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Whale watching

Whale watching is the practice of observing whales and other cetaceans in their natural habitat. Whales are watched mostly commonly for recreation (cf. bird watching) but the activity can also be for scientific or educational reasons. Whilst individuals do organize private trips, whale watches are primarily a commercial activity, estimated to be worth up to $1bn per annum worldwide to whale watching operations and their local communities. The size and rapid growth of the whale watching industry has led to complex and unconcluded debates with the whaling industry about the best use of whales as a natural resource.


Whale watching as an organized activity dates back to 1950 when the Carbillo National Monument in San Diego was declared a public spot for the observation of Gray Whales. In 1955 the first water-based whale watching commenced in the same area, charging customers $1 per trip to view the whales at closer quarters. The spectacle proved popular, attracting 10,000 visitors in its first year and many more in subsequent years. The industry spread throughout the western coast of the United States over the following decade.

In 1971 the Montreal Zoological Society commenced the first commercial whale watching activity on the eastern coast of North America, offering trips in the St. Lawrence River to view Fin and Beluga Whales.

In the late 1970s the industry mushroomed in size thanks to operations in New England. By 1985 more visitors watched whales from New England than California. The rapid growth in this area has been attributed to the relativly dense population of Humpback Whales, whose acrobatic behaviour such as breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping was an obvious crowd-pleaser, and the close proximity of whale populations to the large cities on the east coast of the US.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s whale watching spread throughout the world. In 1998 Erich Hoyt carried out the largest systematic study of whale watching yet undertaken and concluded that whale watching trips were now available in 87 countries around the world, with over 9 million participants generating an income to whale watcher operators and supporting infrastructure (such as accommodation, restaurants and souvenirs) of over one billion dollars. His estimate for 2000 was for 11.3m participants spending $1.475bn.


Whale watching today is carried out from the water from crafts from kayaks, motorized rafts, and sailboats throught to out-of-use fish or whaling boats and custom-built craft carrying as many as 400 people. Land-based watching of species such as the Orca who come very close to shore remains popular. Viewing of species that usually stay some distance from the shore is also offered by fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters in some areas.

Excellent whale watching can be had on the commercial carferries crossing the Bay of Biscay from Great Britain to Spain.

Kiakoura in New Zealand is a world-famous site for whales (in particular Sperm Whales) and Albatrosses.

Whaling and whale watching

All three of the current major whaling nations (Norway, Japan and Iceland) have large and rapidly growing whale watching industries. Indeed Iceland had the fastest-growing whale watching industry in the world between 1994 and 1998.

Many conservationists now espouse the economic argument that a whale is worth more alive and watched than dead in order to try to persuade the governments of whaling nations to curtail whaling activities. The correctness of this argument is the subject of much debate at the International Whaling Commission, particularly since the scarcity of whale meat has caused it to become an luxury item, increasing its value. In 1997 2,000 tonnes of whale meat were sold for $30m indicating an average value of a Blue Whale at $150,000. There is no agreement as to how to value a single animal to the whale watching industry. It is possible to construct arguments that 'prove' a single whale is worth either much more or much less than this figure.

Upon the resumption of whaling in Iceland in August 2003, pro-whaling groups, such as fishermen who argue that increased stocks of whales are depleting fish populations, suggested that sustainable whaling and whale watching could live side-by-side. Whale watching lobbyists, such as Husavik Whale Museum curator Asbjorn Bjorgvinsson, counter that the most inquistive whales, which approach boats very closely and provide much of the entertainment on whale-watching trips, will be the first to be killed by whalers.

Conservation aspects

The rapid growth of the number of whale watching trips and the size of vessel used to watch whales has led to concerns that whale behaviour, migatory patterns and breeding cycles make be affected (see for instance [1]). Substantive evidence proving or disproving these concerns has yet to be published.

References and external links