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Whale and dolphin watching

Seeing whales and dolphins in their ocean homes can be an exhilarating, moving and even life-changing experience.

“I can remember my first whale watching trip just as clearly as my last one. It had a profound impact on me that I am now privileged to share with many others year after year, and helped launch my career of making sure whales are around for future generations to enjoy as well. I spend much of my time now working with boaters of all kinds about how to operate safely and responsibly around whales and dolphins."

Monica Pepe, WDC Policy Manager

The benefits of whale watching

Responsible whale watching benefits everyone: watchers, operators, local communities - and of course, the whales, dolphins and porpoises who are the sight to see!

Responsible whale watching is great . . .

For passengers because it:

  • Allows watchers to enjoy the spectacle of whales and dolphins in their natural environment
  • Offers the opportunity to learn about whales and dolphins, the threats they face and what we can do to help
  • Creates a direct and memorable connection to these amazing creatures

For conservation as it:

  • Provides a research platform for scientists to collect opportunistic data on the behavior and ecology of whales and dolphins
  • Helps to create a network of observers who can report whales or dolphins in distress to trained and permitted responders  
  • Supports putting an end to whaling by proving whales should be kept alive and protected

For the economy because it:

  • Provides income for coastal communities
  • Develops local tourism infrastructure
  • Offers a long-term marine tourism activity: many whale species are long-lived and, if treated responsibly, may be viewed in the wild over several decades.

Did You Know?

  • It’s possible to watch whales and dolphins without leaving dry land - perfect for those who want to avoid seasickness! We recommend viewing from cliff tops and other vantage points from land whenever possible as this reduces the likelihood of whales and dolphins being disturbed.
  • There is no such thing as a typical trip. They vary enormously depending on location, the whale or dolphin species in the vicinity and their behaviors.
  • Whale watching is big business - a 2008 study estimated over 13 million people a year were taking a whale watch trip in over 120 countries and generating a whopping $2.1 billion per year in total revenues! The industry has only continued to grow since then.
Responsible whale watching

Why is it important that whale watching is carried out responsibly?

With a growing industry comes growing concerns about the industry’s impact on whales and dolphins, whether at individual, group or population level. In many cases, whale watching involves targeting specific whale and dolphin communities for prolonged, often close-up, encounters.  As the demand increases, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that we are peaceful visitors in their ocean homes.

In the short term, whales and dolphins may start:

  • Avoiding vessels: for example, rapidly changing speed or direction, or diving more frequently
  • Spending less time hunting or foraging
  • Spending less time resting or socializing

In the long-term, whale and dolphins may:

  • Have lower reproductive success
  • Experience negative health impacts
  • Move away from areas heavily targeted by whale watching tourism

How to choose a good whale watch trip?

There are many tours offered around the world and it can be difficult to know which one to choose.  It is important to select a well-rounded trip - one that is enjoyable, educational, safe for the passengers, and also treats the whales and dolphins being watched with care and respect.

Look before you book: do some research and make sure that you are happy with what the company is offering.

A good operator will:

  • Put the whales and dolphins first

This means careful and responsible boat handling that causes as little disturbance as possible. We are uninvited guests in the whales’ world and we are privileged to see them. Remember: constant disturbance from boats can seriously affect their ability to feed, rest and raise their young.

  • Follow regulations or guidelines governing whale watching

In some parts of the world, some species are protected by enforceable whale watching regulations. Elsewhere, there may be voluntary guidelines in place or even areas where whale watching is completely unmanaged. A good operator will advertise that they follow applicable guidelines/regulations.  In the US, WDC partners with NOAA Fisheries on a program for commercial whale watch companies called Whale SENSE - participating companies are trained annually on these guidelines and regulations in their region.

  • Have adequate safety provisions

A safe whale watch boat will have an experienced operator and crew, with appropriate training, licensing and safety equipment. The trip should include a safety briefing for all passengers.

  • Set accurate expectations

We are lucky to find whales at all given how large the ocean is! You shouldn't expect to head out on a trip and see documentary-quality activity. The reality is that most photographers will spend hours (if not days) filming wild creatures like whales before they get the "money shot". Following whale watching guidelines or regulations will often mean the boat is kept a certain distance from the animals you are viewing. This is in the best interest of the whales. The behaviors you observe should be natural, and if you're lucky, you'll witness something really spectacular!

  • Have an onboard naturalist

A naturalist (or other experienced crew member) will guide you through your trip by explaining what you are seeing and answering your questions. An experienced guide will also be able to interpret the behaviour of the whales and dolphins being observed which can really add to your understanding and enjoyment of the experience. Often times, they will have additional materials on board for you to browse as well.

  • Carry out research and support whale conservation

Some companies will offer their vessels as a platform for opportunistic data collection for local conservation or research groups. This often involves an opportunity for passengers to learn about ongoing research projects in the area and how their trip is supporting those efforts. Some companies may also provide donations to support the work of their non-profit partners.

WDC supports responsible
whale watching

In the United States, WDC is a founding partner on four voluntary education and recognition programs:

  • WHALE SENSE is offered to commercial whale watching companies in the Atlantic and Alaska who commit to responsible whale watching practices.
  • See A Spout, Watch Out! provides safe boating guidelines to recreational powerboat operators in the Northeast US.
  • Sharing the Seas: Safe Boating for Sailors and Whales helps sailors (recreational and professional) navigate safely around whales.
  • Dolphin SMART promotes responsible viewing and stewardship of wild dolphins and currently has participating operators in Florida, Alabama and Hawaii.

If you are considering booking a trip outside the US, WDC provided input and guidance for the International Whaling Commission's comprehensive guide to whale watching across the globe. WDC also promotes opportunities for watching whales and dolphins from land, where possible, as this can be a wonderful – and generally non-intrusive - viewing method. It also offers the chance for the public to get involved in citizen science, such as our Shorewatch program in Scotland.

Training

We provide training and education workshops for operators and naturalists, including here in the United States.

Education

We create educational materials for passengers and whale watch naturalists in many different languages and regions.

Advice

We work with federal managers to employ “best practices” when developing or revising whale watch regulations or guidelines.

Support

We support responsible whale watching practices through a number of WDC-led programs and partnerships.

Make a difference

Join our team  - no matter which way you choose, your commitment helps whales, dolphins, and our shared planet.

Save the whales, save the world.

Humpback whale poking its head out of the water, a behavior called spyhopping

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Adopt a whale and help us protect these amazing creatures.

Bottlenose dolphin calf breaching with its whole body out of the water

Join

You can join our team and help us save whales and dolphins

Breaching North Atlantic right whale

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Orca spyhop

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