Knowledgeable tourists make whale watching safer f


image: A boat blocks two whales, which will have to change course to avoid a collision. By studying both whale behavior and tourism practices, researchers from the Smithsonian and Arizona State University hope to provide scientific information that policymakers and tourism businesses can use to make whale watching safer for all. whales.
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Credit: Héctor Guzman

According to the International Whaling Commission, whale watching tourism generates over $2.5 billion a year. After the COVID-19 pandemic, this relatively safe outdoor activity is expected to rebound. Two new studies funded by a collaborative initiative between the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama and Arizona State University (ASU) show how science can contribute to whale watching practices that ensure the conservation and safety of whales. whales and dolphins.

“The role of the Smithsonian is to provide scientific advice to policy makers as they pioneer management strategies to promote whale conservation,” said STRI marine biologist Hector Guzmán, whose previous work led the International Maritime Organization to establish shipping corridors in the Pacific to prevent container ships from colliding with whales along their migratory routes. “We now have methods to measure how whale behavior changes as a result of whale watching practices. These two papers have been published in a special volume of Marine Science Frontiers dedicated to studies of whale watching practices around the world.”

Whale watching is on the rise around the world and is part of sustainable tourism development projects in countries like Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua and Panama. But critics say jobs and increased incomes for tour operators and coastal residents cannot be justified if the whales are harmed.

Panama’s whale watching regulations, first established with Guzman’s help in 2005, and amended in 2017 and 2020, prohibit activities that cause whales to change their behavior. The aim of the first study was to find out whether the presence of tourist boats caused the whales to change their behavior during the breeding season.

Researchers monitored humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) during their breeding season from August to September in the Las Perlas Archipelago Protected Area in Panama. From a high vantage point on Contadora Island and from whale-watching vessels, they recorded the number of tourist boats and whales present and their activity, including changes in direction, breaches , water slams, dives and spy jumps (raising head above water surface) 47 times.

They found that whale-watching vessels frequently ignored legal guidelines designed to protect whales: deliberately hunting whales, getting too close to adult whales and calves, and forcing whales to change their behavior. Other notable observations included:

  • Tourist boats hunted groups with calves more often than groups of adults.
  • Groups that included a calf changed direction more often than other group types.
  • The whales changed direction more often when more than two to three tourist boats were present.

About 1,000 whale watchers visit Las Perlas Islands each year, and that number keeps growing. In the second study, researchers interviewed tourists waiting to return to the mainland at Contadora Airport to better understand the whale watching experience. They surveyed one in three people queuing.

Ninety-nine percent of tourists who saw whales said they saw at least one whale-watching behavior, and 68% said their experience met or exceeded their expectations. 30% said they had not seen a whale. Half said they had observed their boat or other nearby boats chasing whales at high speed, or that they had gotten closer to the whales beyond the distance allowed by law.

Breeding whales are threatened by marine pollution, ship strikes, climate change, noise and disturbances while they rest, socialize and feed. In the future, researchers hope to measure the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in faecal samples from whales to find out if the animals are stressed, using better technology (e.g. theodolites – instruments that measure angles ) to measure the distance between boats and whales, use drones with cameras to document interactions, and continue to survey tourists to better understand whale watching and inform management strategies to keep these magnificent animals safe.

“I wanted to do a study with practical results for conservation, not just another paper that sits on a shelf,” said Katie Surrey, a doctoral student at ASU and co-author of the two papers. “In Las Perlas, where the whales come to breed, we observed harassment behavior, such as ten tourist boats surrounding a single mother and her calf. But we also spoke to tourists and operators who learned a lot about whales and advocate for better whale watching practices and conservation efforts accordingly.For my thesis, I plan to learn more about what motivates both tourists and operators, so that we can suggest ways both to enhance their experience and to protect the whales.


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