Is whale watching bad for whales?

Nothing beats seeing whales in their natural habitat. These magnificent mammals are simply awe-inspiring. Importantly, they need to be protected and respected but this is not always the case where whale watching companies are concerned…

Commercial whale watching began in the 1950s in the United States and today, more than 120 countries are involved – including several relatively new countries in South America and Asia. There is great interest in whale watching- 13 million people go out on organised boat trips every year – and consequently, there is plenty of money to be made from organising such excursions. It is estimated that the whale watching industry is worth in excess of £1.32 billion each year.

Concerns were first raised by the International Whale Commission in 2011 and delegates were keen to initiate monitoring of poorly managed whale watching companies. It is essential that the boat trips are organised carefully to minimise the impact on the whales, but unfortunately, this aspect can be neglected when there is so much money at stake. Whale watching can cause both short and long term problems for the whales, which is particularly worrying as seven of the 14 breeds of whales are currently endangered

Problems are far ranging and start with the possibility of pleasure boats colliding with the whales. The boats can affect the behaviour of the whales including their feeding, resting -and crucially- the rearing of their young. Dr David Lusseau from the institute of Biological & Environmental Science at the University of Aberdeen explains that whale watching –

“can be no big deal once or twice, but problems start if this is repeated again and again over time. Whale watching is a big industry- in some places, boats can go out 10 times a day.

The impact can be devastating, as he explains –

“In the long term this can have an impact of the whales’ vital rates. Females can even stop producing enough milk for their calves, which can decrease the survival rate of their young”

The very fact that everyone on a whale watching excursion wants to see many whales, means that the boats go to the areas where whales will definitely be seen – their feeding grounds. This can of course cause the whales great anguish as they try to forage for food. Many will start avoiding the feeding ground and others will use a great deal of energy trying to get away from the boats at a time when they should be feeding.

Another major problem caused by frequent whale watching boats is that the whales are not being given the chance to rest properly. This causes an increase in their respiratory rate. If this is a rare occurrence, this will not impact the health of the whales, but regularly being unable to rest will cause the whales problems as they will become stressed and may well change location – only for it all to start again.

Noise pollution is another important consideration. For whales, hearing is their most important sense and they communicate to each other by ‘singing’. Unfortunately, only too often, a group of noisy boats works its way among the whales and this they find terrifying because the noise level of revving engines is so great – and can be distracting to them. 

Some countries are acting responsibly and have introduced voluntary legislation that controls the number of boats that are in the area at any one time and importantly, the speed that they are travelling. Unfortunately, these recommendations are hard to monitor as the boats often travel quite a distance in search of the whales. Other countries are doing nothing about restricting their whale watching industry and this is proving disastrous    

The Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has a Responsible Whale Watching Programme in place and is happy to advise whale watching companies worldwide on how to operate responsibly. The WDCS also has guidelines for those who would like to join a whale watching excursion-

‘ ask tour operators whether any regulations or voluntary codes apply in their area. Also, it is usually a good sign if a trip includes an onboard naturalist to provide educational commentary about the whales and the marine environment.

It’s also worth remembering whale watching can be done from dry land. This is safest option and what the WDCS recommends whenever possible’.’

Further guidelines are available from

There is no need to ban whale watching, but there is a great need for all excursions to be conducted responsibly. Whale watching can be a financial life line for many communities where fishing can no longer support the families, but it must be sensitive to the needs of the whales. Importantly, whale watching must be carefully conducted and balanced to cause minimum disturbance to the whales. 

There are two advantages for continuing sensitive and responsibly run whale watching tours. The first advantage, is that if the whale watching industry continues to be such a lucrative money spinner, it will ensure that countries will be under great pressure not to allow the re-introduction of commercial whaling. The second advantage is that as more and more members of the public go on whale watching excursions to see the whales in their natural habitats, they learn to appreciate how special whales are. They learn about the whales’ importance in the marine food chain and will join in the global condemnation of anything that puts whales at risk….