Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. IX No. 1 - January 2000

Whale Watching Tourism In The Kingdom of Tonga

By Mick McIntyre, Whales Alive Australia

Not to be confused with this newsletter, Whales Alive is a sub-group of Earth Island Institute with a branch in Australia. In addition to the work described in this article, Whales Alive sponsors the annual Whales Alive Conference in Hawaii.

Whales Alive and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) have been working together to support the sustainable development of whale watching nature tourism in the Kingdom of Tonga. In August 1996 SPREP/Whales Alive conducted, at the invitation of the Government of Tonga, a joint Whale Watching Operator and Guides Training Workshop. This Workshop recommended the development of guidelines for whale watch tourism operations in Tonga and developed a Vision 2000 for Whale Watching Tourism in Tonga. In early 1997 the Government of Tonga invited SPREP/Whales Alive to facilitate the development of guidelines for whale watching and advise on their trial, evaluation and any training necessary. Guidelines have now been produced, trialed and evaluated.

Whales Alive trainers Mick McIntyre and Mel Rice have since developed an ongoing education programme in Tonga, including the training of local boat operators and crew and community outreach through visits to local villages and schools teaching about Humpback Whales and the local reef ecology. The programme has also been training two locals Filipe Tonga and Vea Kava to become part of the team. Whales Alive also participates yearly in the South Pacific Humpback Whale Project, a research programme coordinated by Mike Donoghue from Department of Conservation NZ and Scott Baker of Auckland University, NZ.

In 1999 the education programme was again funded by SPREP and the work has continued with another year of teaching and learning. This year the training consisted of individual programmes for each of the whale watch operators. This was done either in their office or onboard their boat during a whale watch (sometimes both), enabling the trainings to be designed specifically for each operation. This also allowed the training to be done simultaneously in Tongan and English.

By invitation from many of the local schools Whales Alive visited many of the high schools and primary schools. It was then possible for some of the high school science students to go out on a whale watch charter to see whales. More of this is in the plan for 2000. This year the training team was joined by Olive Andrews from Australia. Olive, who works in Australia as a boat captain, brought to the project her considerable knowledge of Humpback Whales and her enthusiasm for teaching.

The Whales Alive team visited a number of local villages including the home village of local trainer Filipe Tonga. It was a highlight to see Filipe put on a whale slide and video show in Tongan to his family and friends in the village where he grew up.

The team also managed to get out to two of the outer island villages courtesy of local boat operator, Soki. Taking a generator on board, the team showed videos and slides to the locals this time presented in Tongan by Vea Kava, who works for the Ministry of Fisheries in Vava'u. It was inspiring to see Vea give this presentation as he has become a passionate advocate of whales. Vea also traveled in 1999 to Auckland University to help the South Pacific Humpback Whale Project analyze the Tongan data and is now a leading community resource for locals wanting to know about whales.

At the end of one of the presentations at a local village the town officer got up to thank Whales Alive for coming and for teaching them that whales are not fish, they are not just pieces of meat bought at the market but are mammals that take care of their young.

The strength of this year's work is the continued training with Filipe and Vea, who are now skilled in presenting a slide/video show on whales, a timely achievement in a year that has seen Tonga pushed around by the commercial whaling lobby and their propaganda. There will always be arguments in favour of whaling in Tonga but in the island group of Vava'u where the whale watch industry is finding its feet you won't hear the argument so loudly.

In a recent report by Dr. Mark Orams, from the Centre for Tourism Studies at Massey University in New Zealand, it is estimated that each humpback whale in Tonga's waters brings in T$30,000 (US$18,744) in whale watching earnings each year and T$1.6 million (US$999,692) during its 50-year lifetime. A live whale gives ongoing benefits and is more valuable than a dead one.

Whale watching is a valuable new industry for the people of Tonga and is fortunate in the foresight of its King, who recognised early the need to conserve whales. Without the whaling ban, Tonga's now substantial and growing income from whale watching would never have been possible.

Whales Alive looks forward to watching this industry grow.

(For more information see the Whales Alive web site at http://www.whalesalive.org.au.)

Go to next article: A Tribute to CSI President William W. Rossiter or: Table of Contents.

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