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History and context
Whale watching was first established in Brazil on the Abrolhos Bank in the 1990s, becoming increasingly popular over the following 10 years. The industry focuses on a population of humpback whales that migrates from the Antarctic to these offshore islands to mate and calve and nurse their young each year, and this population is increasing rapidly following the cessation of commercial whaling1-4. In 2001 whale watching expanded further north to Praia do Forte, and from there to various other coastal towns in the Bahia state of Brazil. Between 2001 and 2004, whale watching in Praia do Forte was limited to a single operator that worked in close collaboration with the research and conservation group Projeto Baleia Jubarte (Humpback Whale Project or PBJ)5. Whale watching was rewarding on this coastline, where the continental shelf is narrow, and humpback whales are often found closer inshore than other areas of Brazil’s coast. Recognizing the value of this unique narrow shelf habitat, the government created a marine protected area of roughly 3,600 square kilometers called the North Coast Continental Shelf Protected Area (Área de Proteção Ambiental da Plataforma Continental do Litoral Norte).
Since 2004 whale watching has continued in this protected area, gradually increasing to the point where four operators based in Praia do Forte were running an average of 13 trips per day in 2015, accommodating over 3,000 tourists over the season6. The four operators offering tours in Praia do Forte all collaborate with the PBJ, hosting researchers who collect photo-identification and other whale sightings data from the tour vessels, and even making financial contributions to the NGO’s research and conservation efforts6. PBJ staff train vessel operators and guides from all four businesses, and help to promote awareness of the need to respect approach guidelines and minimize disturbance to whales6. They also help to ensure that operators include a strong element of education in their tours.
As of the 2016-17 whale watching season, the industry seemed to be in balance and harmony in Praia do Forte. However, noting trends of increasing tourism numbers throughout Brazil, and conscious that other whale watching destinations around the globe have experienced uncontrolled explosions of tourists and whale watchers, the PBJ initiated an exercise to try and assess the whale watching carrying capacity of the town and the protected area in order to be prepared for possible expansion.