Whale and dolphin watching tours are a fantastic alternative to seeing captive dolphins under inhumane conditions in marine parks and dolphinariums. When responsibly conducted, eco-tours play a huge role in inspiring people to love and cherish wild dolphins, and in turn be inspired to help protect them. The benefits of responsible marine mammal-based ecotourism span from a better appreciation of the marine wildlife to supporting local economies, especially in developing countries in where whale and dolphin watching tours present an alternative to hunting or capturing dolphins.
It is vital to find a responsible tour operator that minimally impacts dolphins and whales, so that both you and the animals can have the best encounter. Below are tips to having the best encounters with wildlife, and letting the wildlife have the best encounter with you!
How do I find a responsible ecotour operator?
Responsible operators stick to local whale watching guidelines, are led by knowledgable captains and naturalists, notify the appropriate authorities when a whale is in distress and set an example of how to maneuver around marine mammals for other boaters. Oftentimes these aspects are evident on operator’s websites, or reviews of their tours posted online.
The trip should be about education, not sensation. Always remember to let whales and dolphins decide what happens; never force an interaction and keep a respectful distance appropriate for each species. Some dolphins willingly approach to surf in the pressure wave created by the bow on the front of the boat (also called “bow riding”); larger whales typically travel or forage at a distance but may occasionally approach or “mug” a vessel.
What are some red flags to look for?
Responsible operators would never overcrowd a marine mammal; if there are too many boats around a whale or a pod of dolphins, they must be left alone. Having too many vessels around may make it difficult for the animals to travel, forage or rest; it is best not to interfere with their natural behavior.
Responsible operators would also never approach marine mammals head on, or at high speeds. Baleen whales, such as humpback, blue, minke, gray and fin whales do not have echolocation like dolphins and toothed whales do. This makes it difficult for them to anticipate a boat and put them in danger of being spooked, or worse, in danger of collision. High speeds and irresponsible driving can also potentially disturb hunting or resting pods of dolphins.
Lastly, responsible operators would never chase or harass marine mammals. If whales or dolphins do not want to be watched, they will swim away. In these cases, it is best to leave them to go as they please. Chasing them would make them expend unnecessary energy; for migrating whales who fast for long periods of time, this is quite harmful.
Is it possible to watch wild whales and dolphins from land?
In some parts of the world and during the right time of year, it is possible to see wild cetaceans from shore. Some populations either have a permanent coastal range, or come very close to land during their migration.
The growing trend for land-based whale watching is taking off big time in South Africa, Hawaii, Scotland and Norway. With zero impact on the animals, land-based whale watching is the least invasive way to watch marine wildlife. It’s also the best method for anyone who suffers from sea sickness.
The west coast of the United States has many great spots to watch gray whales as they migrate near shore from Alaska to Mexico and back again. Many areas of the world are also home to coastal populations of bottlenose dolphins that can be seen from beaches as they surf and play in breaking waves. There are many great places around the world to watch dolphins and whales from land, particularly with species that have a very coastal range.
Is swimming with wild dolphins a responsible alternative to captivity?
For some, swimming with wild dolphins can be a very attractive alternative to visiting a captive facility, but extra caution and consideration is necessary. A tour should never guarantee or promote that you can swim with dolphins, or make any physical contact with them. In fact, touching or pursuing a dolphin in the water can be considered “harassment”, which is illegal under US federal law.
In order to guarantee wild dolphin interactions, some operators have been known to feed wild pods to encourage interaction, which can be harmful to their independence, upset their digestion and health, or encourage them to approach other boats and increase the risk of a strike. Any tours that offer fish food or feeding opportunities should be avoided.
In some areas such as Hawaii, there are additional concerns that boats and tourists are disrupting sleeping pods of dolphins, which can reduce birth rates and cause additional stress. Ask a tour operator if they follow federal or local guidelines to prevent disruptions to sensitive species.
Finally, every operator should have rules of conduct and safety information regarding potential encounters of wild dolphins by swimmers. Those rules should be designed to discourage contact and protect the dolphins from unwanted interference. Wild dolphins are exactly that – wild, and they should be respected as such. Just as you would not approach a wild lion to pet it, you should treat all encounters with wild marine mammals with caution, for your safety and theirs.
Some dolphins are curious and may approach a swimmer or diver in the water, but it should always be their decision to initiate contact as well as end that encounter.
Keep in Mind Whales and Dolphins are Wild Animals
The ocean is a wild environment; we are visitors and we must respect the residents. Wildlife viewing is not always people watching wildlife; oftentimes it’s also wildlife watching people. It can bring people to tears when they make eye contact with a dolphin or whale during a close approach.
Chances are that people will always want to see dolphins and whales, and where they choose to spend their money makes a big difference. It is important to support responsible dolphin and whale watching tours because the alternative is to watch them in captivity, where cetaceans are known to suffer. As more and more people become aware of the problems of captivity, they may choose to see them wild and with that in mind, we must not overcrowd or harass marine mammals but watch them in a responsible and sustainable way. Marine mammal-based tourism, if conducted properly, can not only work, but it can work well for both people and mammals.
Marine mammals’ welfare should always remain the most important aspect of these eco-tours because, without these animals, there will be no ecotourism at all! Let’s help inspire more people to care about dolphins and help ecotourism stay responsible!