DeFINitely Hot: A Review of the new Guide on responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching
With the recent launch of the Global Best Practice Guidance for responsible Whale and Dolphin Watching, another critical document on the growing industry of cetacean-focused tourism was published. In collaboration with Club Med, the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) asked global experts via online surveys for their opinions on a variety of issues correlated with whale and dolphin watching activities. Here, the document is not limited to aerial, land and boat-based cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) encounters but also included swimming operations that, due to a demand for closer and more personal interactions, have experienced a significant growth over the past two decades. While I have started my early research career with the science behind whale-watching, I have specialised in human-cetacean interactions which is why I have decided to contribute to this report.
The guide has seven main chapters, starting with an explanation what best practice means, why it is important and how this can be achieved. It is important to note that guidelines are evolving and adapting, and are in need for regular updates. There is also no ‘one-size-fits-all’ as each case of cetacean tourism activities need to be considered individually.
The first chapter focusing on boat-based activities addresses unacceptable practices, which are emphasised in comprehensive figures. For instance, the guide prohibits motorised swimming aids such as Jet Ski, that are often used by recreational water users and that increase the chance for opportunistic encounters. The interpretation of animal behaviour prior to an approach is vital and outlined in an info box with figures as examples provided. Further, it addresses behaviours that may put swimmers at health risk. I am particularly happy to see this as directed animal behaviour is often widely neglected in these kind of reports, however, I find the placement not suitable as the chapter deals with boat-based cetacean watching only. From my point of view, it would have made more sense in the chapter on swimming activities that is following.
Further, tail slapping is not necessarily an expression for aggression but may be an indicator that the animal(s) is/are stressed. I have witnessed this several times in a population of spinner dolphins while volunteering in Mauritius, which was also selected as a case study (and worst-case scenario) in this guide. It has been chaotic in 2011 already, but with the confirmation, that in 2016 nothing has really changed although local NGOs are trying to enforcing the following of guidelines, is extremely sad to read!
The ban for scuba around cetaceans will constitute a big game changer for the wildlife photography and filming industry. Most of these guys are taking spectacular footage of whales and dolphins with a breathing apparatus to enable different perspectives (e.g. from underneath) and longer shooting times. In addition, the ban of selfie-sticks is an important point and relevant to all who want to document their encounters with dolphins. The sticks may cause harm to people and wildlife, which is why this is an important decision. I am just wondering why underwater scooters were not included here since they are a serious source of disturbance for cetaceans and other marine wildlife that is dependent on communication. When used by unskilled people, they may get out of control easily, which may cause injury to swimmers and wildlife involved. Instagram and Facebook are frequently showing this kind of footage in which people are using these devices to get close to dolphins.
While it is a good approach for tourist health and safety that operations need to have skilled guides and that people need to demonstrate their swimming skills prior to an interaction with cetaceans in an open-water environment, I am not sure if this is actually feasible. If customers are unable to demonstrate the required level of skill, are they excluded from the activity? And how is this conducted when there are only 4 to 8 customers on each tour? How viable is this procedure for an operator who is dependent on a particular season?
I am pleased they refer to cetacean behaviour and that it needs to be addressed prior to swimmers entering the water, since this was mostly disregarded in existing guidelines.
WCA also highlights the benefits of surface ropes or mermaid lines for in-water interactions as they have proven to increase customer satisfaction by simultaneously making animals more relaxed around swimmers. However, the utilisation has limitations, as stated, since humpback whales often show very active surface behaviour, which may put them at risk to be entangled and as a consequence, may pose a threat to swimmers and the operating vessel.
The next chapter deals with the sustainability of cetacean-focused tours as they need to make a contribution to conservation with direct involvement of local communities, as well as to scientific knowledge. While this sounds easy to implement, many tour operators still struggle with this point, which is an essential step towards sustainable practices.
For destinations, techniques to achieve a more holistic whale watching experience include:
-a collaborative development of local guidelines
-Monitoring and Enforcement
-Closures and zoning of critical cetacean habitats
The sixth chapter discusses the benefits and impacts of cetacean-based tourism. By naming marine conservation and the note-worthy shift from consumptive whaling to non-consumptive (non-lethal) whale watching, the column of benefits is relatively slim compared to the two pages of impacts on target species. This leaves one to question, whether cetacean watching is a one-way road that predominantly fulfils people’s needs while at the same time it is neglecting those of the animals involved.[nbsp]
In the section on impacts of swimming operations, it is stated that incidents with cetaceans are extremely low and I feel this is rather inappropriate wording. In fact, we do not know how many people are affected by negative encounters with cetaceans as to date there is no global database for related incidents. However, I have already seen numerous videos and pictures in which people have been put at risk. I came across several incidents that were documented in literature with many of them emphasising that physical contact has been a catalyst for aggressive behaviour towards human swimmers. This is unfortunately missing here. It is also ignored that the unfamiliarity of the environment may have a major impact on people’s health and wellbeing.
While I think the present guide is a worthwhile addition to the existing guidelines, the chapter on captivity, however, has confused me the most. Here, it is argued that seaside sanctuaries are the ultimate solution for cetaceans in human care. In general, I do not really understand where the significant improvement will be, as in fact, it is still captivity. Several institutions are using this environment already (e.g. on the Florida Keys, in Curacao or in Eilat, Israel) and are still targeted by activists who want to free the animals, claiming these conditions are “inhumane”. So there will be staff who care for the animals (feeding and monitoring of health, like in a normal dolphinarium), there will be access to the public (like in a normal dolphinarium) and visitors need to pay an entrance fee to see the animals and to support the institution (like in a normal dolphinarium). At the same time, the section does not address that the unfiltered sea water may pose a severe threat to an individual’s health that has spent its entire life in clean, filtered water.
Since the guide addresses responsible whale and dolphin watching (in open water environments), I do not quite understand why captivity was included here other than promoting seaside sanctuaries. Dolphinariums around the world are already contributing to successful marine mammal rescue with a multitude of marine wildlife being released back into the wild after their rehabilitation. Some individuals, however, cannot be released and will need permanent care. Like in the case of orca Morgan who has been rescued as a juvenile and being declared to be non-releasable. Animal right activist are still fighting against this decision that has been made by experienced veterinarians.
I would like to conclude that this publication is an important document to improve worldwide operations targeting whales and dolphins for touristic purposes. The involvement of experts has evidently contributed to a holistic compendium that may have a great impact over the upcoming years. With all first publications, there is still room for improvements which was also anticipated by WCA who provided a feedback form of which I will definitely make use.