While whale watching is perceived as an activity that can impart economic value to whales and dolphins, and thus provide an incentive to preserve them in their natural habitat, it also has the potential to negatively affect the populations that are targeted for tourism1. It is important for whale watching tour operators and managers responsible for regulating whale watching tourism to understand both the benefits and the potential impacts of this activity. A failure to take measures to minimize or mitigate these impacts could lead to whales and dolphins leaving the area where they are watched and under pressure, or even a significant drop in population numbers due to stress and an inability for the animals to engage in important functions like feeding and resting.
The benefits of whale watching
Whale watching tourism is rapidly growing around the world, estimated to generate over 2 billion US dollars and provide employment for over 13,000 people in 20092,3. A number of coastal communities have been transformed by the introduction of whale watch tourism, such as Kaikoura, New Zealand, where annual visitor numbers rose from 3,400 to an estimated 873,000 over a period of roughly 10 years4-6. Whale watching also makes significant and long-term contributions to employment and the economy in Scotland7-9, and many other coastal communities around the world where whale watching is growing more rapidly than other forms of tourism2,10. In these communities, the income and jobs generated by whale watching can foster a sense of pride and stewardship for the whales and dolphins upon which the local economy depends7.
In addition to generating income and employment in coastal communities, responsible whale watching that includes an educational element has the potential to foster an appreciation for wildlife in its natural habitat and raise awareness of whale and dolphin conservation needs among participating tourists11-15. These inspired tourists may become active proponents of environmental and conservation actions16,17.
Whale watching vessels can also serve as valuable platforms of opportunity for the collection of data on whale or dolphin distribution, habitat use, and long-term photo-identification studies18,19. Long-term partnerships between whale watch tour operators and researchers in the Gulf of Maine have resulted in the publication of over 75 peer-reviewed scientific papers that include the use of data collected on board whale watching vessels. The hosting of whale researchers on live-aboard eco-tours in the Antarctic provides researchers with cost-effective access to an extremely remote area where they can conduct valuable studies on whales and their habitat.
While the benefits of responsible whale watching are substantial and varied, these need to be weighed against the potential effects of whale watching in order to ensure that negative impacts can be mitigated by active management measures.