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