It’s Time to Rethink the Practice of Whale Watching

A scientist reflects on the potential harms of chasing whales with boats to try to get that perfect snapshot.

Marco Tedesco
July 02, 2020

I am on Long Island beach near New York City and, while staring at the ocean, breathing in its majestic power and wondering about its immense unknown, I realize that the largest animal on our planet could be found not far from here. I peek at the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the characteristic spray that is the emblem of whales. This is the period, in fact, when they can be spotted off the coast while migrating.

They move with magnificent grace and can magically float on the surface of the ocean in the company of their calves. The calmness that wraps around these animals is almost surreal — the same calm necessary for them to properly communicate with each other. It is far from the noise of the city, human acoustic pollution. I think, as I continue to look for them, about the phenomenon of whale watching that, in recent years, has increasingly taken hold and, according to some, represents an economic benefit for coastal communities; for example, the Marine Mammal Commission of the United States government states that marine mammals (or cetaceans) such as whales and dolphins are “economic drivers of the economy linked to tourism and associated industries.” The economic contribution of a single whale during its lifetime is estimated at around 2 million dollars, for a total of over 3 trillion dollars when we consider all whales, according to the commission.

Yet where there are humans, there is little room for peace and quiet. A recent study reported in the eLife magazine shows how the observation of whales and dolphins from motorboats causes harm to animals. This is due to the sound, or rather the noise, that the engines generate, stressing the cetaceans and limiting their ability to find mates, engage in social contact with other whales and communicate with their offspring. In some countries, safety mandates require boats to maintain a distance of at least 100 meters from whales and to reduce speed when in proximity. Even in this case, however, studies have shown that even when boats comply with these restrictions, whales are still disturbed — they change course, breathe more rapidly, and alter the frequency of their singing or stop singing overall.

boat full of people watching a whale breach
A whale watching tour off the coast of Massachusetts. Photo: Matthew Ferrell/Flickr CC

“Unlike humans, the dominant sense in whales is not sight but hearing,” wrote Kate R. Sprogis, an Australian scientist at the helm of a research team monitoring whales with underwater equipment and lead author of the study on eLife. “As such, a whale may not be able to see a boat 100 meters away, but they are very likely to hear it, so it makes sense to consider this when defining the guidelines for whale watching.” Sprogis’s team studied how much noise comes from boats and found that at the highest level of 172 decibels (dB) at a distance of 100 meters, the resting time of whale mothers decreases by 30 percent, their respiratory rate doubles and their swimming speed increases by about 40 percent. But how deafening actually is a noise of about 170 dB? A vacuum cleaner generates about “only” 70 dB, a pneumatic hammer about 110 dB; 170 dB is very close to the roar of a rocket lifting off.

I imagine myself with my kids in a quiet and serene park and, while joyfully and respectfully enjoying what nature is offering me, I find myself immersed in the sound of a rocket taking off that lasts for a time that seems infinite. I see strange creatures looking at me from the rocket, staring at me while I am not able to communicate with my kids and, though curious, I am afraid, I am short of breath. I run away and try to hide, but the rocket chases after me.

Observing animals, in itself, is not wrong but we must always ask ourselves why we do it and pay attention to how we do it. Using motorboats to simply take a photograph to satisfy your own vanity or sterile curiosity (different from a scientific one!) is not noble, let alone useful. (There are hundreds of thousands of whale images already, and probably much more beautiful than what we can grasp from the boat.) Perhaps we could learn from these good giants, building a relationship based on respect and protection, rather than on vain curiosity. If we really want to help the economy of the sea and its inhabitants, we can donate funds to foundations or associations, talk to our friends about how wrong it is to destroy our planet for our selfishness and, perhaps, sit in a boat offshore with engines off (or paddling, even better), earning the right to be in that ecosystem, and waiting for them to come to us to spend time together as companions who share this wonderful planet.

Edited and adapted from a story that was originally published in La Repubblica.

Marco Tedesco is a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Cayte Bosler (Columbia ‘20) provided edits and background material for this piece.