State of the Planet

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It’s Time to Rethink the Practice of Whale Watching

I am on Long Island beach near New York City and, while staring at the ocean, breathing in its majestic power and wondering about its immense unknown, I realize that the largest animal on our planet could be found not far from here. I peek at the horizon, hoping to catch a glimpse of the characteristic spray that is the emblem of whales. This is the period, in fact, when they can be spotted off the coast while migrating.

They move with magnificent grace and can magically float on the surface of the ocean in the company of their calves. The calmness that wraps around these animals is almost surreal — the same calm necessary for them to properly communicate with each other. It is far from the noise of the city, human acoustic pollution. I think, as I continue to look for them, about the phenomenon of whale watching that, in recent years, has increasingly taken hold and, according to some, represents an economic benefit for coastal communities; for example, the Marine Mammal Commission of the United States government states that marine mammals (or cetaceans) such as whales and dolphins are “economic drivers of the economy linked to tourism and associated industries.” The economic contribution of a single whale during its lifetime is estimated at around 2 million dollars, for a total of over 3 trillion dollars when we consider all whales, according to the commission.

Yet where there are humans, there is little room for peace and quiet. A recent study reported in the eLife magazine shows how the observation of whales and dolphins from motorboats causes harm to animals. This is due to the sound, or rather the noise, that the engines generate, stressing the cetaceans and limiting their ability to find mates, engage in social contact with other whales and communicate with their offspring. In some countries, safety mandates require boats to maintain a distance of at least 100 meters from whales and to reduce speed when in proximity. Even in this case, however, studies have shown that even when boats comply with these restrictions, whales are still disturbed — they change course, breathe more rapidly, and alter the frequency of their singing or stop singing overall.

boat full of people watching a whale breach
A whale watching tour off the coast of Massachusetts. Photo: Matthew Ferrell/Flickr CC

“Unlike humans, the dominant sense in whales is not sight but hearing,” wrote Kate R. Sprogis, an Australian scientist at the helm of a research team monitoring whales with underwater equipment and lead author of the study on eLife. “As such, a whale may not be able to see a boat 100 meters away, but they are very likely to hear it, so it makes sense to consider this when defining the guidelines for whale watching.” Sprogis’s team studied how much noise comes from boats and found that at the highest level of 172 decibels (dB) at a distance of 100 meters, the resting time of whale mothers decreases by 30 percent, their respiratory rate doubles and their swimming speed increases by about 40 percent. But how deafening actually is a noise of about 170 dB? A vacuum cleaner generates about “only” 70 dB, a pneumatic hammer about 110 dB; 170 dB is very close to the roar of a rocket lifting off.

I imagine myself with my kids in a quiet and serene park and, while joyfully and respectfully enjoying what nature is offering me, I find myself immersed in the sound of a rocket taking off that lasts for a time that seems infinite. I see strange creatures looking at me from the rocket, staring at me while I am not able to communicate with my kids and, though curious, I am afraid, I am short of breath. I run away and try to hide, but the rocket chases after me.

Observing animals, in itself, is not wrong but we must always ask ourselves why we do it and pay attention to how we do it. Using motorboats to simply take a photograph to satisfy your own vanity or sterile curiosity (different from a scientific one!) is not noble, let alone useful. (There are hundreds of thousands of whale images already, and probably much more beautiful than what we can grasp from the boat.) Perhaps we could learn from these good giants, building a relationship based on respect and protection, rather than on vain curiosity. If we really want to help the economy of the sea and its inhabitants, we can donate funds to foundations or associations, talk to our friends about how wrong it is to destroy our planet for our selfishness and, perhaps, sit in a boat offshore with engines off (or paddling, even better), earning the right to be in that ecosystem, and waiting for them to come to us to spend time together as companions who share this wonderful planet.

Edited and adapted from a story that was originally published in La Repubblica.

Marco Tedesco is a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Cayte Bosler (Columbia ‘20) provided edits and background material for this piece.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Erin Johns Gless
Erin Johns Gless
3 years ago

I was surprised to read that this was submitted by a professor, as someone in the academic world should endeavor to dive deeper into scientific publications. The paper’s (Sprogis 2020) methods showed that they approximated their “loud” test volume by collecting samples from a busy marina, not slowly at a responsible distance from a whale. The paper showed that the slow-moving research vessel, which would be behaving similarly to commercial whale watch vessels, had no behavioral impact on the mother and calf. It was the trials with their “loud” samples that generated a response.

The fixation on decibels alone on the part of Mr. Tadesco is also misguided. Source level dB’s are not the same as received dB’s by the animal (they decrease significantly with distance underwater), and the frequency of the sound is also important. For example, male humpback whales produce vocals as loud as 192 dB (Thompson, Cummings, and Ha 1986). Is the professor implying that male humpback whales produce calls detrimental to the rest of the population? The key to responsible whale watching is traveling at slow speeds and legal distances (minimum 100 meters, depending on the species). Underwater NOAA suction cup tags deployed on the backs of whales themselves have shown this, and that when traveling at slow speeds at appropriate distances, whale watch vessels generate no more underwater sound than rain, something also found in the Sprogis paper referenced in this letter.

The acoustic science aside, Mr. Tadesco either fails to acknowledge or is simply unaware of the value that professional whale watching provides. Data show that when whale watching vessels mark the location of whales effectively, other non-whale watching vessels commit less violations of whale regulations compared to when there are no whale watch boats on scene (Soundwatch report 2019). Commercial vessels lead to less underwater sound and less risk of ship strike because they are able to encourage other vessels to alter their behavior. They also contact military vessels, cargo ships, ferries, tankers etc. to get them to alter course when whales are present. Many commercial operators also work very closely with research organizations, who typically have limited funds and resources, to fill in their data gaps and are quite often the first ones to report births, deaths, injuries, or entanglements. And that’s to say nothing of the ability of whale watching to create personal connections between people and the whales thus inspiring conservation on a more meaningful level than simply requesting donations to a non-profit.

Paul L. Sieswerda
3 years ago

Thank you Erin johns Gless for the informative response to the article by Marco Tedesco regarding whale watching. Your factual account bolsters the common sense observation I and my colleagues have made during our whale watching research aboard the American Princess in the busy waters around New York City. I agree that the decibel focus is misleading and does not represent the impact, if any, on the whale’s behavior. Most whale watch operators conform to the guidelines from NOAA and participate in programs, as we do, like Whale Sense. And thank you for pointing out the contribution whale watch observers can make to science and conservation compiling the many datapoints obtained via this most economical method of data collection. The cost of a platform to collect such data is borne by the passengers in what I like to call “mini grants” to put our researchers on the water. Gotham Whale maintains this data as well as cataloging individual identifications in our NYC Humpback Whale Catalog that can be shared with other institutions throughout the range of the humpback we study. Again, thank you for the rebuttal to what sounded to me like a paper that should never have passed peer review.

3 years ago

That seems to me a long-winded response rebutting an article clearly targeting irresponsible, selfie-taking citizens… NOT professional researchers. (Article quote: “different from a scientific one!”.)

Many people have injured or killed animals, (even a rare, endangered baby dolphin), for Facebook likes and other such silliness.

Seems to me, they are just trying to increase awareness since this problem has only worsened since covid-19 hit.
And doing it in a way that will reach regular people, not targeting Researchers by the (overuse of) jargon and data quoting.

The pros know and don’t need to be told to think about their actions and how it affects the world around them.
Regular, “I’m-trying-something-new”, non-professional people do need educating, desperately. Just “ask” all of the accidentally abused and dead critters (& children) of the world.

Andrew K
Andrew K
2 years ago

Planning to embark on my first whale watching trip on Sunday with the primary objective of educating my two kids about a majestic animal (I’m not aware of any mermaid or unicorn watching tours, so this is a great next best).

Just went down rabbit hole googling some things to expect and found this article. As a member of the scientific community I just want to say I am also shocked at the author’s takeaway. Regardless of the noise produced by boats, and how the author seems to have contorted the facts of the study – there are like 3 companies doing these tours with about 2 trips per day. The majority of boat traffic in the open ocean is going to be from commercial fishing vessels, which also contribute their own separate environmental impact.

@ the Author – Let’s focus on real environmental issues!