How Whale-Watching Might Be Harming Whales

Researchers say the animals get stressed, see boats as predators

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 30, 2014 8:11 AM CDT

(Newser) – Gazing at whales from a boat may seem like an animal-friendly pursuit, but new research is questioning that idea. Why? It's not just about the odd collision; whale-watching seems to stress out the whales, Nature reports following a symposium in Scotland. When they spot a boat—whose operators know where the preferred feeding grounds are—the whales may opt to skip a meal or hurry away. In Iceland's minke whales, the rush to escape looks a lot like an effort to flee a predator, with heavy breathing and a boost in speed, researchers say. Meanwhile, dolphins in New Zealand—whose numbers have been dropping, researchers find—appear to be focusing on dodging tourists rather than eating.

As for a solution, some areas suggest a distance boats must keep from the creatures, but the standards aren't usually officially required. “Whale-watching is traditionally seen as green tourism,” says a US wildlife biologist. “The negative is the potential for disturbance. That disturbance is a worry because we don’t want to do ‘death by 1,000 cuts.'" Other researchers, however, have seen benefits to whale-watching as a means of encouraging conservation work, Takepart notes. "Presentations in the symposium pointed out much good that whale-watching can do if—and that’s a big if—managed appropriately," says one. (It's not just whales who are on display: Shark watching is also a hit.)

A humpback whale dives near a whale-watching boat in Monterey Bay.
A humpback whale dives near a whale-watching boat in Monterey Bay.   (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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