The Importance of Responsible Whale Watching

Home » News » The Importance of Responsible Whale Watching

A blog composed by Bright Young Things, a Brighton-based student team, and the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA).

Header image: Copyright Miranda van der Linde

What is Responsible Whale Watching?

First of all, it is important to clarify what is meant by responsible whale watching. The WCA recently put this question to its whale and dolphin watching partners. Unsurprisingly all of their answers followed one key theme, that ensuring the safety and well-being of the cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) being observed must be the first priority.

WCA Partner Nic Slocum from Whale Watch West Cork in Ireland offered the following definition, which effectively captures what we believe responsible whale watching is all about:

‘Responsible whale and dolphin watching may be encapsulated in three things, in this order of importance. Firstly conducting your operation with the animals’ welfare foremost so that you minimise or reduce to zero (a virtual impossibility) the impact on their ability to feed, breed or communicate’.

Making the well-being of the cetaceans top priority means following Codes of Conduct or Guidelines covering the safe approach and viewing of wild whales and dolphins. These guidelines must first and foremost include maintaining suitable distances, that allow the animals to engage in natural behaviours such as feeding, socialising, communicating and breeding without being disturbed. Acting in a responsible manner around the animals should also include, maintaining a steady, parallel course, low speed and never pursuing or corralling the animals encountered.

Nic’s definition goes on to highlight the importance of guest safety, while providing a high level of education and an exciting experience, as the two other things that encapsulate responsible whale watching. This is echoed by WCA Partner Angie Gullan from Dolphin Encountours in Mozambique, who use the term ‘edu-tourism’ to define their approach to whale watching. A pioneer of ethical, educational and responsible practices for marine tours, Angie insists that ‘a qualified member of crew guides the tours.’

Education and research are also clearly important aspects to responsible whale watching. From on board researchers collecting data during tours, as with DolphinCareAfrica the research and conservation arm of Dolphin Encountours, to giving passengers the opportunity to ‘Be a Marine Biologist’ for the day during The Whale and Dolphin Connection tours run by Amanda Stafford in the Azores. This allows passengers, and especially families, a greater level of involvement with data collection and research on board, with the aim of providing a better understanding of its importance. Amanda clearly cares that her clients learn to appreciate and understand the cetaceans they observe, and is determined to focus on making tours ‘more of a learning experience’.

In summary responsible whale watching is the act of observing cetaceans from a safe distance in a responsible manner. It’s about providing an educational experience with qualified, experienced guides that provides passengers with information about the animals, the ocean environment, the issues they face and positive actions people can take to help. It’s about inspiring people to care.

Why is Responsible Whale Watching Important?

Whale watching is big business, IFAW’s 2009 study reported more than 13 million people went on whale watching tours in 2008 generating $2.1 billion1. That was nearly 10 years ago! But there are consequences for individual animals and for populations, with short and long term impacts ranging from injury from vessel strikes to changes in behaviour and shifts in habitat use2.

It is therefore imperative that whale watching is conducted responsibly, maintaining the welfare of the animals as top priority and having as little impact as possible on them.

The negative impacts humans are having on our oceans (from climate change to plastics to noise) are becoming increasingly apparent, and it is clear that responsible whale watching has an even wider role to play. As Nic puts it, responsible whale watching is important for two reasons:

  1. ‘With increasing pressures on marine wildlife from other factors such as noise pollution, climate change and chemical pollution it is inherent that we conduct ourselves in a responsible way towards all boat-based encounters with whales and dolphins’
  2. ‘It is imperative that we use whale watching experiences to spread the wider message about marine conservation measures. In other words, put a non-monetary value on the encounter for the customer and demonstrating that empathy for the wildlife comes above all else.’

Responsible whale watching offers an alternative income for coastal communities, the opportunity for members of the public to see and learn about cetaceans in their natural environment and a valuable platform for data collection and research.

Download the WCA Responsible Whale Watching App to learn more and discover your next Responsible Whale Watching Adventure!

link=”https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wca-responsible-whale-watchingGet it on Google Play

Download the WCA Global Best-Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching here


Thank you to WCA Partners Nic Slocum of Whale Watch West Cork, Angie Gullan from Dolphin Encountours and Amanda Stafford of The Dolphin and Whale Connection for their input into this blog.


  1. O’Connor, S., Campbell, R., Cortez, H. and Knowles, T. 2009. Whale Watching Worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditure and expanding economic benefits, a special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Yarmouth, MA, USA. Prepared by Economists at Large.


  1. New, L.F., Hall, A.J., Harcourt, R., Kaufman, G., Parsons, E.C.M., Pearson, H.C., Cosentino, A.M. and Schick, R.S. 2015. The modelling and assessment of whale-watching impacts. Ocean and Coastal Management, 115: 10-16.

More Posts