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The Animal Science Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about scientific and technological topics related to pets, livestock, and other animals. See how cutting-edge advances help - or hinder - species around the world.

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Are Whalewatch Cruises Bad for the Whales?

Posted November 08, 2016 12:00 AM by BestInShow

Last September my husband and I spent an hour on Stellwagen Bank watching the most amazing display of humpback whales one could ever expect to experience. I can state this with great confidence. The naturalist on board our whalewatch ship told us that in 6000 whalewatches over 20 years he had never seen so many whales in one place at one time. That afternoon the boat happened upon an enormous school of fish, or maybe several schools, which attracted the whales. These magnificent creatures breached, opening their vast mouths, gulping enormous volumes of food-filled water, then expelling the water through the baleen in their upper jaws. Whales gathered in groups of five or 10 and more and breached nearly simultaneously. And they didn’t stop. The naturalist counted between 35 and 50 individuals. As my husband said, after a while you started thinking, oh, another half-dozen whales to starboard, big deal. I still get chills remembering that magical hour.

Humpback whales feeding, Stellwagen Bank. The birds are shearwaters. Photo credit: Mr. Best in Show

After we returned to Provincetown, though, I started wondering how much the intrusion of whalewatch cruises disturbs whales. The whalewatch operator that Mr. Best in Show and I always patronize is an original participant in WhaleSENSE, a voluntary organization sponsored by NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), that promotes responsible whalewatch operations. Practices promoted by WhaleSENSE cover the operation of the boat, passenger education, and human interactions with the giant mammals. As far as I can tell, this company adheres to the extensive and detailed WhaleSENSE requirements and guidelines. But who figured out that these rules and regulations are accurate and adequate? Just because they make intuitive sense to me, a whale might disagree. So I started poking around for more information.

Whalewatching History

The first commercial whalewatch cruise set sail from the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, CA, in 1955. Subsequently whalewatching spread up the western coast of the US, then to the east coast, and eventually to 119 countries world-wide. Erich Hoyt published the first guidebook, The Whale Watcher’s Handbook, in 1984. Hoyt also conducted the first worldwide whalewatching survey, in 1992. The UK used an updated survey (1995) to underpin its argument to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) that living whales have economic value. Many developing countries rely on revenues from whalewatching to boost their gross domestic product; estimated worldwide revenues in 2009 were over $2 billion.

Video credit: Whale Video Company/Dolphin Fleet /CC by SA 4.0

Research on Whalewatching

The rapid increase of interest in whalewatching cruises is fueling scientific research on its effects. Most of us are aware of the declining population of whales, with both northern and southern right whales the most endangered of several declining species. One positive impact of whalewatching is the increased research on these and other marine mammals. Researchers frequently hitch rides on whalewatch boats and are able to observe the animals’ behaviors in a variety of conditions and locations. For example, the naturalists that cruise with our whalewatch operator keep records on each voyage, noting species, number of individuals, and interesting or novel behaviors. Gathering information about the impact of whalewatching on whales, while on a whalewatch, is the height of irony. Fortunately, responsible operators adhere to best practices established through prior research, to minimize the negative impact of a boatload of tourists.

Researchers have identified many short-term behavioral effects tied to the intrusion of whalewatch boats. For example, some animals will charge the boats; others will swim the opposite direction. However, responses aren’t always predictable, depending on species, location, time of day, and whether the whales are feeding or resting. Guidelines based on observations of short-term behavior cover maintaining a specified distance from whales, creating no wake when whales are present, and limiting contact with mother-calf pairs, among many others.

However, cetacean specialists are not as sanguine about physiological impacts or long-term effects of the constant presence of boats. We do know that noise from marine traffic disrupts whales’ ability to navigate and to communicate with each other. A recent study confirmed that noise from shipping disturbed humpback whales’ food-seeking behavior. Noise also changed behavior of prey.

Chronic stress, whether from environmental noise or the frequent presence of whalewatch boats, can wreak havoc with multiple cetacean systems. Research on dolphins demonstrated that fertility and reproductive rates diminish under stress. Although no published research documents similar effects on whale populations, we could expect similar disruptions. The effects of environmental stress on humans are well documented, so it’s reasonable to expect to find that stress has equally deleterious effects on whales. Bottom line, the jury’s still out on the question of whalewatching’s impact on whales.

Whale approach guidelines. WhaleSENSE Atlantic Participation Checklist

Bigger threats than whalewatching?

Compared to other anthropogenic threats to whales’ existence, whalewatching cruises are noise in the system. The disruptions from ocean acidification and global warming are changing marine environments, perhaps irretrievably. These changes affect food location and availability, among other factors. Pollution – such as oil spills and sewage dumping – also diminishes the ocean environment’s quality. Overfishing contributes to potential extinction of large marine species, including whales. And some countries still hunt whales, some species to extinction.In the midst of all of this bad news, whalewatching can make a positive contribution to whale conservation. As national incomes grow from increased whalewatch revenues, national governments could start to realize that a live whale is worth a lot more, for a lot longer, than a dead whale. As mentioned above, whalewatch craft provide platforms for researchers and conservationists. If a whalewatch encounters an animal in distress, prompt contact with relevant government and conservation groups could help save it. At a fundamental level, passengers learn about the state of whale conservation and how to take steps to make improvements.

Mark Carwardine, author of Guide to Whale Watching in Britain and Europe , believes that, on balance, responsible whalewatching benefits the whales. I’m relieved and encouraged. But I don’t know if I’ll take another whalewatch cruise. Nothing will compare to the experience I had in September.


The modelling and assessment of whale-watching impacts. Ocean & Coastal Management 115 (October 2015), 10-16. Retrieved 11/1/2016.

Biggest Ocean Animals Are ‘Poised to Disappear,” Posted September 15, 2016. Retrieved November 1, 2016.

WhaleSENSE Atlantic Participation Checklist. Retrieved November 1, 2016.

Whalewatching. International Whaling Commission. Retrieved November 1, 2016.


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Re: Are Whalewatch Cruises Bad for the Whales?

11/08/2016 9:08 PM

Yes I think it's harassment...every time the whales surface everybody is yelling at them....It must be much like what celebrities face from paparazzi ...

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Re: Are Whalewatch Cruises Bad for the Whales?

11/09/2016 8:55 AM

On the cruises we've taken, the passengers mostly shout WOW or Whale at 11:00. Many of the humpbacks that come to Stellwagen are regular migrants to the area, and I think they get accustomed to the boats. The first cruise we took, a mama humpback brought her calf up to the boat and hung around for a while. She was clearly showing us her baby. The crowd of whales we watched in September clearly didn't find us intrusive. But not every whalewatch cruise operator can be trusted to follow the guidelines.

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