Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 4 October 1998

Whale Watch Impacts

by William Rossiter, CSI President

On August 2nd, the young humpback whale named Zenith was reportedly left with a 2 by 8 foot wound after being hit by the Millennium, a new high-speed 120-foot catamaran whale watch vessel returning to Boston, Massachusetts, from famed Stellwagen Bank. On September 12th, the 80-foot-long vessel Whale Watch struck and killed a 20-foot minke whale while on its way back to Cape Cod's Barnstable Harbor. Many have called for an immediate speed limit on whale watch boats as a result of these accidents. Perhaps it's not that simple.

While no one should say that these two boats were manned by unwatchful, uncaring people, the fact remains that there are a very few operators that stand out as greater threats because of they way they make their boats behave around the whales. Leaving a whale at high speed to make a schedule is one example. So is crowding a whale, or interfering with behavior. Always keeping an adequate watch ahead may be the exception, not the rule.

Is enforcement of current laws or new speed limits the answer? For decades the New England industry has resisted regulation and enforcement as stridently as has the fishing industry. In truth NMFS would find it practically impossible to enforce most regulations. Sometimes the solution to whale watchers' excessive behavior around cetaceans is an internal code of conduct worked out by captains and owners. Most offenders may be kept in check by peer pressure, but not all. The bad ones tend to stay that way.

It comes down to us, the paying public. We spend the money that drives a 24 million dollar core industry in New England that in turn propels an enormous associated tourist industry. We have choice, and we should exercise it. CSI is not advocating shunning the two boats in these latest accidents, but we are urging the public, all of us, to use only recommended whale watch operators. A few confirmed reports should be enough; find another boat. There's no way to influence the casual tourist that happens down the dock, but the lifeblood of most operators is repeat business and group bookings, particularly off season. If the ticket sales drop the owners will want a reason. If it's a questionable captain the owners will find a better one. If the owner doesn't care the business doesn't deserve to survive. The message will be clear to all operators, and they may put the whales first. If they don't they should fail. The bottom line is money. We control the money, if we have the information and concern to spend it wisely, for the whales.

Whale watching has enormous benefits, as well as inevitable growing pains. To help with both CSI is supporting whale watch workshops in Latin America established by Fundación Cethus, designed to lessen impacts on cetaceans there while enhancing the human value to tourists and locals. Recent research on less direct impacts of tourism on dolphins and whales in New Zealand, partially funded by CSI, has attracted government and public concerns, and highlighted ineffectual enforcement of laws. A conference this month in the Azores will touch on the issue of harassment of the local cetaceans that a growing industry depends on. At least one operator is alleged to be terribly aggressive near whales, and documentation may be shown to highlight the problem. A Spanish operator has been thumbing his nose at all who would try to constrain his boat's behavior. Human impacts from whale and dolphin watching tourism are like an iceberg, with most of the impacts hidden from view.

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