Whale watching can be our best tool in the battle to save the whales but we must manage mass tourism carefully.
Can whale watching really save the whales? One of the great revelations of conservation in the 21st century has been that tourism is the new front line in the fight to preserve species and habitats. The well-being of humanity has always been tied to nature. It should have come as no surprise that this applies economically as well. The core idea of ecotourism is that nature is worth more to us alive and healthy than it is extracted and dead.
For ecotourism to be successful it must achieve two outcomes. First, it must create awareness and action among the general public. This happens when people are excited by and educated about nature. Second, it must ensure the sustainability of natural systems and the people that rely on them. Tourism replaces extractive and destructive activities as the main source of income for nearby communities or provides jobs where there were none before. When successful the results are spectacular. Nature shows its almost unbelievable ability to bounce back and entire local or even national economies are transformed.
How Whale Watching Saves Whales
Whale watching is a perfect example of how this can work. A global ban on commercial whaling was agreed upon by a majority of countries at the IWC (International Whaling Commission) in the late 1980s. Whaling was such a huge industry that by some estimates we wiped out over 90% of many species’ populations. With global tourism on the rise and millions of rich city dwellers willing to pay for a glimpse of nature, an industry was born. Since the ban whale populations have begun to bounce back in many places around the world, in some cases dramatically. Many people that worked in whaling and fishing have found better-paid work as captains, guides and business owners. People around the world now know and care more about Cetaceans and this is leading to better protections in more places.
But whale watching is not a panacea for the problems faced by whales. In fact, it can even create more problems when done incorrectly. Whales are extremely sensitive to sound and use it to communicate over long distances. Boat engines can be a problem for them, especially when there are many boats around for long periods. There are already laws in many countries to ensure safe distances between boats and whales, limits on time spent with whales and limits on the distance boats may approach. Enforcing the laws and educating both locals and travelers is key to ensuring the sustainability of the industry. There are also many irresponsible whale watching operations out there that harass whales and other marine life. This can be dangerous for both animals and people and may also drive the whales out of the area.
Challenges Facing Cetaceans
Like the rest of the ocean and nature in general, cetaceans face a multitude of threats in the 21st century. With the amount of shipping traffic on today’s oceans, accidental boat collisions have become a major hazard. So has becoming by-catch in a giant miles wide fishing net. Over-fishing and the ever-increasing effects of climate change are affecting the food supplies of whales and many other creatures. Ocean pollutants such as plastic are turning up in vast quantities inside cetaceans and almost all other marine species.
Education can solve many of these problems. Eco-friendly whale watching can and already does play a role. Passionate and knowledgeable whale watching operations, their staff and of course the animals themselves can inspire ordinary people to make a difference. Whale watching can also contribute greatly to science. By working directly with universities or participating in projects such as Happy Whale ordinary people and businesses can help to generate data that allows scientists to better understand the whales. This understanding is key to identifying areas that are especially important to protect, monitoring population numbers and providing evidence to take to governments to justify better protections.
What Can I Do?
There are so many things each of us can do to help conservation efforts and avoid the worst effects of climate change. For starters, we need to eat more sustainably. We also need to reduce our use of products and re-use and recycle more efficiently. A transition to cleaner modes of transport and more public transport and sharing services are also important. As consumers, we can support businesses that behave responsibly. Anyone can start or join a project that aims to encourage these principles. Although humanity must take giant strides forward each small individual step helps as well. In the words of David Mitchell: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”