Is Whale Watching Ethical?

Whale watching is a feel-good, popular eco-tourist activity. It involves passengers taking a boat out into the ocean with a tour guide, and looking for whales. It’s not surprising that this is a popular thing to do, as whales are graceful and amazing, and the tourists get to see them in their natural habitat. But, is it ethical?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. Like most issues that people have to tackle today, there are many grey areas. So I’m going to weigh up the pros and cons of whale watching and let you decide for yourselves. I’ve been looking at marine biology papers and other online articles in order to try and develop an argument for and against this activity but I aim to (hopefully) present this post in a straightforward manner with no technical jargon (after all, I’m not writing an essay here!). But, like with most things in life, the final decision on whether you participate in whale watching or not has to be up to you.

Humpback whale swimming underwater in Iceland

Humpback whale swimming underwater in Iceland

The Positives of Whale Watching

I’m not going to lie, when stepping back and assessing this list of advantages to whale watching, it is mostly for the benefit of humans. This is problematic from a vegan perspective because as vegans we believe that animals should not be used for human’s entertainment, nor should they be exploited in any way. Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that humans are sticking their noses into almost every aspect of the animal kingdom and the sad fact is that this is not going to stop any time soon.

  • Whale watching is the biggest form of eco-tourism. Tourism significantly helps economies, and provides more people with jobs. A quick look at the contents page of the Whale Watching Worldwide report by IFAW shows that whale watching is a popular activity in every continent, in many countries – Kenya, Madagascar, South Africa, Portugal, Iceland, Slovenia, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, several States of North America, Brazil … you get the idea. the IFAW also found that in 2009, 13 million tourists participated in whale watching which provided an estimated 13,200 jobs. This will have grown significantly over the years.
  • If whales are being watched, then they’re not being hunted. I know it’s not as simple as needing to be one or the other, but in some countries (such as Iceland and Norway), both practices of whale hunting and watching still take place. In my personal experience, hunting in Iceland was becoming less and less popular as people realised that it had the potential to hurt the tourist industry. While I was living there, I signed at least three petitions that had been handed to me on the street, agreeing to boycott any restaurant that served whale meat. To put it bluntly, whales are more profitable when they’re alive. So as whale watching is becoming more popular, the hunt and slaughter of whales is increasingly stigmatised. Within the next ten years, I can see whale hunting being a thing of the past (I hope).
  • They’re in their natural habitat. Whale watching is good because the viewers are brought to the whales, rather than the other way around. Anyone who has seen Blackfish or just keeps up with regular internet news will know how horrific places like Seaworld are. It’s much more liberating for both the cetaceans (that’s science speak for whales) and humans to see them swimming free in the ocean, rather than being kept in a glass tank.
  • Whale watching is educational, and beautiful. For both children and adults, people tend to learn better when interacting and experiencing things around them, rather than reading facts from textbooks. Whale watching tour guides are often very knowledgeable about different whale species and are willing to answer any questions about them. And of course, it is a breathtaking privilege to be able to get so close to these beautiful, sentient creatures.
  • Certain boundaries must be in place in order to observe whales without threatening them. Thanks to active environmental campaigners, ground rules have been made to make whale watching as safe as possible. The list is quite extensive, so I’ll provide a few relevant examples here and leave the link at the bottom of the page if you’re interested in reading more. The crew and and operators must all be trained in the biology and behaviour of the whales they are ‘targeting’, the boats need to be designed in a specific way to minimise the effects on the cetaceans’ environment, and finally, boats must approach calves with caution, and never instigate direct contact with the whales (no stroking, feeding etc). These rules are all in place with the whales in mind, as their wellbeing is the most important factor.

The Negatives of Whale Watching

The following points will explore whether whale watching is ethically problematic. Like I said in the introduction, this is quite a grey area as to whether people should participate in whale watching or not … so just assess the points and then decide based on what you feel more strongly about at the end.

  • Whale watching interferes with the cetaceans’ biological habits. A whale’s response to whale watching boats includes changes in swimming and acoustic behaviour, group sizes and reproductive rates. Some research has found that the noises being made from the boats drowns out the whale’s communications. This could put the whales in danger, or lead to difficulties in mating. Disturbances from boats could also push the whales into changing their location, which could pose more threats such as more predators and less prey. (Parsons E.C.M, 2012).
  • Pollution from the boats is problematic for all sealife. This is something that many papers don’t seem to consider. Most articles focus upon the direct impact that the boats have on the whales, but with thousands of boats going out per day to look at these magnificent creatures, there must be some issue to do with polluting the water. In the UK, there are many population stresses being put on the bottlenose dolphin, one of the main factors of this being water pollution (Hoyt 2001, p.79).
  • Even if whale watching is arguably ethical, some of the practices that go alongside it are definitely not. In Reykjavik, most, if not all, of the whale watching tours also offered sea-fishing trips. I don’t have to explain why this is problematic. In my opinion, it is highly hypocritical for companies to take people out to coo over beautiful whales, and then within the same hour to slaughter, grill, and eat fish. Similarly, in warmer climates whale watching tours sometimes involve swimming with dolphins. Yes, that sounds like an amazing thing to do, but think of the stress and pressure this puts on the animals… These are not the kind of activities we should be promoting.
  • We’re still exploiting animals for a profit. Yes, they’re in the wild. Yes, they’re in their natural habitat. Yes, there are restrictions in place to provide them with their optimum freedom. But the fact still remains that tour companies and businesses are making money off people’s eagerness to see whales in real life. Exploiting animals for profit and entertainment is something that veganism as a movement opposes, HOWEVER, I would choose this form of exploitation over Seaworld or whaling any day.
Humpback whale in the distance

Humpback whale in the distance

So, to wrap it up, I’d say it’s not necessary to completely boycott whale watching. If you choose the right tour company to go with, it can be educational, fun, and helping someone to make a living. What should be avoided are companies who seem a bit lax on the regulations, who don’t say what their profits are funding, or who also offer fishing and swimming with dolphin trips. Like with many things, the best thing to do before booking a trip is to do your research – email people, look at reviews, and then make a decision based off your judgement. At the end of the day, the choice is yours to make on how you weigh up the advantages and disadvantages that I have provided.

E.C.M Parsons (2012) has provided some useful questions to consider when deciding on which areas are good/safe for whale watching. You can see them here.

So, what do you think? Is whale watching ethical? Should vegans participate in this activity? Feel free to share your opinions and ideas in the comments. Don’t forget to share this page and subscribe to the website for new content. You can also find me on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr for even more!

Further Reading/References

The IFAW report on Whale Watching Worldwide can be accessed here

Whale watching conservation guidelines can be accessed here

Whale and Dolphin Conservation

Parsons, E.C.M. 2012. The Negative Impacts of Whale Watching.

Erich Hoyt. Whale Watching 2001.

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