Whales belong to the Cetacea Order, which also includes dolphins and porpoises. There are over 80 species in this order, which is divided into two living sub-orders:Mysticetes (baleen whales) and Odontocetes (toothed whales).
Whale watching has come along way since its humble beginnings in the 1950s. Today the industry is worth around $1bn a year and there are operations across more than 87 countries.
There are hundreds of holiday companies, fishermen and diving operators all clambering to offer tourists the chance to see whales, the magnificent denizens of the deep that have always attracted man’s attention, which unfortunately has not always been benign.
But while zoom lenses have replaced harpoons, and numbers have improved, rampant whale watching can still have a detrimental effect on whale behaviour.
Just as too many divers have left vast beds of coral reef dead and barren, it can only ever be a matter of time before countless run-ins with propellers and noise generated by boat engines force mothers and their calves to move from the feeding and breeding grounds they have used for thousands of years.
Of course it doesn’t have to be this way, there is a growing number of conscientious operations and local communities with a long-term plan to ensure species protection and the continuance of important research.
For example, when gray whales migrate to Mexico each year to breed, they fall under the watch of Semarnap and the Attorney General’s Office for Environment Protection. These bodies monitors tourists’ behaviour to ensure they do not disturb the whales or harm their habitat.
Whale watchers must remain at least 30 metres from the whales and cannot stay in the water for more than 90 minutes. The authorities also control boat traffic and fishing in the area during mating season.
In other, less developed parts of the world, local communities and businesses have also implemented long-term conservation plans to attract photographers, scientists and documentary makers. For them this ensures both a continual income and international exposure.
Two years ago on Vava’u, a Tongan island in the South Pacific, the majority of local tourism operators stressed the importance of whale watching to environmentalist Mark Orams. He found that 62 per cent of the operators believed whales to be extremely important as a tourist attraction.
But perhaps most importantly whale watching and the attention it draws means generations of children to come, worldwide, will grow up with respect for the marine world and a desire to continue to protect its inhabitants, in particular whales, which continue to face so many other threats from human activity.
While commercial whaling is not the industry it once was, and there has been an increase in number of several whale species, several other factors remain that are hindering a full recovery of population numbers.
First and foremost is the fishing industry. Hundreds of whales drown each year in nets laid out to catch other fish such as tuna or herring. This problem is known as by-catch and according to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), is almost universal in drift and set gillnets and a common occurrence in some trap fisheries.
Man-made noise from motor engines, underwater communications and drilling is changing whale behaviour. In a number of cases this type of pollution has been found to disrupt the delicate sonar communication system whales use with fatal results.
At the end of last year, the US Navy accepted the blame for the stranding of 16 whales in the Bahamas in March 2000. It had been conducting mid-range sonar tests and following a number of whale deaths, conducted a full examination based on the geography, timing and physiological effects experienced by the animals. The Navy later concluded that: "Tactical mid-range frequency sonar aboard US Navy ships that were in use during the sonar exercise in question were the most plausible source of this acoustic or impulse trauma."
Possibly in response to this acknowledgement, the Australian Navy recently withdrew an application to conduct mid-frequency active sonar trials in the Navy’s West Australian exercise area, where several species of whale frequent annually.
This decision was in accordance with an earlier ruling stated in The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans, which said that any whale or dolphin near to such noise pollution could become stressed, disorientated or damaged.
Other damage to the marine environment that affects whales includes coastal development, which destroys coral reefs a fundamental source of marine food chains.
Much of the Pacific coast in Mexico, a prime location for observing whales been earmarked for development to accommodate an increase in tourism. If this development is left unchecked, long-term damage may be inflicted on this fragile ecology.
There is also the release of toxins into the water reducing its quality. These chemicals from oil spills and the paint used on the hulls of ships remain in the environment for a long time and damage a variety of marine life not just whales.
How You Can Help
If you ever witness what you believe to be an act that is likely to cause environmental damage, take notes and photographs if possible, report the incident to the nearest conservation group, failing that, upon your return home contact a national or international marine organisation such as: