Vast, beautiful, mysterious... whales are simply some of the most-amazing creatures the Earth has ever produced, titans of the deep that exert a complex fascination over many cultures. So it should come as no surprise to learn as many people want to witness them in their native habitats as humanly possible. Yes: whale watching is now one of the biggest tourist industries on Earth, valued at about equivalent to the annual GDP of Greenland. But what effect does all this have on the whales themselves? With so many boatloads of tourists chasing after a handful of ocean giants, could their wellbeing potentially be disrupted? Here we sort the fact from the myth regarding the dangers of whale watching:
Before we begin, it's necessary to have a quick crash-course in the whale watching industry. The first thing to know is that it's regulated by country; meaning policies vary across the world. The second is that not all of these countries have the whales' best interest at heart.
This is important because whale watching can have an effect on whales. Large, frequent boatloads of tourists can cause a whale's respiration to increase, cause mothers to stop producing milk or even scare their young. And in unregulated areas, you can have dozens of companies taking multiple boats out up to ten times a day. For any whale in the immediate vicinity, such a rush would feel akin to trying to calmly go about your business while stuck on a traffic island in the middle of rush hour in a busy city. In a word: stressful.
On the other hand, countries with strict regulations in place or areas served by ethical tour operators will keep a much closer eye on the wellbeing of the creatures. And once visits drop below a certain frequency, many argue that whale watching actually becomes beneficial.
A Helping Hand
Thanks to our human tendency for anthropomorphising creatures we feel a connection with, whale watching actually causes us to turn away from these creature's other big industry: whaling. According to recent reports, the demand for whale meat is dropping globally as the demand for whale watching rises. The idea seems to be that more whale-watchers means more people get turned onto conservation and become faintly disgusted at the idea of whale meat - sort of how many of us in the West are sickened by the thought of eating dog because we endow dogs with human traits. By this measure, then, ethical whale watching can work to save these creatures from an altogether more-disturbing fate.
But it's not just whales that benefit. Whale watching also provides a sustainable local industry for regions and countries otherwise off the tourist trail, with some 13,000 people making a living off live whales each year. That's 13,000 people who have a deep interest in seeing whaling stopped, creating a knock-on effect that will eventually chase out this barbaric industry.
Where to Go
So ethical whale watching sounds great, but how do you know where to go? Well, the easiest way is to simply ask your tour operator; but to give you a helping hand, we've identified some of the most-ethical whale watching destinations on Earth:
The Icelandic industries have been leading the way in ethical whale watching. The good news is that whale-watching is starting to become a more-lucrative industry than its bloodthirsty cousin. Iceland is keen to show the likelihood of watching minke and humpback whales while on a trip to Iceland mean that this is one place where your holiday could potentially save an endangered species.
Cape Cod, Mass.
The WWF named Cape Cod as one of the top whale-watching destinations on Earth, with a host of ethical tour operators on hand to guide you round the whale-infested local waters.
Canada has some very strict rules in place regarding whale watching tours, meaning operators are obliged by law to be as ethical as possible. It's also one of the most fertile whale-watching destinations on Earth, especially when the season is right.