Whale Watching the Responsible Way

Whale Watching the Responsible Way

The awe-inspiring experience of observing whales in their natural habitat is increasingly popular. However, no responsible whale watcher would want any harm to come to the creatures they delight in. So, it is vital they know how to ensure the safely and well-being of the often-vulnerable cetaceans they are watching.

Whale Watching by Private Boat

There are laws covering how close a boat can legally get to certain whales, so it is important to be aware of these before embarking. Rules differ for different species of whale, and for specific locations. For example, in Hawaii 100 yards is the legal minimum distance to keep between a boat and a humpback whale. In any case, a responsible whale watcher would not want to approach a whale or a pod too closely. The Hawaiian limit of 100 yards is a good general guide, with minimal risk of distressing the whales.

Whale Watching by Private Boat
Whale Watching by Private Boat

It is recommended that boats should approach in parallel with the whales’ path, and not cut across them. Care should be taken to not block them from moving to deeper waters; if they are sent off course to shallow waters, they may become disorientated and be at risk of stranding. The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) recommends that boats should keep to a speed of less than 10 knots when entering an area where whales may be found. A knock from even a small power boat could cause injury to a whale, which in itself could be life threatening, as well as increasing the danger of stranding. Of course, a collision is a potentially dangerous situation for people in a boat, too.

The longer boats stay near whales, the more risk there is from the boats’ presence. The proximity and the engine sounds can distract the whales from hunting for food, and it is well documented that noise pollution can affect their ability to keep to their migration routes. With this in mind, 30 minutes is the recommended maximum viewing time in any one area. It is important to be aware of the behaviour of any whales in the area. Changes in behaviour may indicate distress being caused. For example, a sudden change in swimming pattern, repeated tail slapping on the surface or female whales shielding their calves should be taken seriously. Boats in this instance should slowly and carefully leave the area directly.

Commercial Tours

Once on a commercial tour, whale watchers have little say in how it is run. Therefore, it is important to research the various companies offering tours, before making a decision. Look at:

  • What the company offers online – any offering to get ‘up close’ with whales, for example, clearly won’t adhere to good practice.
  • Reviews of the company and previous tours.
  • Their information leaflets and display boards.
  • Size of boat and how many passengers they allow as a maximum on each tour.
  • Also, ask questions directly of the people who will take the boats out. What makes good practice for whale watching in private boats should also be part of the company’s practice on their tours.

The World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) has produced a Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching.  This is an excellent additional reference.


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