Irresponsible whale watching can result in harassment of cetaceans, lead to behavioural changes, and even hinder reproductive rates
The cultural importance of cetaceans dates back millennia, with whales and dolphins revered in many cultures as deities, guides and protectors. However, in recent times the need to reconnect with cetaceans in a non-exploitative way has never been more apparent.
From hunting cetaceans and capturing animals for captivity, to dangers posed by ghost fishing nets and plastic waste, whales and dolphins face continued exploitation - with numbers of many species in decline. Of the 88 species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now classifies three as Critically Endangered, seven as Endangered, six as Vulnerable, and five as Near Threatened.
Despite these issues, the appeal of experiencing cetaceans in their natural habitat has never been more popular. Whale watching - the practice of observing whales, dolphins, and porpoises (cetaceans) in their natural habitat - has seen a huge and recent surge in popularity as humans continue to be enamoured by these majestic creatures.
However, our desire to experience those close encounters with whales and dolphins can serve to escalate the problems that they face. Irresponsible whale watching can result in harassment of cetaceans, lead to behavioural changes, and even hinder reproductive rates. In the very worse cases, serious or fatal injuries caused by strikes from whale watching and other vessels can occur if boats attempt to approach the animals too closely and with reckless boat handling.
Fortunately, many responsible whale-watching companies operate around the world. It has become increasingly apparent that these organisations and their associated communities must be recognised for their efforts if we're to secure a prosperous future not only for cetaceans and the people that rely upon them for their livelihoods, but also for our oceans.
How can whale watching promote healthy oceans?
As a basis for significant scientific research, an educational platform for the public to learn about ocean conservation, and an important source of income for local communities, responsible whale watching is now seen as an ethical alternative to keeping cetaceans in captivity.
Yet the many tour operators that maintain respectful whale watching practices, and contribute to securing a viable source of income for coastal communities through responsible tourism, remain largely unrecognized. The solution is to reward the communities that celebrate cetaceans, seek more sustainable solutions, and promote the environmental management of marine resources.
To address these concerns, Whale Heritage Sites (WHS) are now being earmarked across the globe. Each site will aim to enhance the conservation of cetaceans by helping to secure sustainable livelihoods, encourage respectful interactions, increase protection measures, and celebrate cetaceans through the arts, science, education, and cultural events. Whale Heritage Sites also provide the travel industry with a clear marker to identify and support sustainable practice, and create a platform for destinations to promote whale related culture, heritage and biodiversity.
What are Whale Heritage Sites?
The WHS initiative, spearheaded by the UK-based World Cetacean Alliance (WCA), was created following three years of consultation with whale watching companies, NGOs, governments, and the travel industry. Whale Heritage Sites can be high sea or coastal marine areas - and occasionally rivers and lakes - where dolphins, whales and porpoises live. Accreditation is awarded to specific areas considered to be centres of excellence, which meet robust criteria to promote harmonious engagement with cetaceans. The sites must demonstrate that relationships between communities and animals are congruous and not exploitative.
The umbrella categories include: encouraging respectful human-cetacean coexistence; celebrating cetaceans with cultural events; environmental, social and economic sustainability; and research, education and awareness.
These criteria were debated at the first WHS Summit, held in the Azores, Portugal, in October 2015 and attended by nearly 100 delegates from around the world - including scientists, conservationists, tourist board representatives and whale watching companies. Following a public consultation, the scheme opened for applications in April 2016.
Since the programme launched, more than 11 entries have been received from sites applying for candidacy status. Five of these applications have been accepted to progress to a first round of considerations by the WHS's Steering Committee. The destinations are Vancouver Island North in Canada, Port Stephens, and Hervey Bay, in Australia, Peninsula Valdez in Argentina, and Nantucket in the USA.
The five locations are now in the process of becoming candidate sites, and will be audited before an Independent Review Panel assesses whether they have fulfilled the criteria in order to be designated as Whale Heritage Sites.
Designation as a Whale Heritage Site will facilitate marketing and promotion, boost visitor numbers and the incomes of tourism providers, enable sustainable management of marine resources and celebrate history, the environment, and cultural identity.
Guidance on responsible whale watching
Whale Heritage Sites are also designed to provide tourists with an easily accessible means to select responsible whale and dolphin watching holiday destinations. Experiencing these incredible animals in a respectful way is known to lead to the best encounters, either because natural behaviours are not disturbed, or because the animals feel relaxed in the company of the vessel and often approach closer or interact.
It is not only tourism companies, governments, and coastal communities that hold the key to helping ensure a thriving future for our oceans, but also the wider public. The more inspired we are as a result of witnessing cetaceans in their natural habitats, the more likely we are to work together to promote ocean conservation and sustainable practices. It's a responsibility that each and every one of us shares, but what is exciting is that Whale Heritage Sites are places that will help us to realise these aspirations.
Dylan Walker currently works as CEO for the secretariat of the World Cetacean Alliance, a partnership of over 70 non-profit organisations, whale and dolphin watching tour operators and individuals in 35 countries worldwide, working collaboratively to protect cetaceans and their habitats. As a scientist and conservationist, Dylan has worked with the whale watching industry across Europe, Latin America and North America for 20 years, and has written several books on cetaceans. He is also co-founder of WhaleFest, the world's largest celebration of whales and dolphins.
To find out more about Whale Heritage Sites visit http://www.whaleheritagesites.org
A list of full criteria for destinations can be found at http://www.whaleheritagesites.org/accreditation/criteria/
To find out more about the World Cetacean Alliance visit http://www.worldcetaceanalliance.org