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6 Top Tips to Whale Watching Ethically

This article was originally shared on Terra Incognita’s Travel & Wildlife Blog on 12/30/20.

humpback whale coming up for breath with their blowhole
Humpback whale blowhole observed near Cape Cod.

Tens of millions of people will go whale watching this New Year. Seeing these marine giants is a bucket-list topper and a lifelong dream for many to check off. When done right, whale watching can go further than just being a memorable experience. Ethical whale watching can foster environmental stewards and help protect whales in the wild. 

The first step to finding an ethical whale-watching experience is to DO YOUR RESEARCH! Finding your perfect fit can be challenging, but worth it for a safe, enjoyable, and educational adventure that treats whales with respect. Search for a company that prioritizes sustainable practices that protect whales first. Not all tours and guides have the whales’ best interests in mind. It’s on you to make the right choice and select an ethical tour that impacts the environment as little as possible. Always look before you book, and make sure to do your research following these six tips for selecting a whale-watching experience. 

ethical whale watching kayaking tour
An ethical whale watching kayak tour from Roche Harbor, San Juan Island.

1.) Put Whales First

We are guests in the ocean and seeing whales in the wild is a privilege. Constant disturbance from humans can negatively affect whale behaviors in feeding, resting, and raising young. Find a tour provider that operates with as little disturbance as possible to the whales. Here are four options to whale watch ethically in San Juan Island, Washington. Your guides should always approach whales slowly, ensuring to not disturb their behaviors. It’s not about getting as close as possible, it’s about being respectful of the whales’ space.

2.) Follow the Rules

Guidelines for ethical whale watching vary from country to country. Some regions where whale watching is popular have regulations in place to protect marine life. While sadly, some areas do not enforce regulations, and others don’t have any laws. Even voluntary guidelines help operators to create sustainable procedures when viewing whales. Quality companies will advertise the guidelines that they follow to ensure whales are not disturbed during their experiences. 

ethical whale watching tour in Cape Cod
Guests on an ethical whale watching tour in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Cape Cod.

3.) Real Life Expectations

Ecotourism providers understand that observing animals in the wild is never a guaranteed experience. Being with a guide that follows ethical whale-watching guidelines often means their boat is kept a certain distance from the whales. On the other hand, unknowing tourists will book tours with the expectation of seeing their favorite documentary scenes unfold before their eyes. Though you might witness some spectacular behaviors, you will never be guaranteed that perfect Instagram shot – whales are far too unpredictable. Instead, center your experience on the beauty of the entire excursion.

4.) Consider Dry Land

Solid ground doesn’t typically come to mind when you think of whale watching, but it should! The least invasive way to watch marine life is from shore. There are plenty of great places around the world where you can watch whales from the coast. In some locations, the whales are even known to swim extremely close to shore, providing onlookers with a thrilling sight from dry land.   

Humpback whale tail flukes.
Humpback whale deep diving to feed in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Cape Cod.

5.) Make it Educational 

High-quality whale watching tours will have a naturalist that is able to interpret what’s being observed. Ethical whale watching excursions are about much more than just seeing wildlife, they’re about learning along the way. Good guides should be enthusiastic to teach their passengers about saving whales. Oftentimes, vessels will provide interpretive materials on board like identification books for you to browse during your journey. Whale watching should be equal parts educational and equal parts goose-bump moments from wildlife sightings. 

6.) Save the Whales

Most ecotourism companies will collaborate with local non-profits and donate a percentage of their revenue to support the conservation efforts. Others will even provide their vessels as a platform for research groups to collect data from. Both are a great indicator you have selected an ethical option that is passionate about protecting whales. These offer passengers a direct means of learning about and supporting the ongoing conservation of whales. Collaborations with conservation organizations strengthen ecotourism practices and are an example of a win-win ethical solution for wildlife, local communities, and the environment.

male orca swimming near San Juan Island, Washington Whale watching
An adult male member of a Southern Resident orca pod observed near San Juan Island, Washington.

This New Year, find a company that prioritizes ecotourism practices that help to protect whales. If you’re considering going whale watching in the Pacific Northwest, I recommend checking out these: 4 Ways to Whale Watch Ethically in San Juan Island, Washington. By following these 6 tips you can ensure your experience is safe, educational, enjoyable, and always respectful of the whales. Happy New Year, and cheers to your next Journey for Wildlife! 

ethical whale watching tour
Guests on an ethical whale watching tour within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

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