contribute to scientific understanding of humpback whales in Hawaii17.

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Show / Hide References
  1. Robbins, J. A review of scientific contributions from commercial whale watching platforms. Report presented to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/52/WW9, 10 (2000).
  2. Bruce, E., Albright, L., Sheehan, S. & Blewitt, M. Distribution patterns of migrating humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Jervis Bay, Australia: A spatial analysis using geographical citizen science data. Applied Geography 54, 83-95, doi: (2014).
  3. Williams, R., Hedley, S. & Hammond, P. Modeling distribution and abundance of Antarctic baleen whales using ships of opportunity. Ecology and Society 11 (2006).
  4. Robbins, J. & Mattila, D. The use of commercial whalewatching platforms in the study of cetaceans: benefits and limitations. . Report presented to the meeting of the Conservation Committee of the International Whaling Commission SC/52/WW8, 7 (2000).
  5. Katona, S. K. & Whitehead, H. Identifying Humpback Whales Using their Natural Markings. Polar Record 20, 439-444 (1981).
  6. Clapham, P. J. Age at attainment of sexual maturity in humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae. Canadian Journal of Zoology 70, 1470-1472 (1992).
  7. Clapham, P. J. & Mayo, C. A. Reproduction of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) observed in the Gulf of Maine 171-175 (1990).
  8. Clapham, P. J. et al. Seasonal occurrence and annual return of humpback whales, Megaptera novaeangliae, in the southern Gulf of Maine Canadian Journal of Zoology 71 440-443 (1992).
  9. Weinrich, M. Early experience in habitat choice by humpback Wales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Journal of Mammology 79, 163-170 (1998).
  10. Weinrich, M., Martin, M., Griffiths, R., Bove, J. & Schilling, M. A shift in distribution of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in response to prey in the southern Gulf of Maine. Fishery Bulletin 95, 826-836 (1997).
  11. Clapham, P. et al. Abundance and demographic parameters of humpback whales from the Gulf of Maine, and stock definition relative to the Scotian Shelf. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 5, 13-22 (2003).
  12. Barco, S. G. et al. Population identity of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states. Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 4, 135-142 (2002).
  13. Katona, S. K. & Beard, J. A. Population size, migrations and feeding aggregations of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Report of the International Whaling Commission (Special Issue 12), 295-306 (1990).
  14. Sanctuary, S. B. N. M. Shifting the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), 2017).
  15. Stevick, P. et al. Interim Report: IWC Research Contract 16, Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogue. Report No. SC/67A/PH/03, 8 (Bled, Slovenia, 2017).
  16. Currie, J. J., Stack, S. H. & Kaufman, G. Conservation and education through eco-tourism: Using citizen science to monitor cetaceans in the 4-island region of Maui, Hawaii. Tourism in Marine Environments (In Press).
  17. Currie, J. J., Stack, S. H., McCourdic, J. A. & Roberts, J. Utilizing Occupancy Models and Platforms-of-Opportunity to Assess Area Use of Mother-Calf Humpback Whales. Open Journal of Marine Science 8, 276-292 (2018).

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