A case study in Juneau, Alaska demonstrates the potential of whale-watching tours as an educational and public awareness tool for the protection of whales and the marine environment. This study also revealed the importance of managing passenger expectations during the excursion, for example by informing them of regulations in place to protect cetaceans.

The offshore whale-watching industry, which began in the early 1950s, is booming. There is worldwide growth in interest in observing marine mammals in their natural habitat. In 2008, more than 13 million people in 119 countries participated in whale-watching trips, generating total annual economic spinoffs of $2.1 billion, according to a report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

In recent years, a number of studies have analyzed the effects of whale-watching activities and have shown that the proximity of observation vessels can alter the behaviour of whales, interrupt their vital activities such as feeding, resting and care for young, potentially limiting the recovery of certain populations (see our recent article “Blue Whale Feeding Disturbed by Nearby Watercraft”). Regulatory measures have therefore been put in place in many regions to mitigate the adverse effects of observation activities.

However, to date, few studies have analyzed the educational and environmental value of these whale-watching trips. Could these excursions be good opportunities to convey educational and conservation messages that might have positive short- and long-term impacts on the protection of whales and the marine environment? Researchers have attempted to answer this question through a case study in Juneau, Alaska.

Juneau, Alaska

A prime destination for watching cetaceans, Juneau hosts approximately 250,000 tourists every summer to observe humpback whales in their summer feeding grounds. These humpbacks belong to the Central North Pacific population, which is growing an estimated 5 to 7% per year.

In the case study, 95 passengers responded to a written questionnaire after their trip and 24 interviews were conducted. “The majority of passengers reported that most of their knowledge about whales came from that day’s whale watch, surpassing the influence of TV documentaries and other forms of media,” says Heidi C. Pearson, Associate Professor in marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) and co-author of the study. “These whale watch trips therefore have enormous educational potential,” she continues.

However, researchers were surprised to discover that after their trip, most passengers had no knowledge of the guidelines or regulations in place to protect cetaceans during such outings. The study also shows that the two main criteria for the quality of the excursion, in the passengers’ view, are proximity to the whales and observing interesting behaviours.

According to Heidi Pearson, “Whale watch vessel captains may feel pressure to approach whales closely in order to please passengers. Informing passengers of regulations, why these regulations are in place and how they protect whales can help manage passenger expectations, because they then understand why they can’t get so close or stay with the whales so long. Passengers can thus have a more satisfactory observation experience, while protecting the marine resources on which this activity depends.”

For whale-watching to be an opportunity to educate and raise public awareness and to make sure that the messages that are being disseminated are accurate, “naturalists and other crew members should be appropriately trained,” suggests the researcher. And to allow the messages heard on the boat to have a lasting effect, “the whale-watching excursion could be an opportunity to inform passengers of the measures they can take to protect the marine environment when they return home, even if they live far from the ocean,” she suggests.

In the coming seasons, researchers will continue their case study in Juneau by conducting a more in-depth analysis of the costs and benefits of humpback whale watching in this region. They will observe the short-term impacts of whale watch vessels on the behaviour and movement patterns of whales, as well as changes in passenger knowledge, values, attitudes and behaviour before, 24 hours after and 6 months after their excursion.

And in the St. Lawrence?

The St. Lawrence River is another renowned place for whale watching in North America, with nearly 300,000 visitors coming every year to observe cetaceans in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. Do the excursions organized within the Marine Park – which is home to eight species of whales, three of which are at risk – represent (or could they represent) opportunities to educate the public and raise awareness about the protection of whales and the marine environment?

In a case study conducted in Tadoussac and published in 2002, nearly one-third of the 31 whale-watchers interviewed claimed they had learned nothing new by participating in the whale watching activity. The most environmentally-conscious observers expressed disappointment at the lack of explicitly conservation-oriented content and a number of participants would have liked to learn how they could contribute to whale conservation or modify their own behaviour. According to the authors of this study, it would be appropriate for people who are in close contact with whales – captains, naturalists and scientists – “to share their interactions with whales and introduce others to the world of cetaceans. This was one aspect that was greatly appreciated by those participants who had the chance to discover it and deplored by those who didn’t.”

“Ever since this case study, significant efforts have been made to improve the educational value of whale-watching trips in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, and efforts are continuing,” mentions Patrice Corbeil, Vice President and Director of Educational Programs at the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM). Recognizing the outreach power of trips out to sea, five tour companies, together with Parks Canada, SÉPAQ and GREMM, created the Eco-Whale Alliance in 2011 to continuously improve offshore whale-watching practices and the quality of information communicated to passengers. As part of this Alliance, continuing education is now offered to captains/naturalists and several tools have been developed. In particular, Whale Portraits, prepared by GREMM scientists, are sent out weekly to the captains/naturalists during the summer season so that they can know and recognize the whales present in the St. Lawrence and communicate this information, in addition to their passion, to the public.

é faits pour améliorer la valeur éducative des excursions d’observation des baleines dans le parc marin du Saguenay–Saint-Laurent, et les efforts se poursuivent», mentionne Patrice Corbeil, vice-président et directeur des programmes éducatifs du Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM). Reconnaissant le pouvoir de sensibilisation des excursions en mer, cinq entreprises d’excursion, Parcs Canada, la SÉPAQ et le GREMM ont créé l’Alliance Éco-Baleine en 2011 pour améliorer de façon continue la pratique des observations en mer et la qualité de l’information diffusée aux passagers. Dans le cadre de cette Alliance, de la formation continue est offerte aux capitaines-naturalistes et plusieurs outils ont été développés. Entre autres, des Portraits de baleines, préparés par les scientifiques du GREMM, sont diffusés chaque semaine aux capitaines-naturalistes durant la saison estivale, afin qu’ils puissent connaitre et reconnaitre les baleines présentes dans le Saint-Laurent et communiquer cette information, en plus de leur passion, au public.

News - 7/7/2017

Béatrice Riché

Béatrice Riché has served as editor for the GREMM in 2016. She holds an MSc in environmental science and has spent several years working abroad in the fields of resource conservation, species at risk and climate change. Back on the shores of the St. Lawrence, which she keeps watch over every day, Béatrice writes columns on whales, drawing inspiration from events taking place here and afar.

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