People often ask us at the Marine Mammal Research Program at Ocean Wise how to choose an ethical whale watching company. They’ve heard about the emotional reaction many people have when they see a whale for the first time. They know that the scenery in British Columbia and northern Washington is spectacular, the waters sheltered and the whales abundant. They’re dead keen to get out on a boat and experience it for themselves. That said, mixed feelings are a fact of life in the modern world. It’s common, for example, to love eating great food but still worry about one’s weight. The people we’re hearing from have decided to go whale watching but they’re worried about whether whale watching negatively impacts the whales.

How do we answer the question? We thank them the questioners for their concern—we too worry about our impact on the whales when we go out on our research trips. We tell them that whale watching practice in this area is now among the best in the world. This partly due to recently-toughened regulations but it’s also because most of the local whale watch operators have been in business for many years. They are experienced at anticipating the whales’ behaviour and know how to stay well clear. Because most local companies practice good whale watching behaviour, we recommend choosing between them based on the extent to which they contribute to conservation and habitat stewardship. Here are two important ways that ethical companies can and in many cases do achieve this.

  • They inspire their customers to care about both the whales and the whales’ environment, and teach them how to translate that care into action. In practice, this means providing accurate information about the whales’ biology and behaviour (what they need to survive, what their world is like) and describing the threats the whales face (for example declining prey, pollution, and underwater noise). Whale watching companies that employ well-educated, experienced, knowledgeable captains and naturalists who can and do deliver these messages get high marks in our books.
  • They help the whales by participating in programs that reduce the threats the whales face. The BC Cetacean Sightings Network is one such program. When a whale watching vessel reports a whale sighting in real time, the information triggers the WhaleReport Alert System (WRAS) to send a private report to ships, ferries and tugs within 10 nautical miles of the whales. Vessels that receive alerts have time to lower their speed or change course to reduce their risk of striking the whales. BC Ferries, Washington State Ferries, cruise ships, tugs and ship’s pilots in both BC and Washington all pay close attention to WRAS alerts. The system is simple and effective.

If you are a considering a whale watching trip in northern Washington or British Columbia, check out the credentials and experience of the crew on your preferred companies’ websites. If you want to know which companies actively help protect whales from impacts of shipping–please click here to view a list of those companies that protect whales by regularly reporting their whale sightings to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network.