Whale watching in the Boston area is an incredibly popular activity. Last year, almost 1 million people went whale watching off the coast of New England.  After all, what is there not to love?  The whales are charismatic wonders themselves – mammoth yet gentle, showy yet elusive – and the whole adventure, which takes only a few hours, is jam-packed with a kind of romance hard to find nowadays.

I first learned about whales in an unlikely setting: an undergraduate biostatistics class. My professor was an expert on them, and although the class was first and foremost an exercise in turning data into biologically relevant statements, our discussion of whales left me with an intense desire to see one of these animals myself.

After arriving in Boston last September as a graduate student, I sensed that whale watching was as much a part of the culture here as Fenway Park and seafood. But as I began searching enthusiastically for boat tours, I also started uncovering some intense debates about the effects of whale watching on whales. I decided that before stepping out on one of those boats, I’d better do my own research.

Each day during whale watching season, which lasts from April to November here, the New England Aquarium can expect hundreds of people to climb aboard its whale watching boats. The boats travel 30 km (about 19 miles) out to sea in the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the giant mammals. The pursuit, however, is not passive. The boats actively seek out whale “hot spots”, and may even pursue the animals.

At a cursory glance, it seems undeniable that the whales don’t particularly enjoy our company. The boats are noisy and clumsy, yet also dangerously fast. Boats can confuse and separate individual whales from the group. Also, engine noise could spell disaster for whales who are known for the fabulously complex songs they use to communicate.

It was this last point that particularly troubled me.  Humans have known about whale songs since early whaling days, when 19th century whalers wrote about “singers” in their logbooks.  However, only in the last 40 years has the scientific community taken an interest in the clicks and moans echoing through our oceans.  Since then, the low pitched haunting songs of whales have become culturally familiar to us, partly due to their frequent incorporation into movies and New Age albums.

Not all whales sing.  However, those that do tend to be the same whales (like humpbacks) popular with whale-watching tours.  Scientists speculate that whales sing for a variety of reasons, including navigation, male-to-male communication, finding mates, and as a form of echo-location.  Whales’ songs range from the long, repeating motifs sung by humpbacks to the short, pulse-like “boings” emitted by minke whales.  There also seem to be population-specific songs, like secret club handshakes, that only closely related males sing together.  In this way, songs can provide good genetic and geographic lineage information about the singers.

If singing is so important to whales, then it stands to reason that loud machines that pollute the water with sound may interfere with a whale’s quality of life. However, I wasn’t about to cross off whale watching from my to-do list without a full investigation.

The same statistics teacher who first piqued my interest in whales also studied how whale-watching boats affect sperm whales off the coast of New Zealand [1].  As it turns out, boats do affect a whale’s behavior, forcing whales to change directions, as well as changing their clicking behavior and timing between surfacings. However, some evidence suggests that whales that come in contact with boats regularly respond less to the boat noise than do transient whales. This suggests that the whales can become habituated, or used to, the presence of boats. The professor and his collaborators concluded that although the whales they studied did respond to whale-watching activities, the changes in behavior were so small that they were most likely not of biological importance. The researchers did suggest that it could be beneficial to the whales to replace traditional propeller motors on whale-watching boats with much quieter waterjet propulsion and for the boats to actively track whales with underwater microphones to avoid accidental collisions.

After a little more research, I found some reasons why whale watching could actually be advantageous for the whales.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), the primary voice of global concern for the welfare of whales, is clear in its support for whale watching. In fact, the WDCS says that whether the whales know it or not, a little paparazzi can do them a whole lot of good, albeit indirectly.

First, whales are charismatic animals that can drum up a lot of support for the protection of marine species. Although focusing attention solely on showcase animals like whales, pandas and polar bears has been rightly criticized, there is no denying that large, captivating animals engage public sympathies in a way that small, plain species, however endangered, cannot.  In doing so, they can serve as “gateway causes” for people who may then go on to support broader conservation issues for a variety of organisms.

Second, the whale watching industry is a booming business, with estimated revenues of over $1 billion worldwide, and $21 million in New England alone. In the Cape Cod area, lucky whale watchers can sight humpback, minke, fin, and the more rare North Atlantic right whale. Today, Massachusetts is one of the top ten whale watching locales in the world, as listed by the World Wildlife Foundation. This means money for coastal communities and, more importantly, strong incentives to protect these animals.

Finally, although the International Whaling Commission has issued a 20-year international ban on hunting whales, some countries, like Japan, Iceland and Norway, have begun to openly defy it. In these countries, whale watching can serve as a direct economic competitor to the whale products market. In the last two decades, the number of people engaging in whale-based tourism per year globally has dramatically increased from about 2 million to 13 million! [2] These numbers are hard to ignore for countries that treat whales as useful economic entities only after they have been slaughtered.

In the United States, whale-watching enthusiasm boosts tourism in coastal cities, and also creates a platform for education. Cities, like Boston where whale watching is closely linked with the New England Aquarium, have the means to fire up passion for protecting these and other animals in children and adults alike.

Whale watching as a form of eco-tourism comes with its concomitant downsides. However, raising public sympathies, providing incentives for protection, and serving as an economically viable alternative to whale hunting are strong enough endorsers for whale watching to have me convinced.

I spent the winter dreaming about my eventual encounter with these magnificent animals and am excited for the spring that is now bringing them back to the New England coast.

by Pan-Pan Jiang, graduate student in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard


1. Richter, C.F., Dawson, S.M. and Slooten, E. 2003. Sperm whale-watching off Kaikoura, New Zealand: effects of current activities on surfacing and vocalisation patterns. Science for Conservation 219. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand

2. Hoyt, E. Whale Watching 2001: Worldwide tourism numbers, expenditures, and expanding socioeconomic benefits. A special report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

For More Information:

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) < http://www.wdcs.org/>

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