What to look for in a good whale watch trip – a visitor’s guide

In recent decades, whale watching has grown dramatically. Currently, about 90 countries offer a variety of programs for whale and dolphin watching.

WDC receives many requests each year from supporters who want to go whale and dolphin watching (WW). Whether you are planning the trip of a lifetime to see whales in Antarctica or Australia, or just want to take a half-day excursion as one of the highlights of your holiday in Boston or Tenerife, one thing is almost certain: you will be faced with a bewildering choice of whale watch trips!

In recent years, WW has taken off in a big way all over the world. Over 13 million people took a whale watch trip in 2008 (the latest year for which figures are available, source: IFAW) in nearly 120 countries worldwide, generating $2.1 billion in total revenues – so whale watching is very big business!  There is no such thing as a typical trip, they vary enormously depending on location, target cetacean species and the type of vessel used: these range from huge cruise ships to small yachts and catamarans.  It is also possible to watch whales and dolphins without leaving dry land (perfect for those who want to avoid seasickness!) and WDCS recommends this whenever possible as it removes the possibility of whales and dolphins being disturbed by boat presence.

Land-based watching is not possible in some areas however, and in practice, most people opt for a boat trip of some description. You may find that up to a dozen or more companies offer WW trips from the same harbour and it can be difficult to know which one to choose. It is tempting to believe that all operators offer much the same experience, but in fact, this is not always the case. It is important to recognise that a good WW trip is one which is not only enjoyable, educational and safe for the passengers, but also treats the whales and dolphins being watched with care and respect - and this means the minimum of intrusion.

WW operations are almost always commercial ventures, and those operators offering a substandard service rely on passengers choosing indiscriminately and just getting on the first boat they see at the quayside or simply not being well-informed about what to expect from a good WW trip.  If passengers insist on using only those operators who provide a truly balanced WW experience, this sends out a powerful message to the poorer operators to “clean up their act” and improve the quality of their venture. This usually leads to an overall improvement in the quality of WW trips on offer in the area - which can only have a knock-on beneficial effect upon the whales and dolphins themselves.

Here are some guidelines for selecting a good WW trip. Before you book a trip or buy tickets for a certain boat, do some online research, ask for an information leaflet, read display boards or ask questions at the booking office. Make sure that you are happy with what is on offer before you actually board any vessel.

A good WW operator will:

Put the animals first

This means careful and responsible boat handling.  It is sometimes easy to forget that we are uninvited guests in the whales’ world and we are privileged to see them. We have a responsibility to cause as little disturbance as possible. It is always tempting to try to get as close as possible to the whales, especially if you are trying to take photographs, but remember that these are truly wild animals and constant disturbance can seriously affect their ability to feed, rest and rear their young.  Imagine how you would feel if a coachload of tourists descended on your living room and expected to photograph your family having Sunday lunch!  In fact, careful and considerate behaviour around the whales usually results in much longer encounters with them, and the added bonus of observing more interesting and natural behaviour.

Follow regulations governing WW in their region

In some parts of the world, there are specific regulations governing WW, (specifying  minimum approach distances etc.) with legal enforcement. However, in many other areas, there may be a code of conduct, but no means of enforcing this, relying on the goodwill of participating operators. Worse still, there are areas where WW is a “free for all” with nothing to prevent irresponsible operators from continually harassing the whales and dolphins in an attempt to get their passengers close to the whales as quickly as possible.

It is a good idea to find out whether any regulations or voluntary codes apply in the area before you get on the boat. Ask the operator questions to show that you are aware of regulations and don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel that a boat captain is not behaving responsibly.

Have adequate safety provisions

A safe whale watch boat should have: an experienced skipper; crew who are well-trained in first aid and rescue skills; appropriate safety equipment (such as VHF radio, good quality lifejackets, flares, inflatable lifeboat, food and water reserves, etc.); appropriate insurance; a maximum number of passengers; a tried and tested emergency drill, and a properly prepared safety briefing for all passengers.

Offer high standards of customer care

This means honest advertising of what passengers can expect from the trip. This may include offering a “sightings success rate” but this should be realistic as, with few exceptions, it is virtually impossible to guarantee sightings on every trip. Every aspect of the trip should be professional, which means a fair ticket price; punctual departures; the vessel should be clean, and the crew friendly and polite. If a trip has to be cancelled due to adverse sea and weather conditions, find out whether there is a policy of refunding fares or offering free places on a future trip. 

Have an onboard naturalist-guide

This is really important and can make the difference between a “run of the mill” trip and a really memorable experience! Choose a vessel which offers some form of educational commentary – preferably both before and during the trip. The larger boats may employ a trained naturalist and this is always preferable, but on the smaller boats, the skipper may also act as the guide. 

A good guide will give you a lively and entertaining commentary on the various species of whales and dolphins you are hoping to see, as well as the other marine wildlife in the area. They will also be knowledgeable about any threats facing local marine wildlife or their habitat. It can be difficult to positively identify a whale or dolphin which is some distance away and here, the trained eyes of the guide will help you to identify that “small black fin to starboard”!  The guide will also be able to interpret the behaviour of the whales and dolphins being observed and this can really add to your understanding and enjoyment of the experience. A really well-rounded commentary may also include slides, posters or maps; recordings of whale songs, and the guide may even pass around samples of baleen, a jawbone, or teeth, for passengers to examine

Carry out research

This isn’t an essential ingredient for a good WW trip, but there are several advantages in having a researcher onboard. On some boats, the naturalist-guide may also use the vessel as a platform for their research activities, such as logging sightings and photo-identification studies. Sometimes passengers may be able to assist with simple studies. This adds a new dimension to the experience and is also an excellent way of learning and feeling more involved.  A good operator will recognise the need to find out as much as possible about the whales, dolphins and other wildlife in the area. Ongoing research can benefit their business by providing a continually expanding source of knowledge on the local whales and their daily and seasonal movements. Local research institutions may also benefit from receiving a percentage of profits from the WW business.