Whale watching

Whale watching
Photo from boat showing backs of heads of 8 people and two whales surfacing in background
Whale watching off the coast of Bar Harbor, Maine

Whale watching is the practice of observing whales and other cetaceans in their natural habitat. Whales are watched most commonly for recreation (cf. bird watching) but the activity can also serve scientific or educational purposes. A 2009 study, prepared for IFAW, estimated that 13 million people went whale watching globally in 2008. Whale watching generated $2.1 billion per annum in tourism revenue worldwide, employing around 13,000 workers.[1] The size and rapid growth of the industry has led to complex and continuing debates with the whaling industry about the best use of whales as a natural resource.



Organized whale watching dates back to 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public venue for observing Gray Whales. In 1955 the first water-based whale watching commenced in the same area, charging customers $1 per trip to view the whales at closer quarters. The spectacle attracted 10,000 visitors in its first year and many more in subsequent years. The industry spread throughout the western coast of the United States over the following decade.

In 1971 the Montreal Zoological Society commenced the first commercial whale watching activity on the eastern side of North America, offering trips in the St. Lawrence River to view Fin and Beluga Whales.

By 1985 more visitors watched whales from New England than California. The rapid growth in this area has been attributed to the relatively dense population of Humpback Whales, whose acrobatic behavior such as breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping thrilled observers, and the close proximity of whale populations to the large cities there.

Whale watching tourism has grown substantially since the mid 1980s. IFAW has commissioned three worldwide surveys of the whale watching industry in 1991, 1999 and the latest in 2009. This 2009 report estimated that in 2008, 13 million people went whale watching, up from 9 million ten years earlier. Commercial whale watching operations were found in 119 countries. Direct revenue of whale watching trips was estimated at USD$872.7 million and indirect revenue of $2,113.1 million was spent by whale watchers in tourism-related businesses.[2]

Whale watching is of particular importance to developing countries. Coastal communities have started to profit directly from the whales' presence, significantly adding to popular support for the protection of these animals from commercial whaling.


The rapid growth of the number of whale watching trips and the size of vessel used to watch whales may affect whale behavior, migratory patterns and breeding cycles. There is now strong evidence that whale watching can significantly affect the biology and ecology of whales and dolphins.

Environmental campaigners, concerned by what they consider the "quick-buck" mentality of some boat owners, continue to strongly urge all whale watcher operators to contribute to local regulations governing whale watching (no international standard set of regulations exist because of the huge variety of species and populations). Common rules include:

  • Minimize speed/"No wake" speed
  • Avoid sudden turns
  • Minimize noise
  • Do not pursue, encircle or come in between whales
  • Approach animals from angles where they will not be taken by surprise
  • Consider cumulative impact - minimize number of boats at any one time/per day
  • Do not coerce dolphins into bow-riding.
  • Do not allow swimming with dolphins. (This last rule is more contentious and is often disregarded in, for example, the Caribbean.)

(Source: WDCS)

Almost all popular whale watching regions now have such regulations. Campaigners hope that a combination of political pressure, free advertising and promotion by ethical tourism operators and boat operators' personal passion for marine wildlife compel them to adhere to such regulations.

One example of such regulations is the Be Whale Wise[3] campaign of the Northeast Pacific.


Whale watching tours are available in various locations and climates. By area, they are:

South Atlantic

In South Africa, the town of Hermanus is one of the world centers for whale watching. Between May and December Southern Right Whales come so close to the Cape shoreline that visitors can watch whales from their hotels. The town employs a "whale crier" (cf town crier) to walk through the town announcing where whales have been seen. Boat-based Whale-watching(and dolphin-watching)is also a popular tourist attraction in a number of other coastal towns in South Africa, such as Plettenberg Bay, where the industry is linked to conservation and education efforts through Plettenberg Bay-based volunteer marine conservation organisations. Plettenberg Bay is visited by Southern Right Whales in the winter months and Humpback Whales in the summer months. Brydes whales are resident throughout the year.

West Pacific

In Western Australia, whales are watched near Cape Naturaliste in the south-east Indian Ocean and at Cape Leeuwin where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet.

In the Southern Ocean there are many spots to see whales, both from land or aboard ship. Albany on the south coast of Western Australia the town where the last land based whaling station in the southern hemisphere was located is now home to a thriving whale watching industry. In Victoria a popular site is Logan's Beach at Warrnambool, as well as in the waters off Port Fairy and Portland.[4] In Tasmania whales can be seen all along the east coast and even on the River Derwent.[5] In South Australia whales are watched in the Great Australian Bight Marine Park areas and closer to Adelaide at Victor Harbor.[6]

In eastern Australia, whale watching occurs in many spots up and down the Pacific coast. From headlands you will often seen them making their migration south. At times, whales even make it into Sydney Harbor.

New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife is took an active role in 2010 during the peak southern whale watching season between May and November with the launch of its whale watching site.[7]

East Pacific

In Colombia, the towns of Bahía Solano and Nuquí are well known for the abundance of Humpback whales from late July to the beginning of October.[8] In southern Costa Rica, Marino Ballena National Park has two seasons when whales visit.[citation needed]

In Ecuador, from June to September, there are many sites with large groups of whales. Arguably, the two best are La Isla de la Plata (AKA Little Galapagos) and Salinas, at the tip of the Santa Elena Peninsula.[citation needed]

Northeast Atlantic

Tidal straits, inlets, lagoons, and varying water temperatures provide diverse habitats for multiple cetacean species. Substantial numbers live off the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Spain, and France. Commercial car ferries crossing the Bay of Biscay from Britain and Ireland to Spain and France often pass by enormous blue whales and much smaller harbor porpoise. Land-based tours can often view these animals.

In northern Norway (Nordland) orcas are visible in Vestfjord, Tysfjord and Ofotfjord as the herring gathers in the fjords to stay over the winter and off the Lofoten islands during the summer. At Andenes on Andøya in Vesterålen, sperm whales can be observed year round, although whale watching trips occur only from May till September. Tromsø also offers whale watching for sperm whales and other whales. The continental shelf Eggakanten and deep water where the sperm whales congregate, is very close to shore, beginning only 7,000 meters (23,000 ft) from the Andenes harbour.

In the middle of the Northeast Atlantic, around the Madeira and the Azores archipelagos, whale watching is on the increase and popular due to more protection and education. One of the most common whales in these regions is the sperm whale, especially groups of calving females.

In Spain whale watching is available along the Strait of Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, and in the Bay of Biscay. Tarifa is the most important whale watching town in the Strait of Gibraltar; this gateway to the Mediterranean Sea is also a central point in between the colder waters to the North and the tropical waters off of Africa: a good route for migrating cetaceans. The species observed in this area are: Bottlenose Dolphin, Common Dolphin, Striped Dolphin, Pilot Whale, Sperm Whale, Fin Whale and Orca.

In the Canary Islands it is possible to see these and others, such as the Blue Whale, Bryde's Whale, Beaked Whale, False Killer Whale, Risso's Dolphin, Atlantic Spotted Dolphin and Rough-Toothed Dolphin.

In Iceland it is possible to see whales in Eyjafjordur, Skjalfandifloi and Faxafloi. The towns offering whale watching are Dalvik, Hauganes, Húsavik, and Reykjavik. Most common are minke whale, humpback whale, white sided dolphin, blue whale, and harbour porpoise.

Northwest Atlantic

Photo of whale with head in the air and two-thirds of its body out of the water, falling onto its back
A Humpback breaching in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This is a behavior commonly seen in the area.

In New England and off the east coast of Long Island in the United States, the whale watching season typically takes place from about mid-spring through October, depending both on weather and precise location. It is here that the Northern Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, and the very endangered/heavily protected North Atlantic Right Whale are often observed. For generations, areas like the Gulf of Maine and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (part of the inner waters formed by Cape Cod's hooked shape) have been important feeding grounds for these species: to this day a very large portion of the waters off the Eastern Seaboard are rich in sand lance and other nutritious treats for mothers to teach their calves to feed on.

In the past this area was the US whaling industry's capital, particularly Nantucket, an island just off the coast of Massachusetts. Though strict laws prohibit molestation of these large wild mammals, it is not unknown for the whales to approach whale watching boats uninvited, particularly curious calves and juveniles: it is not unknown in particular, for example, for juvenile humpbacks to approach the boat and spyhop to get a better look at the humans aboard. In recent years it is also not uncommon to see these animals playing and feeding in harbors, including New York or Boston where fish species of interest to the whales have lately returned in astonishing numbers. As of 2011, an expert from Cornell University has recorded the vocalizations of six whale species including the humpback, the fin whale, and the massive blue whale within close proximity of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in the lower portion of New York Harbor and there is at least one company offering marine life tours out of The Rockaway Peninsula in Queens.[9][10] Due to these increasingly frequent visits, new laws address the safety of boaters, commercial fishermen, and the whales themselves: off the coast of Boston, for example, cargo vessels must slow down to protect the much slower North Atlantic Right Whale and there is talk of erecting an apparatus for the much more heavily trafficked waters surrounding New York that can warn boats of a whale's presence and location so as to avoid accidentally striking the animal.[10] Because of the relative diversity of whales and dolphins within easy access of shore, cetacean research takes place at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the Riverhead Foundation among other centers.

Whale watching near Tadoussac

Eastern Canada has many whale watching tours in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia or New Brunswick. Twenty-two species of whales and dolphins frequent the waters of quiet Newfoundland and Labrador, although the most common are the humpback, minke, fin, beluga and killer whales. Another popular whale-watching area is at Tadoussac, Quebec, where Belugas favor the extreme depth and admixture of cold fresh water from the Saguenay River into the inland end of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. The Bay of Fundy is an equally important feeding ground for large baleen whales and dozens of other creatures of the sea; it shares a population of migrating humpbacks with America and is a known summer nursery for mother right whales with calves.

On the east coast of the United States, Virginia Beach, Virginia whale watching is a winter activity from the end of December until the middle of March. Fin whales, Humpback, and Right Whales are seen off the Virginia Beach coast on whale watching boat trips run by the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.[11] Sightings are mostly of juveniles who stay near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay where food is plentiful, while the adults continue to the Caribbean to mate. "Mom" and "Dad" pick up their offspring on the way back north where the whole family summers.

The waters surrounding Virgina are also a known migration corridor for the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale: Pregnant females must pass through this area around December to reach their birthing grounds down the coast in Georgia and Florida. For these reasons the waters between the Delmarva Peninsula and the barrier islands that stretch southwards towards northern Florida must be monitored every winter and spring as mothers give birth to their calves, nurse them, and then ready themselves and their younglings to return north for the cooler waters near New England and Canada.

Southwest Atlantic

Whale watching in Valdés Peninsula, Argentina

In Brazil, humpbacks are observed off Salvador in Bahia State and at the National Marine Park of Abrolhos during their breeding season in austral winter and spring. Likewise, Southern Right Whales are observed from shore in Santa Catarina State during the same season. Mother/calf pairs can come as close to shore as 30 meters (about 100 feet). Income from whale watching bolsters coastal communities and has made the township of Imbituba, the Brazilian "whale capital".

In Argentina, Península Valdés in Patagonia hosts (in winter) the largest breeding population of Southern Right Whales, with more than 2,000 catalogued by the Whale Conservation Institute and Ocean Alliance.[12] The region contains six natural reserves, and is considered to be one of the premier whale watching destinations in the world, particularly around the town of Puerto Pirámides and the city of Puerto Madryn, as the whales come within 200 m (660 ft) of the main beach and play a major part in the large ecotourism industry in the region.

North Indian

On the South and East Coasts of Sri Lanka and Maldive, the industry is growing. During winter and summer, Sperm Whales cross the southern tip of the island, migrating to the warmer waters of Southeast Asia. So do Pygmy Blue Whales. Many of Pygmy Blue whales can be seen at Dondra point in Sri Lanka.You can access it through the Mirrissa Harbour or Weligama Harbour.Whale watching tours arrange many companies in Sri Lanka.

The Sea off the Mirissa is the place where you can see blue whales and few types of dolphins while your srilankan travel.much sightings have been reported in November to April in the year.whale watching tours are arranged by tour organizations

Northeast Pacific

On the West Coast of Canada and the United States, excellent whale watching can be found in Alaska (summer), British Columbia, and the San Juan Islands/Puget Sound in Washington, where orca pods are sometimes visible from shore. On the Oregon Coast, several whale species, especially gray whales, may be seen year-round, and the state trains volunteers to assist tourists in the winter months, during whale migration season.[13] In California good whale-watching can be found December through March off the Southern California coast such as around Catalina Island in Los Angeles, with opportunities to view blue whales, grays, humpbacks, fin whales, and dolphins. In spring, summer, and fall at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, Monterey Bay, one may see humpbacks, grays, and blue whales. In Mexico, the various lagoons of Baja California Sur become breeding habitat in February and March. A number of towns in the Mexican state celebrate the whale's arrival with festivals such as Guerrero Negro, in the first half of February and the port of San Blas on 24 and 25 February.[14]


Many countries in Asia have large cetacean watching industries. In 2008 the largest, in terms of number of tourists, were mainland China, Taiwan and Japan. India, Cambodia and Laos, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines and the Maldives also have dolphin watching and some whale watching. China’s dolphin watching is almost entirely focussed on Sanniang Bay in Guangxi. Taiwan has several whale watching ports on its east coast. Japan has a range of whale and dolphin watching businesses on all main islands and Okinawa. [15]

In the Philippines, over thirty species of whales and dolphins can be observed around Central Visayas, Davao Gulf, the northern coast of the province-island Palawan, and in Batanes. The Visayas is particularly known area for dolphin sightings, and is home to one of the larger populations of the Fraser's Dolphin in the world. Dolphin species in the Visayas are attracted to fish lures and to commercial fishing operations. In the northermost province of Batanes, at least 12 species of whales and dolphins has been sighted, making it the single location in the country with the highest cetacean diversity. There seems to be no specific whale watching season in the Philippines, although the calmer waters of the summer season typically provides the best conditions. Some populations, like those of the Humpback Whales in Batanes, appear migratory. Other populations have yet to be studied.[16] Some former coastal whaling communities in the Philippines have also started to generate whale watching income.[17]

Southwest Pacific

Whale Watching in Kaikoura, December 2000
Photo of whales at surface with buildings in the background
A couple of Humpback Whales spotted off the Gold Coast, Queensland

Kaikoura in New Zealand is a world-famous whale-watching site (in particular Sperm Whales) and Albatrosses. People often take for granted the abundance of marine life in Kaikoura that is rarely seen in such close proximity to land in other parts of the world.

The Sunshine Coast and Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia offer reliable whale watching conditions for Southern Humpback Whales from the end of June through to the end of November each year. Whale numbers and activity have increased markedly in recent years. Sydney, Eden, Port Stephens, Narooma and Byron Bay in New South Wales are other popular hot spots for tours from May to November.

Southern Right Whales are seen June–August along the south coast of Australia. They are often readily viewed from the coast around Encounter Bay near Victor Harbor and up to a hundred at a time may be seen from the cliff tops at the head of the Great Australian Bight near Yalata.

Whaling and whale watching

The three major whaling nations (Norway, Japan and Iceland) have large and growing whale watching industries. Indeed Iceland had the fastest-growing whale watching industry in the world between 1994 and 1998.. January 2010. 

Many conservationists argue that a whale is worth more alive and watched than dead. The goal is to persuade their governments to curtail whaling activities. This debate continues at the International Whaling Commission, particularly since whaling countries complain that the scarcity of whale meat and other products has increased their value. However, the whale meat market has collapsed, and in Japan the government subsidizes the market through distribution in schools and other promotion. In 1997 2,000 tonnes of whale meat were sold for $30m - a 10 tonne Minke Whale would thus have been worth $150,000. There is no agreement as to how to value a single animal, though it is probably much higher. However, it is clear from most coastal communities that are involved in whale watching that profits can be made and are more horizontally distributed throughout the community than if the animals were killed by a whaling industry.

Upon the resumption of whaling in Iceland in August 2003, pro-whaling groups, such as fishermen who argue that increased stocks of whales deplete fish populations, suggested that sustainable whaling and whale watching could live side-by-side. Whale watching lobbyists, such as Húsavík Whale Museum curator Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, counter that the most inquistive whales, which approach boats very closely and provide much of the entertainment on whale-watching trips, will be the first to be taken. Pro-whaling organisations such as the High North Alliance on the other hand, claim that whale watching is not profitable and that some whale-watching companies in Iceland are surviving only because they receive funding from anti-whaling organizations.[18]

See also


  1. ^ O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H., & Knowles, T., 2009, Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits, a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth MA, USA, prepared by Economists at Large. http://www.ifaw.org/whalewatchingworldwide
  2. ^ ibid http://www.ifaw.org/whalewatchingworldwide
  3. ^ Be Whale Wise
  4. ^ Whale Dreams: Spotting whales in Australia
  5. ^ Tourism Tasmania :: Media Site :: About :: Whales & Dolphins
  6. ^ "Where to see whales and dolphins in the wild". Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Commonwealth of Australia. 2009-01-12. http://www.environment.gov.au/coasts/species/cetaceans/whale-watching/see-whales.html. Retrieved 2010-01-11. [dead link]
  7. ^ (1 June, 2010)"New whale website launched by NPWS".
  8. ^ The Colombian Pacific: Travel Guide
  9. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZAF7bk8Ol4
  10. ^ a b "Virginia girl found eating herself in cage in mobile home; parents Brian and Shannon Gore charged". Daily News (New York). http://www.nydailynews.com/ny_local/2011/01/30/2011-01-30_whales_return_to_new_york_city_massive_mammals_appearing_again_in_seas_near_city.html. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ http://www.oceanalliance.org Ocean Alliance website
  13. ^ "Oregon Parks & Recreation Dept.: Whale Watching Center". http://www.whalespoken.org/. 
  14. ^ Quintanar Hinojosa, Beatriz (August 2007). "Oaxaca: jubilo de los sentidos". Guía México Desconocido: Oaxaca 137: 8. http://www.mexicodesconocido.com.mx. 
  15. ^ O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H., & Knowles, T., 2009, Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding economic benefits, a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth MA, USA, prepared by Economists at Large. Page 120 http://www.ifaw.org/whalewatchingworldwide
  16. ^ Where the Whales are!
  17. ^ WWF-Philippines :: News and Facts
  18. ^ Statement from the HNA

Further reading

  • Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, editors Perrin, Wursig and Thewissen, ISBN 0-12-551340-2. In particular the article Whale watching by Erich Hoyt.
  • Whale watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits, Erich Hoyt, ISBN 1-901002-09-8 .
  • Whale watching, Discovery Travel Adventures Insight guide. ISBN 1-56331-836-9 .
  • The Whale Watcher's Guide: Whale-watching Trips in North America, Patricia Corrigan, ISBN 1-55971-683-5 .
  • Whales and Whale Watching in Iceland, Mark Carwardine, ISBN 9979-51-129-X .
  • On the Trail of the Whale, Mark Carwardine, ISBN 1-899074-00-7

External links

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  • whale watching — noun The practice of observing whales and other cetaceans in their natural habitat …   Wiktionary

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