Whale watching tours chasing after orcas can lead to once-in-a-lifetime vacation photos. But while memorable for tourists, such pursuits can force cetaceans to abandon crucial feeding grounds, get separated from their babies, and feel debilitating stress.
The International Whaling Commission (which oversees whaling and whale watching globally) lists some 50 countries that outline rules for marine tourism, from maintaining safe distances to how long boats can hang out with a pod. But while whale watching is becoming increasingly popular around the world, travelers have a tough time knowing if a local guide is aware of whale watching regulations, let alone follows them.
Because species and coastal communities vary, regulations and resources differ from region to region: What works in Tromsø, Norway, may not in Baja California, Mexico. That makes it difficult to impose blanket restrictions across the world and uniformly enforce them.
These factors can make it especially hard for travelers looking forward to a long-awaited trip on the water. However, there are things you can do before setting sail to ensure an unforgettable experience, while helping to protect the animals for the future. Here’s what to know.
A whale watching boom
Whale watching didn’t become a tourist activity until the 1950s, when California’s former military outpost at Cabrillo National Monument became the world’s first public whale watching site. Other posts popped up along the coast, paralleling the migration path of gray whales. Soon, enterprising boat owners (many of them fishermen) began taking people out for a couple hours in between fishing seasons.
Nearly hunted to extinction, gray whales and their conservation success story contributed to a whale watching boom across the country by the 1990s. Whale watching continues to grow around the world today, with an average of 13 million people annually participating in an industry that generates over $2 billion globally. In Alaska alone, half a million visitors shelled out $86 million in 2019 to stan over humpbacks and minkes feeding and socializing in majestic fjords.
These days, over a hundred countries offer a catamaran or zodiac sail to glimpse a sudden mist of sea spray on the horizon, a graceful tail fluke slipping under the ocean’s surface, or—the holy grail—a humpback bursting out of the water.
(Whale watching is having a moment—in New York City.)
Indeed, since whale conservation rallied in the 1980s, whales have taken on near-celebrity status (a breaching humpback even starred on a 2022 U.S. postage stamp). Star quality aside, they’re also protected under U.S. law, notes Elliott Hazen, a National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine ecologist, who took the postage stamp photo and has worked on reducing the risk of ship strikes on whales and entanglements from fishing gear.
“Whales offer innumerable benefits in terms of ecosystem roles, carbon sequestration, and carbon cycling in addition to tourism, funding, and cultural importance,” Hazen says. “So it’s really hard to actually quantify how important whales are, but there’s no question that they are a huge part of our coastal culture.”
These “ecosystem engineers,” as marine biologist and Nat Geo Explorer Asha de Vos calls them, support healthy marine environments. A whale’s dive-and-rise movements stir up all kinds of tasty nutrients from the depths of the ocean to the surface. Released in plumes, their poop fuels phytoplankton—a foundational food source for all marine life. In its lifetime, a whale can capture about 33 tons of atmosphere-warming CO2. When it dies, its body sinks to the bottom of the sea, where the CO2 stays trapped.
“Even one percent increase of phytoplankton productivity [can] capture the CO2 equivalent of two billion trees,” Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of Ocean Futures Society and honorary president of World Cetacean Alliance, writes in an email. “More whales mean more whale fertilizer enhancing the productivity [of] and improving fisheries and sustaining atmospheric oxygen for us all.”
Since the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed in the 1970s, whale populations have rebounded. Yet they remain at risk from other factors, among them entanglement with fishing lines, ocean pollution from toxic metals and noise, climate change, and ship strikes—the last is especially deadly for blue and fin whales, says Hazen.
(It’s the world’s newest whale species—and it’s already endangered.)
Responsible whale watching can help shed light on these factors. Experts on whale watching vessels educate the public and can help foster a lifelong love of marine life. In many instances, tour boats are the first line of defense when it comes to spotting and reporting entanglements and injuries. They also collect important data, typically in the form of fluke photos for scientists to track, but also just by reporting species they see.
That happened on a recent tour in Monterey Bay, California, says Hazen. A whale watching group spotted a North Pacific right whale, one of the most endangered large whale populations in the world, with just 30-35 individuals left. “That’s another opportunity for gain because the whale watching vessels are there on the water way more often than any of us scientists can be,” says Hazen. “So it’s a really important resource for understanding how the environment is changing, and how the top predators that we care about often are responding to it.”
But it isn’t perfect. While watch watching tours yield a “net positive,” says Hazen, vessels can still contribute to problems like noise pollution, which can stress animals when they’re feeding or resting. In terms of conservation awareness, it’s an expensive leisure activity that can exclude many people.
(Why Canada is making it harder to go whale watching.)
How travelers can help whales
So how can you ensure that your next whale watching trip does more good than harm? For starters, travelers should familiarize themselves with the rules of their destination.
“Many countries have either a certification program or viewing guidelines that are accessible on the Internet,” says Cousteau. “NOAA’s Marine Life Viewing Guidelines are followed by most whale operators in the United States.” The International Whaling Commission maintains a list of guidelines in other countries and an overall handbook, both of which are updated periodically.
Voluntary education group Whale Sense has its own certification program and lists responsible tour guides in Alaska and the Atlantic on its site. You can also look for outfitters around marine sanctuaries or Whale Heritage Sites. The latter is a certification program run by the World Cetacean Alliance, a conservation organization that currently recognizes six destinations around the world. While these sites don’t place regulations or enforce them, they “highlight the world policies that are already put in place [to] reduce the impacts of climate change, ship strikes, [and] entanglement,” says Cousteau.
However, climate change can force migrating mammals to move out of sanctuaries; and these safety zones have different levels of protection, notes Hazen. Contact may be prohibited, for instance, but activities like crab fishing may still be allowed, which could lead to entanglements. “It’s not a fault of the sanctuaries themselves, it’s a byproduct of the sanctuaries act not having full ‘protected area’ benefits,” he says.
(Humpback whales face major setback from climate change.)
If you still aren’t sure, contact local coastal museums, such as the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California, a marine sanctuary and Whale Heritage site, and the Pacific Whale Foundation’s citizen science program for responsible ways to tour. You can also contribute to whale health via cell phone apps like iNaturalist and Whale Alert, which reports deceased or distressed whales to NOAA.
If all else fails, look for spouts and flukes from shore, like the beach in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, or hotels like Turtle Bay Resort, located within the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In North America, the coastal Whale Trail guides visitors along a hundred lookouts (some with lodging managed by local communities), from British Columbia down to the birthplace of whale watching in Southern California.