Travel Wildlife

How to make sure that your whale watching tour is enjoyable and ethical

Whale-watching is one of the most fascinating wildlife experiences that you can have while travelling, but it’s important that the whales are protected and that you have an enjoyable experience while out at sea.

Whales are our biggest and brightest mammals, but as they live in the sea, we don’t have the same interactions with them that we do with our other highly-intelligent creatures like elephants and chimpanzees.

If you’re planning on going whale watching, then you are not alone. least 13 million taking part every year and this makes approximately $2.1 billion for operators so they should do a good job.

I’ve been on whale-watching around the world, and here are my top tips to have an ethical and enjoyable whale-watching experience:

Tourists watching killer whales
Tourists watching killer whales

1. Be aware of legislation

Some areas have legally enforceable legislation when it comes to whale protection, some have a code of conduct and some, unfortunately, have no rules whatsoever. This can cause problems as if there are too many boats then this could distress whales and dolphins and cause them to hurt themselves.

The most important point is to keep your distance from the whales and have a minimum gap between the animal and the boat. If you do see something that you don’t agree with, then speak up as other people may feel the same way. 

If you only choose the operators that offer ethically minded whale watching then this will encourage other companies to raise their standards in order to compete for business. Tripadvisor is a good place to find out about the ethics of tours, because it is often discussed within the community.

I really recommend taking binoculars or finding out if you can borrow them onboard, and if you want to take photos then use a long lens. If you’re travelling then I have a recommendation for an easy, light and cheap wildlife photography kit that you can take with you.

2. Where to go and what will you see

In Europe, you can see dolphins and whales off the coasts of Mallorca, Gran Canaria, Madeira and the Azores in April-October. In Iceland, you can humpbacks and orcas in the summer. Humpbacks breed off the coast of Ecuador from June to October. In Thailand, the Bryde’s whale passthrough from September to January. New Zealand has sperm whales passing through in November-March.

This is just a snapshot and the WDC has a downloadable report on the best places to see whales and dolphins in the wild.

Southern right whale, Peninsular Valdés, Argentina
Southern right whale, Peninsular Valdés, Argentina

One of my personal best whale-watching trips was in Peninsular Valdés near Puerto Madryn in Argentina where I saw several southern right whales and sealions just off the coast including a Moby Dick-esque white whale.


3. Check safety standards

It’s not all about the whales, as the human passengers need to be safe as well. One important thing to check before you go is that they have lifejackets and an experienced skipper and crew who have first aid and sea rescue skills. Another important thing to consider is that they have radio equipment, flares, a lifeboat (this may be an inflatable dinghy), and emergency food and water onboard.

It’s also worth finding out the maximum number of people onboard, not just because of safety but because it will affect the experience for you, if you want to take photographs (on a long lens) then people will likely be in the way.

4. Prepare for disappointment

Good operators will tell you about their success rate, and many will offer you free goes or a partial refund until you see a whale. I’ve been on trips in Iceland, Sri Lanka and Scotland and not seen anything so disappointment is very common, the ocean is so big that finding whales is no easy feat, even when they are in the area.

Sometimes you are rewarded with dolphins, seabirds, seals and turtles even if you don’t see the whale and once I saw two sea turtles mating on the waves which was unexpected and pretty cool.

Bottlenose dolphin off the coast of Mallorca
Bottlenose dolphin off the coast of Mallorca

5. Prepare for sickness

I have been on whale watching trips where I’ve seen people be violently sick and on trips where I’ve been horribly sick myself. The sickest I’ve ever been was on a whale-watching excursion from Mirissa in Sri Lanka where I vomited all over myself and didn’t see any whales. And I went twice. Travel sickness tablets worked for me but speak to a medical professional if necessary, here are some tips to avoid and treat seasickness if its a problem for you.

6. Pack a naturalist

You don’t have to take a naturalist with you, but it does add a new dimension to the experience. I went on trips with a scientist onboard in Argentina and Iceland and it helped me gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of these mysterious creatures.

If you do have a naturalist on your boat, it means that the whales you see will be recorded and this data can actually be used to help to protect the species by learning more about them.

7. Know whale behaviour

If you go whale-watching often, or you are lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the presence of a whale, then it’s worth learning a bit about their behaviour.

Both whales and dolphins exhibit fascinating behaviour that you can see above water. A common thing you may see is bow riding when dolphins ride the wave created by the boat and pec-slapping which is when they loudly slap their fin against the water. Whales can breach (jump out of the water), which is an incredible thing to see and an opportunity to see the entire physicality of the mighty whale!

If you see the fin raised out of the water then this means that the whale is diving down so you won’t see it reappear for a while.

Southern right whale, Peninsular Valdés, Argentina
Southern right whale, Peninsular Valdés, Argentina

8. Scan the seas

You can’t always see whales from land, but it is possible with a good pair of binoculars or a scope. If I have a good vantage point of the sea from the coast then I will scan the ocean for cetaceans. I’ve seen a fair few dolphins this way, especially in calm seas like the Maldives where I could clearly see pods of spinner dolphins doing their trademark spins out of the water. The other benefit is that it is absolutely free and does not disturb the animals at all! It is useful to get an identification guide to help you to know what species you’re looking at and what the behaviour means.

 

Have you ever been whale-watching and did you see any whales? Have you ever seen practises that you didn’t agree with and could you do anything about it? Let me know your whale-watching experiences in the comments below!


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