Travel Guide: Sustainable Whale Watching

Updated: Jun 11

Whether you are a traveler, conservationist, whale lover, or all three (like me), you may find yourself passing through an area with an opportunity to experience the whales and dolphins up close. If you've ever been whale watching, you know just how magical it is. Sometimes, whales will come right up the boat, breach, or play. Whale watching tour boats have a front row show to the action, resulting in a huge market for these activities.


There are regions all around the world that have seasonal, migratory, or year-round whale and dolphin populations of all species. This industry generates millions of dollars annually, and many small towns that offer this activity are reliant upon this revenue. This means, essentially, boats must show clients whales to make money. This can create a situation where there is pressure upon captains and companies to deliver a special experience, every time, despite the impact on the species. With ever-growing disdain for captivity, the market is being flooded with more and more demand for exciting tours in the wild. And not all whale watching tours are created equally.


In Hawaii, there is little to no regulation on the whale and dolphin tours. Local populations of spinner dolphins are bombarded with boat presence and noise every day of the year, multiple times a day. This disrupts their ability to forage, introduces stress, and prevents them from sleeping. Wild populations of dolphins and whales can be severely impacted by these interactions, especially the "swim with wild dolphin tours" that, in some cases, appear to chase pods down and throw 15-20 people in the water right in front of their swim path.


There is no doubt that society is moving away from captivity, permanently. The psychological and physical trauma associated with it is undeniable, and people care about these animals. Observing wild populations of whales can be an enriching, educational, and promote ocean and whale conservation if done correctly. But, we cannot rely on the market to regulate these companies. As a conservationist you must be rigorous to support tour boats that prioritize the best interests of the whales over profits. I'm going to teach you how.




1. Use "eco" in your keyword search


When you are looking for a tour boat company to go with, using the word "eco," in your keyword search can make a big difference. If a company has environmental messaging in their name, I would probably check that one out first. Ecotours often have educational videos you watch beforehand, promoting conservation awareness and providing scientific information to get you excited about the species you are seeing. This allows passengers to take away knowledge as well as experience. Tours that treat animals and the environment fairly and respectfully are proud to stand by their values, and these are the businesses you want to support with your money.


2. Reviews are your best friend


All of these companies will have a least a few reviews online. Reading a handful of them will give you great insights on what to expect on your tour, whether it be customer service, duration, or the ecofriendly practices in place. These reviews will likely show you more honest and unbiased information than you would get from an employee.


3. Call and ask


If you are unable to get the information you need from your internet search and reviews, just pick up the phone like its 1995 and ask. This is so important because by you calling and verbally asking how they treat the animals, you are showing a very clear and direct demand for those business practices. That is what influences businesses to change their behavior. If they are anything less than helpful and transparent, I would take it as a red flag and let them know that environmental stewardship is one of your priorities as a whale watching client. A business will definitely respond to that.


4. Be prepared to stand up for whales


A tour company may advertise eco friendly practices, and you may end up on a boat that you thought was aligned with your values as a conservationist. But not all captains and employees are the same, and training may not be rigorous regarding treatment of marine mammals. At the end of the day, some boat operators may prioritize tips over distance boundaries, and the whales end up paying the real price. If you feel uncomfortable in any way, speak up and let the boat operator politely know that they may be harassing the animal. The whales cannot speak for themselves.

  • If the whale is swimming frantically away from the boat, and the boat continues to chase it down - speak up.

  • If the boat is directly cutting off the whales path and causes a change in the whales behavior - speak up (In the United States that is technically illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.)

  • If the boat is within 50 feet of the animal (and the animal did not approach the boat) - speak up.

  • If the boat is discarding debris into the ocean - speak up.

  • If multiple boats are "corralling," the animal to get a closer view - speak up.

  • If the animal is approaching the boat very closely (less than 10 feet) and the engine is not in neutral - speak up.

Sometimes whales voluntarily come right up to boats. That may be their inquisitive nature, and boat operators cannot do anything about it. The main point that they freely chose to do so. That is different than approaching the animals space.


5. Don't forget to pass along the information, good or bad


Leave a review after you go on your whale watching tour, so others will better understand the experience. If warranted, compliment the environmental stewardship and highlight the best parts of your experience. This way, other visitors will choose this eco friendly company over alternative businesses in the area. Be specific, so others can see exactly why you are giving the review you are. On the other hand, if you feel boundaries were crossed with the animal, let them know either in person or online. Talk to the supervisor after. What matters is to not stay silent. This will promote transparency and verbally show a demand for environmentally friendly practices.


6. Lastly, enjoy yourself!


Whale watching is one of the most incredible experiences you can have, and it is special every time. If you do the research beforehand, you can hopefully be confident that the company you are going with is doing what is right for these animals. This industry has a lot of potential to create environmental stewardship, spread awareness, and inspire conservationists with curiosity. If done intentionally, you will know good conscience that you are supporting an industry that cares about supporting wild whale populations, as well as ocean health, in a sustainable way.



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