Changing the way we view whales and dolphins?

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Watching whales and dolphins in the wild is big business. It’s a US$2.1 billion a year industry available in over 120 countries worldwide, and represents a significant proportion of an ecotourism market that also includes wildlife safaris, diving, and birdwatching tours. Now, a new report by the World Cetacean Alliance and Club Med, has highlighted concerns for many whale and dolphin populations and the need for improved standards across the world.

The World Cetacean Alliance (WCA), an international marine conservation partnership, has today published Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching that aim to significantly reduce the impact of tours whilst retaining a high quality customer experience.

With increasing evidence that this highly sought after tourist activity can actually have a negative effect on the very animals that people love to see, the guidelines will ensure that future whale and dolphin watching trips offer an incredible experience for tourists whilst actively helping to protect whales, dolphins and our oceans through marine conservation initiatives, community education projects, and research.

Author of the guidelines, Sophie Lewis, said: “Tourism constitutes 10% of the global economy with significant impacts on society and the environment. It has the potential to benefit cetaceans and our oceans by investing in sustainable, high quality experiences.”

Whale and dolphin watching tours in the wild, when done responsibly, can provide inspiration and often life changing experiences to millions of tourists each year while also playing an important role in the conservation of marine mammals as well as actively working to enhance the health of our oceans and the economic and social sustainability of local communities.

When poorly managed however, whale and dolphin watching tourism in all its forms can negatively impact cetaceans, compromising welfare, and potentially even causing declines in populations, with likely implications for the health of associated marine ecosystems. That’s why the World Cetacean Alliance is on a mission to improve whale and dolphin watching around the world! Through the Global Best Practice Guidance for Responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching, the WCA explains that a responsible whale or dolphin watching tour must:

  1. Publicize and use guidelines for safe approach to whales/dolphins
  2. Be valuable as a learning experience
  3. Meet the expectations of customers
  4. Minimise any impact on the marine environment
  5. Emphasize research work undertaken or support for marine conservation efforts

The Global Best Practice Guidance also set out detailed operational instructions for whale and dolphin watching activities, including:

– There should be no more than three vessels within 300 metres of a whale or dolphin at any one time.

– The time spent around a whale or dolphin must not exceed 30 minutes.

– Lone whale calves should not be approached closer than 300 metres.

Importantly, the Global Best Practice Guidance also address the often controversial subject of swimming with wild whales and dolphins. This is arguably a more invasive form of tourism than observing from boats. This is partly because boats often attempt to get closer to the animals to place swimmers in the water, and because the act of entering the water can disturb animals that were previously engaged in other activities.

Previously, guidelines for swim-with activities have gained less attention and refinement than for boat-based whale and dolphin watching activities. This may be due to the fact that many swim-with activities have developed relatively recently, and because there are a lack of long term studies to help support the development of responsible guidelines.

While this research is in its infancy, the WCA has provided strict yet practical guidance for those businesses offering swim-with tours, including:

– A maximum of four people swimming with whales and a maximum of eight people swimming with dolphins.

– Swimmers must hold on to a surface rope while in the water with a whale or dolphin.

– Swimming must not be allowed in the water with whale calves or nursery groups of dolphins.

– No selfie sticks during in water encounters with whales or dolphins.

Said CEO Dylan Walker, “We talked to a lot of stakeholders around the world and felt that there was increasing concern for whales and dolphins involved in swim with activities. Rather than closing the door to these activities, we have created a comprehensive set of best practice guidelines to ensure that any impacts are minimised. These include some key lessons learnt from best practice whale and dolphin watching businesses from across the WCA partnership. These companies have led the way in designing minimum impact tours focused on marine conservation and research.”

Ms. Lewis added: “Whales are critical to ocean health. They reinvigorate ecosystems by bringing food and nutrients to the surface, which even helps our oceans absorb more carbon from the atmosphere. For this reason, while we acknowledge that some of these guidelines may pose a challenge to tourism providers, the responsible whale watching community and the World Cetacean Alliance recognises that we must step up to protect these incredible animals and ensure the sustainable development of whale and dolphin watching tourism in future.”

Club Med’s Sustainability Manager, Florian Duprat said: “At Club Med, we strive for sustainable and responsible tourism practices across our network of resorts and visitor experiences. Seeking improvements in the care of animals experienced through tourism has become a larger part of our work in recent years, and whilst we feel we still have work to do, we are confident to be moving in the right direction. We hope that these guidelines will ensure that people around the world can continue to watch these incredible animals in their natural habitats, whilst supporting local communities and contributing to the protection of our oceans.”

The WCAs unique partnership of stakeholders, including NGOs and scientists, whale and dolphin watch tour operators, tourism associations, and educational institutes, gives it an appreciation of the need to balance the protection of marine mammals with the practical requirements of running a tour business. Following 18 months of revision and review, including stakeholder consultations with experts worldwide, the WCA is confident that the recommendations in this guide will be adopted widely by the travel industry. As part of their commitment, Club Med will be promoting use of the guidelines across its supply chain, and the guide will also be freely available through the WCA website.

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