Article written by Mel Cosentino.
Seeing animals in their natural environment is full of enjoyment and learning opportunities. Whalewatching, defined by the International Whaling Commission as “any commercial enterprise which provides for the public to see cetaceans in their natural habitat”, is my favourite example. The activity started in the 1950s in the coasts of California observing migrating gray whales from shore. The industry has grown incessantly since, and today over 13 million people go whale and dolphin watching in more than 100 countries around the world.
The experience of observing and interacting with a powerful and beautiful animal at sea is enriched when led by a skilled captain and a knowledgeable guide. Moreover, it has the potential to educate the public about the animals as well as to change their attitude towards the environment. Furthermore, the local communities also benefit from the increase in tourists visiting the area. Indeed, the revenues generated by the whalewatching industry is currently over US$2.1 billion in both direct and indirect expenses, much of which ends up in the local communities such as through hospitality and catering as well as other expenses (e.g., souvenirs).
Whalewatching is a profitable and sustainable form of cetacean exploitation. However, most cetacean observations are currently boat-based and the increased interest in watching whales and dolphins up close has raised concerns over the sustainability of the activity. In fact, short-term effects have been reported for many cetacean species and populations worldwide, impacting from common and bottlenose dolphins to humpback and sperm whales. These effects include changes in the respiration pattern and dynamics, speed and direction of travel, and changes in activity and energy budgets, such as a reduction in the time spent resting or foraging. Changes in behaviour leading to reduced energy intake (or increased energy use) can negatively affect the energy budget, which in turn can affect the reproductive success of individuals, and, potentially, the survival of the population. Studying the impact of whalewatching is important to the understanding of cetaceans’ behavioural response to disturbance and thus has implications for the management of the activity, both in the study area and beyond.
During my undergraduate studies I developed a strong interest in the impact of human activities on cetaceans. I then gained experience as a whalewatching guide and research assistant during the summer times and later on, for my master’s project, I studied the impact of whale watching vessels on sperm whales in Andenes, in northern Norway (Fig. 1).