Whale watch tourism is worth over £1bn worldwide but its impact on the well being of whales is a concern says PETER FROST
The New England ports of New Bedford, Provincetown and Nantucket, were famous as whaling towns. Museums, memorials and preserved whaling ships keep alive the memories of the early bloody trade that lit the lamps of the world with whale oil.
All that stopped in 1859 when Edwin Drake struck mineral oil in Pennsylvania and suddenly there was a cheaper alternative to whale lamp oil.
The last American whalers stopped the killing at end of the 1920’s but even today the sailors of those old Yankee whaling towns still make their living hunting the behemoths of the Ocean.
Today they do it with fleets of whale watching boats, taking tourists out to the Stellwagen Banks. The banks are home to a National Maine Sanctuary but that doesn’t protect the sea mammals from disturbance by the multitude of whale watching craft.
Stellwagen is a seasonal home to Humpback, Fin and Minke whales.
Whale watching is a huge business, Worldwide it is reckoned that 13 million people do it every year spending nearly one and a half billion pounds.
New England was the first place in the world to take people out in boats to see whales. That was in the 1950s.
Today you can go whale watching in 120 plus countries worldwide and the industry is still growing.
The size of the industry raises serious concern about its impact on whales. Does whale watching harm these magnificent mammals?
It can certainly have an impact on the animal’s natural behaviour, including their ability to feed, rest and rear their young say experts working in the field of marine mammal biology.
Any boat interacting with whales can disrupt their feeding or resting activities. This isn’t a problem if it happens occasionally but if it is repeated it can cause real distress. Females can even stop producing enough milk for their calves. The viability of a pod can be threatened.
In the worst cases whales and boats can collide with disastrous results for both whale, sailors and boats.
In peak season off the New England coast there can be many dozens of whale watching boats going out, each up to ten times a day.
One recommendation is that watching boats do not approach nearer than 100 yards or metres to any whale. Yet all the publicity leaflets and websites show whales virtually touching the boats.
That is what the public want and that’s what the Captains and the boat operating companies try to give them.
Boats will often have naturalists or whale experts on board and claim to adhere to strict codes. Sadly, too often in the excitement of the chase those guidelines are stretched or simply ignored.
I’ve been lucky enough to see whales, from the shore, in Shetland, Iceland, and Australia and New Zealand. That’s the best way to see them I am sure.
Sometimes you can be lucky and see them from a ferry. I’ve done that in Shetland and sailing between the Faroes and Iceland.
I am very mixed about whether we should try to ban boat based whale watching. It gives many people an amazing experience, and particularly gives young children a sense of awe and respect for the grandeur of nature.
But I won’t do it myself. Twenty-odd years ago I went out on a New England whale watch boat to the Stellwagen Banks.
We spotted a small pod of humpbacks. The Captain got on his radio and within minutes the pod was surrounded by a circle of twelve whale watching boats.
Close up I swear I could see panic and fear in the humpback’s huge eyes and that’s when I decided – no more boat based whale watching for me.
Things are better now I am sure, but I’m still reluctant. After all the ocean is the whale’s home and I’d rather leave them to enjoy it in peace.
Frosty was on holiday touring New England by motorhome. His holiday was organised by The Camping and Caravanning Club. www.campingandcaravanningclub.co.uk/travelabroad
This article first published in the Morning Star, November 2013