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WHS Criteria Explained: Research, Education and Awareness

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All words by Marie Harrington. Header photo by WCA Partner Eagle Wing Tours.

Whales and dolphins are charismatic mammals that have a unique ability to unite and inspire people to care more about our oceans. In this series of articles, we are focusing on each of the criteria underpinning the Whale Heritage Site accreditation. This month we are centred on the critical aspects of research, education and awareness.

Conservation-based cetacean research is paramount as not only can this influence policy and legislation but through the emerging medium of science communication, important findings can be translated to the public.

The more we understand about the different species of cetaceans, their role in the marine ecosystem and the threats they face then the better we can protect them and their environment. Through education and science communication, we can proactively impart this knowledge and help others understand why safeguarding cetacean populations is significant and how we can minimise human pressures on our seas. By increasing public awareness of the pressing challenges facing whales and dolphins, we can inspire change and help enhance our connection to and relationship with these captivating animals and their ocean homes.

Photo by WCA Partner Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari

Conservation is the key message. We know that many of our partners across the world that are doing so much in this area already. For those that are advocates for responsible whale watching, this represents a real opportunity to do more than impart some exciting facts and information about the whales and dolphins you can see on boat trips. There has been a significant shift towards edu-tourism and wildlife-watching holidays as part of the broader, ever-growing sphere of eco-tourism. More and more people are placing learning and discovery at the heart of their travels. They want to understand how their trips and excursions contribute to the conservation of the places they visit.

The Whale Heritage Site initiative seeks to formally recognise those areas that are investing in research and are putting education and public awareness at the heart of their message. Whether you are a charity, NGO, whale-watching tour operator, tourism board, marine biologist, research institution, volunteer or government agency, there are many ways of supporting and demonstrating the importance of cetaceans.

Through our partner network, we get to showcase some of the fantastic work that goes on in actively promoting the preservation of cetacean habitats, the efforts to conserve and protect specific species and the projects centred on enhancing the connection between humans and cetaceans. This work isn’t about different organisations and individuals working separately; this is about demonstrating the importance of collaboration across an entire region.

Photo by WCA Partner Carino Wildlife Cruises

Through responsible cetacean interactions and whale-watching trips, people of all ages and backgrounds can make a real, lasting connection to cetaceans.

Many operators have marine biologists and researchers onboard who provide that specialist knowledge that helps to bridge the gap between science and the public which represents a real opportunity to open people’s eyes to the threats that cetaceans face in the wild and how they can help. By promoting the educational and conservational value of responsible whale-watching, we can increase public understanding of just how essential cetaceans are in contributing to a growing awareness of broader environmental issues.

We want to encourage and recognise our partners who are already supporting such great work in this area. Research, education and awareness represent a significant part of the overall Whale Heritage Site initiative, and we know there are so many cetacean-based projects and research programmes that are happening in potential candidate sites all over the world. These are supporting regional whale and dolphin populations, both resident and transient but are collectively contributing to the global conservation effort. Whale Heritage Site designation provides a platform for local communities, tour operators, NGOs and tourism boards to showcase the great work they are doing in this area.

Photo by WCA Partner Cape Ann Whale Watch

The growth in citizen science projects and educational outreach programmes are driving greater interest and engagement from the public. Tourists, local community members and school children are all playing their part in contributing to essential research into whale and dolphin populations. There are databases and applications where people can upload videos and photos of sightings to help with identification and data collection. Organised local beach cleans are becoming more frequent and increasingly popular.

They have helped to highlight the problem of plastic pollution and marine litter and the threats this poses to cetacean populations and the broader ecosystem. More responsible whale-watching guides are producing educational content for their discerning customers that is informative and inspiring.

Members of a local community have a vested interest in protecting and valuing their environment and resources. Through the publication of research, ongoing education and increased awareness, there is a greater appreciation than ever for how important cetacean populations are to marine culture, heritage and biodiversity. Pioneering efforts in this area can also lead to a plethora of economic, environmental and social benefits which support communities and livelihoods.

Photo by WCA Partner Futurismo

If you offer training courses, fundraising events or put on organised talks for locals and tourists or if you have a social media platform where you share articles, educational videos or blogs, then you are already playing your part in raising awareness and encouraging change. Perhaps you offer internships, publish peer-reviewed journal articles or promote non-scientific content through TV or radio. The chances are, if these things are happening in your business or local community, then other aspects of the WHS criteria will also be prevalent, such as encouraging respectful human-cetacean coexistence and celebrating cetaceans.

Each potential Candidate site will have its own unique means of satisfying the requirements appropriate to its local context. Through these articles, we hope that many areas will realise that the WHS criteria are a formalisation of the great things currently being done to protect these charismatic mammals that we appreciate greatly. These criteria are about demonstrating that, through research and by providing education and enhancing awareness of critical conservation issues, we are helping to create a vision for a much more positive future for both cetaceans and ourselves.

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