whale watcher

Whale watching

Whale watching is the practice of observing whales and other cetaceans in their natural habitat. Whales are watched most commonly for recreation (cf. bird watching) but the activity can also be for scientific or educational reasons. While individuals do organize private trips, whale watching is primarily a commercial activity, estimated to be worth up to $1 billion per annum worldwide to whale watching operations and their local communities. The size and rapid growth of the whale watching industry has led to complex and unconcluded debates with the whaling industry about the best use of whales as a natural resource.


Whale watching as an organized activity dates back to 1950 when the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public spot for the observation of Gray Whales. In 1955 the first water-based whale watching commenced in the same area, charging customers $1 per trip to view the whales at closer quarters. The spectacle proved popular, attracting 10,000 visitors in its first year and many more in subsequent years. The industry spread throughout the western coast of the United States over the following decade.

In 1971 the Montreal Zoological Society commenced the first commercial whale watching activity on the eastern side of North America, offering trips in the St. Lawrence River to view Fin and Beluga Whales.

In the late 1970s the industry mushroomed in size thanks to operations in New England. By 1985 more visitors watched whales from New England than California. The rapid growth in this area has been attributed to the relatively dense population of Humpback Whales, whose acrobatic behaviour such as breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping was an obvious crowd-pleaser, and the close proximity of whale populations to the large cities on the east coast of the US.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s whale watching spread throughout the world. In 1998 Erich Hoyt carried out the largest systematic study of whale watching yet undertaken and concluded that whale watching trips were now available in 87 countries around the world, with over 9 million participants generating an income to whale watcher operators and supporting infrastructure (such as accommodation, restaurants and souvenirs) of over one billion dollars. His estimate for 2000 was for 11.3 million participants spending $1.475 billion, representing a five-fold increase over the decade.

Whale watching is of particular importance to developing countries as coastal communities start to profit directly from the whales' presence, significantly adding to popular support for the full protection of these animals from any resumption of commercial whaling.


Environmental campaigners, concerned by what they consider the "quick-buck" mentality of some boat owners, continue to strongly urge all whale watcher operators to contribute to local regulations governing whale watching (no international standard set of regulations exist because of the huge variety of species and populations). Common rules include:

  • Minimize speed/"No wake" speed
  • Avoid sudden turns
  • Minimize noise
  • Do not pursue, encircle or come in between whales
  • Approach animals from angles where they will not be taken by surprise
  • Consider cumulative impact - minimize number of boats at any one time/per day
  • Do not coerce dolphins into bow-riding.
  • Do not allow swimming with dolphins. This last rule is more contentious and is often disregarded in, for example, the Caribbean.

(Source: WDCS)

Almost all popular whale watching regions now have such regulations. Campaigners hope that a combination of peer pressure, the economic benefit of being advertised and promoted by ethical tourism operators and operators' own passion for marine wildlife forces them to adhere to such regulations.

One example of such regulations is the Be Whale Wise campaign of the Northeast Pacific.


Around the world, whale watching can be had in various locations and climates. By area, they are:

Northeast Atlantic

Much of Europe is surrounded by water. Tidal straits, inlets, lagoons, and varying water temperatures, make it ideal for various species to live here from the Arctic Circle to the warm turquoise waters off of Greece. Whales are seen in good numbers off the coast of Great Britain, Ireland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Spain, and France. Commercial car ferries crossing the Bay of Biscay from Britain and Ireland to Spain and France often pass by animals as large as blue whales and as small as pods of harbor porpoise and land based tours of these waters are not unheard of. In Northern Norway, Orcas are observed in Vestfjord, Tysfjord and Ofotfjord in Nordland as the herring gathers in the fjords to stay over the winter as well as being observed off the Lofoten islands during the summer. At Andenes on Andøya in Vesterålen, sperm whales can be observed all year round, although whale watching trips are only offered from May till September. There is also a possibility to go whale watching for sperm whales and other whales from Tromsø. The continental shelf [Eggakanten] and deep water where the sperm whales congregate, is very close to shore, beginning only 7000m from the Andenes harbour. Also, in the middle of the Northeast Atlantic , in the Azores Archipelago whale watching can be easily done. The most common whale in the region is the sperm whale, especially groups of females with calves.

Northeast Pacific

On the West Coast of the United States and Canada, excellent whale watching can be found in Alaska (summer), British Columbia, and the San Juan Islands/Puget Sound in Washington, where pods of orca are sometimes visible from shore. In California good whalewatching can be found in spring, summer, and fall at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, Monterey Bay, the usual suspects including humpbacks, greys, and blue whales. In Mexico, the various lagoons of Baja California Sur become whale breeding habitat in February and March. Tourists come here during this time to see the whales. A number of towns in the Mexican state have festivals celebrating the whale's arrival such as Guerrero Negro, in the first half of February and the port of San Blas on the 24 and 25 of February.

Northwest Pacific

In the Philippines, over thirty species of whales and dolphins can be observed around Central Visayas, Davao Gulf, the northern coast of the province-island Palawan, and in Batanes. The Visayas is particularly known area for dolphin sightings, and is home to one of the larger populations of the Fraser's Dolphin in the world. Dolphin species in the Visayas are known to be attracted to fish lures and to commercial fishing operations. In the northermost province of Batanes, at least 12 species of whales and dolphins has been sighted, making it the single location in the country with the highest cetacean diversity. There seems to be no definitive whale watching season in the Philippines, although the calmer waters of the summer season typically provides the best conditions. Some populations, like those of the Humpback Whales in Batanes, appear migratory, but other populations have yet to be studied. Some former coastal whaling communities in the Philippines have also started to generate income through whale watching tours.

Southwest Pacific

Kaikoura in New Zealand is a world-famous site for whales (in particular Sperm Whales) and Albatrosses.

People often take for granted the fact there is an abundance of marine life in Kaikoura. Wildlife that is rarely seen in such close proximity to the land in other parts of the world.

Ever wondered why Kaikoura is the location? If you ask someone who doesn't know, they might say due to the warm water, or rich feeding opportunities. But the truth is, there is alot more to it than that!

To understand why whales and other marine life are attracted to the Kaikoura region, we must first look at the geology of New Zealand as a whole as the Kaikoura phenomemon is the result of millions of years of geologic history of the region (and the world). This is a huge subject which goes well beyond the scope of asking why are there whales in Kaikoura, so I have attempted to condense this information into a form that best relates to Kaikoura and its marine life without fleding too far out into geological technicalities.

The Earth's crust is divided into a number of separate rigid sections called plates. These plates move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries: convergent, divergent, and transform. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation occur along plate boundaries. Running thousands of kilometres up the middle of the ocean floor is a mid-ocean ridge - an irregular line along which new oceanic crust is being generated. Far to the east of New Zealand lies a mid-ocean ridge that extends for thousands of kilometres along the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

New oceanic crust being generated at this spreading ridge constantly moves away on either side. East of the ridge the crust is travelling towards the coast of South America, where it plunges down into a subduction zone. To the west of the ridge, oceanic crust of the Pacific Plate is pushing into the Australian Plate - New Zealand is located right in the zone where these two plates collide.

Near Kaikoura is the end of a trough (the Hikurangi Trough) which is a subduction trench where oceanic crust of the Pacific plate meets continental crust which is being subducted beneath New Zealand's North Island (causing volcanic activity). Just north of Kaikoura is the tail end of this trough. From this area and heading south, rather than the Pacific plate meeting continental crust, both plates are now made of continental crust meaning it is impossible for one area of crust to slide under the other as is happening in the North Island. Instead of subduction, the crust has split along numerous faults (the largest being the Alpine Fault) and the mountains are being pushed up (the Southern Alps etc). Closer to Kaikoura, the Hope fault is a small fault which splinters off the Alpine Fault as a twig would off a large branch. The Hope Fault marks the boundary between the Pacific and Australian plates and runs along the foot of the Kaikoura mountains.

It is here that the movement between these plates changes from ocean floor subduction to continental collision (due to both colliding plates being continental crust). As a result, land uplifted along the faults form high mountains right at the Kaikoura coast (up to 2600 metres high just 12km from the sea), and close inshore (around 1 kilometre) the sea floor dives to depths of over 1000 metres. It is this deep water that has provided the environment to attract and sustain giant sperm whales and other whales and marine life that have put Kaikoura on the world map as a prime location to spot whales and dolphins. After feeding on giant squid in the deep canyon off Kaikoura, sperm whales surface and spout very close to land. The male sperm whales, particularly the younger ones, occupy the area all year round. Seasonal populations also occur. This is an area of high biological productivity that sustains large, diverse populations of marine mammals, fishes and invertebrates.

This deep area, known as the Kaikoura Canyon, lies immediately offshore. The head of the canyon is just 1.6km off the mountainous Kaikoura coast, where the water depth plunges to 1000 metres. The canyon extends northeastward to join the Hikurangi Trough, which in turn connects with the abyssal Kermadec Trench, one of the deepest spots on earth (10,047 metres at it's deepest point).

Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia offers reliable whale watching conditions for Southern Humpback Whales from the beginning of August through to the end of November each year. Whale numbers and activity have increased markedly in recent years. Sydney, Eden, Port Stephens and Byron Bay in New South Wales are other popular hot spots for tours from May to November.

Southern Right Whales are seen in winter (June-August) along the south coast of Australia. They are often readily viewed from the coast around Encounter Bay near Victor Harbor and up to a hundred at a time may be seen from the cliff tops at the head of the Great Australian Bight near Yalata.

Northwest Atlantic

In New England and off the east coast of Long Island, the whale watching season typically takes place from about mid-spring through October, depending both on weather and precise location. It is here that the Northern Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Minke Whale, and the very endangered/heavily protected North Atlantic Right Whale are often observed. For generations, areas like the Gulf of Maine and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (part of the inner waters formed by Cape Cod's hooked shape) have been important feeding grounds for these species and in the past this area was a whaling capital for the U.S. whaling industry, particularly Nantucket, an island just off the coast of Massachusetts.) Though strict laws prohibit the molestation of these large wild mammals, it is not unknown for the whales to approach the boats entirely on their own, particularly calves and juveniles. In recent years it is also not uncommon from time to time to see these huge animals playing and feeding in harbors of large cities, including New York. Due to the frequent visits of these mammals, a very large amount of research on large cetaceans takes place, in particular Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

In Canada, a popular whale-watching area is at Tadoussac, Quebec, where Beluga Whales favour the extreme depth and admixture of cold fresh water from the Saguenay River into the inland end of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In addition, the Maritimes shares a population of humpbacks living in the Bay of Fundy during the summer and moving south and out to the ocean during the winter.

Southwest Atlantic

In Brazil, humpback whales are observed off Salvador in Bahia State and at the National Marine Park of Abrolhos during their breeding season in austral winter and spring. Likewise, Southern Right Whales are observed from shore in Santa Catarina State during the same season, as mother/calf pairs can come as close to shore as 30 meters (about 100 feet). Income from whale watching has bolstered many a coastal community in Brazil and has made the township if Imbituba, Santa Catarina, recognized as a Brazilian "whale capital".


In South Africa, the town of Hermanus is one of the world centers for whale watching. During the winter months (MAY- DEC) Southern Right Whales come so close to the Cape shoreline that visitors can watch whales from their hotels. The town employs a "whale crier" (cf town crier) to walk through the town announcing where whales have been seen.

Southeast Indian

In Western Australia, whales are watched not far from Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste.

In Australia, whale watching occurs in many spots up and down the East Coast. From headlands you will often seen them making their migration south. At times, whales even make it into Sydney Harbour.

Whaling and whale watching

All three of the current major whaling nations (Norway, Japan and Iceland) have large and growing whale watching industries. Indeed Iceland had the fastest-growing whale watching industry in the world between 1994 and 1998.

Many conservationists now espouse the economic argument that a whale is worth more alive and watched than dead in order to try to persuade the governments of whaling nations to curtail whaling activities. The correctness of this argument is the subject of much debate at the International Whaling Commission, particularly since whaling countries complain about the 'scarcity' of whale meat which supposedly has caused it to become a luxury item, increasing its value. However, whale meat markets have collapsed and in Japan the government keeps its flow artificially through subsidies and whale meat distribution in schools and other forms of whale meat promotion. In 1997 2,000 tonnes of whale meat were sold for $30m - a single 10 tonne Minke Whale would thus have been worth $150,000. There is no agreement as to how to value a single animal to the whale watching industry, though it is probably much higher. It is possible to construct arguments that 'prove' a single whale is worth either much more or much less than this figure. However, it is clear from most coastal communities that are involved in whale watching that profits can be made and are more horizontally distributed throughout the community than if the animals were killed by a whaling industry.

Upon the resumption of whaling in Iceland in August 2003, pro-whaling groups, such as fishermen who argue that increased stocks of whales are depleting fish populations, suggested that sustainable whaling and whale watching could live side-by-side. Whale watching lobbyists, such as Húsavík Whale Museum curator Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, counter that the most inquistive whales, which approach boats very closely and provide much of the entertainment on whale-watching trips, will be the first to be killed by whalers. Pro-whaling organisations such as the High North Alliance on the other hand, have claimed that whale watching is not profitable and that some whale-watching companies in Iceland are surviving only because they receive funding from anti-whaling organizations (see statement from the HNA on the issue).

Conservation aspects

The rapid growth of the number of whale watching trips and the size of vessel used to watch whales has led to concerns that whale behaviour, migatory patterns and breeding cycles may be affected. There is now strong evidence that whalewatching can significantly affect the biology and ecology of whales and dolphins. Unfortunately management responses are lagging far behind the rapid growth of the sector and much is needed to improve the sustainability of whalewatching in most locations in the world.



  • Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, editors Perrin, Wursig and Thewissen, ISBN 0-12-551340-2. In particular the article Whale watching by Erich Hoyt.
  • Whale watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures and expanding socioeconomic benefits, Erich Hoyt, ISBN 1-901002-09-8 .
  • Whale watching, Discovery Travel Adventures Insight guide. ISBN 1-56331-836-9 .
  • The Whale Watcher's Guide: Whale-watching Trips in North America, Patricia Corrigan, ISBN 1-55971-683-5 .
  • Whales and Whale Watching in Iceland, Mark Carwardine, ISBN 9979-51-129-X .
  • On the Trail of the Whale, Mark Carwardine, ISBN 1-899074-00-7

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