Does Whale-Watching Help or Hurt Whales? Scientists Can’t Decide

I’ll admit it: I cried during the final scene of “Blackfish” when the former SeaWorld trainers saw a pod of killer whales swimming free. More than shedding tears, it made me grow a deep desire to see a pod of whales swimming free with my own eyes. I’ve been one of the lucky few that’s never visited a SeaCircus, but I’ve never seen a living and breathing whale, either.

Now I’m not sure if I ever will. On the one hand, whale-watching can help the scientists who study them, and, by extension, the cetaceans. One the other hand, whale-watching might be hurting the beings that we’ve fallen in love with.

Scientists Using Whale-Watching Photos

As reported in The Guardian, Australian researchers are asking people like you and me for help. Citizen science is helping scientists understand the migration patterns of the eastern humpback whales. Southern Cross University researcher Peta Beeman told The Guardian that she is using citizen photos to determine the “timing and travel speeds of the whales.” The photos also help the researchers check on the whales as they migrate, so that researchers aren’t limited to geographic areas.

Researchers are looking for images of the whales’ tail ends, also known as the whale’s fluke region. They run the image through pattern recognition software that scans the database for similar images. The recognition software will also gather images with matching pigmentation and marks.

It’s a blessing in disguise. Whale marks and injuries make it easier to identify individual whales. Beeman told The Guardian that our current ocean “is a different ocean than it was in the 60s.” Researchers are seeing an increasing number of whales with the markings (wounds and scars) of propeller encounters and fishing equipment entanglements.

Scientists Worry Whale-Watching Harms Whales

The ocean is different than the 60s, but so are the industries in it. Overfishing is straining the ocean’s resources. Oil spills and sickening chemicals are polluting the ocean more.  The world has also learned about the horrors that drive the captivity industry, e.g. Taiji.

Films like “The Cove” and “Blackfish” have also helped the general public become more informed about cetacean captivity. Many do not want to see such sentient and intelligent beings confined to tiny bath tubs. But they still want to see them. In response, the whale-watching industry is thriving. In 2012, Discovery reported that the industry generated $2 billion in revenue. Whale tourism aligns with the general shifts towards ecotourism and conservation with the premise that animals are worth more alive than dead.

But maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Nature reports on new research claiming that whale-watching is actually hurting whales, and their survival is at-risk. Scientists recently gathered in the United Kingdom for the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC).

Scientists are concerned about whale-watching because of:

– Whale injuries and deaths from boat collisions (some boats insist on getting too close)

– The way that close contact affects whale behavior, e.g. whales failing to feed because of the noise, whales wasting their precious energy that they need to swim great distances on swimming away from boats and whales reacting to the boats like they react to natural predators

– The whales’ stress levels from close contact

While whale-watching is a gazillion times better than captivity, we still have no idea how the industry will affect the cetaceans in the long-term.

If you’re still interested in going whale-watching, then look for a responsible and reputable company. Whales Alive has an excellent list of whale-watching best practices to look for.

Samantha Berg, a former SeaWorld trainer featured in “Blackfish,” said it best on Twitter: “Kids care about dinosaurs and they’ve never seen them.” I’ve never had to see an orca, a humpback or a beluga whale in person to care about them. I suppose that I don’t have to start now (plus, there’s always YouTube).

What about you? Let us know if you’d still go whale-watching in the comments below.

Photo Credit: eGuide Travel

118 comments

Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for the article.

Miriam O.

Thanks for sharing Jessica!

John B.
John B.1 years ago

Thanks Jessica for sharing both sides. I won't be going whaling watching nor will I swim with dolphins. I will admire and love them from afar.

Karen Ryan
Karen Ryan1 years ago

Since whale watching can disrupt normal whale behavior, it cannot be considered harmless. Whales use a great deal of energy in their migrations, and wasted energy or disrupted feeding because of whale watching hurts them. Injuries from propellers and the subsequent healing weakens their ability to migrate. Why can't people just leave them alone?

Belinda isKindToAnimals
Past Member 1 years ago

thanks

Arild Warud
Arild Warud1 years ago

ty

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola1 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Sarah S.
Miss D.1 years ago

'It's the god awful aquariums that are a major problem+they must be shut down--all of them.' Natasha S is right. There are many campaigns to get involved with to make this happen. One campaign is trying to get British Airways, Britain's biggest airline, to stop selling holiday packages to SeaWorld. You can write to BA using their online contact form: https://www.britishairways.com/travel/custrelform/public/en_gb This was my text. You can copy it or use your own:
'I write with regard to a petition asking BA to discontinue its offers on SeaWorld packages. The petition asked you to stop this activity on animal cruelty grounds.

Southwest Airlines has ended its partnership with SeaWorld. This comes after months of campaigning by Whale & Dolphin Conservation. In early January WDC called on Southwest to sever its ties with SeaWorld and since then they have been engaging with senior management at the airline, providing them with long-term data and current research findings about orcas in captivity. The facts are hard to argue with and I am thrilled that Southwest Airlines has listened and made the right choice. Will British Airways now do the same?'

Natasha Salgado
natasha salgado1 years ago

It's a no brainer+silly question really--obviously whale watching from a far doesn't hurt but can only benefit such amazing animals. It's the god awful aquariums that are a major problem+they must be shut down--all of them.

Magdalena J.
Alice L.1 years ago

Thank you!