Are Swim-With-Whale Operations Ethical? PWF Strives to Learn More

Swim-with-whales tours are becoming more and more popular around the world as travelers become increasingly interested in ecotourism and engagement with nature and wildlife. But, with more and more visitors jumping into the backyard of these vulnerable marine mammals, how can we keep track of the effects on their well being? We can’t manage an operation properly if we don’t understand its effects.

So, are swim-with-whales operations ethical? It’s not an easy question. The challenge is that, as interest and demand for these activities grows exponentially, scientific research simply cannot keep up; it takes time, patience, and careful precision to collect reliable data.

Yes, ecotourism is an alternative to the overuse of natural resources. It can also bring money into poor countries that are rich in biodiversity but have little else to offer in terms of world trade. These swim-with-humpback-whale operations are up and running in places such as Tonga, the Dominican Republic, Tahiti, Norway, Western Australia, and the Fraser Coast in Queensland, Australia. But as hard as the governments of these countries might work to ensure that the operations are ecologically viable, many projects are unaudited and not subject to stringent regulations. Pacific Whale Foundation is interested in finding out more about this tourist offering, specifically in Hervey Bay. In 2014, the Queensland government authorized commercial operators to begin immersive “swim-with-whales” tours with the vulnerable humpback whale, and we want to learn more.

Photo taken August 3, 2018 from Pacific Whale Foundation’s Swim-With-Whales Impact Study. This humpback whale approached the passengers and swam around them a few times.

Our research team has developed an impact study with three objectives:  (1) to better understand if humpback whales change their behaviour due to in-water interactions with humans, (2) to identify factors which may influence behaviour change, and (3) to provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism.

We believe that wherever possible, baseline research into natural behaviour patterns should be carried out before tourism activities are undertaken. This is also a very unique opportunity for the public to get involved with our research, as we allow a limited number of passengers to enter the water as part of our research. Are you interested in being in the water alongside a humpback whale, or learning more about the study? Please visit us here.

We’re excited as we embark on this new adventure, which will have significant implications for humpback whales in Hervey Bay and around the world. Come and join us!

New research study on “Swim-with-Whales” tourism

Beginning in July 2018, our “Swim-with-Whales” Impact Study invites a small number of vessel passengers to enter the water with humpback whales.

In Hervey Bay, Queensland the government has recently authorized commercial tour operators to allow passengers in the water alongside humpback whales and Pacific Whale Foundation wants to conduct scientific research to see how the presence of swimmers affects humpback whales in an important resting area. Our research will help ensure that this tourism activity is developed in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Our data collection supports the Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching which state that commercial swim programs should be accompanied by ongoing research to monitor whale and dolphin response to swimmers. This will be an exciting way for the public to get directly involved in citizen science while enjoying the rare opportunity to be in the water alongside a humpback whale, and it will allow our research team to identify any potential detrimental effects of these tours and hopefully mitigate them through adaptive management protocols.

If you’re in Hervey Bay between July and September and you’d like to help our researchers with this study, please visit us at the Great Sandy Straits Marina or book a trip online.

We also encourage you to check out our website for more information on this study and our research in Australia.

Going Plastic Free

We all contribute to the plastic waste problem, so we should all contribute to the solution. While recycling is a good thing to do, to truly tackle this problem we must reduce the amount of plastic we are creating in the first place. In this blog post, we encourage you to speak with your wallet and stop purchasing single-use plastics.

The first step to going plastic free is to understand why this issue is so important. In today’s world, plastics are everywhere — but did you know that every piece of plastic ever created still exists today? Plastic never truly biodegrades; it only breaks up into smaller pieces which can cause a huge problem in our environment. Microscopic organisms can ingest these tiny pieces of plastic and then up the food chain it goes. Larger animals like birds, turtles, and whales can directly ingest plastic too, or become entangled in it.

Below you will find a range of alternative products from beauty supplies to reusable lunch boxes and straws that can help you to reduce your environmental footprint. All of these items can either be found at Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Stores on Maui, or we have provided links where you can purchase the item online.

Lunch and Kitchen Products 

  • Bees Wax Wraps: replace plastic cling wrap with this eco-friendly fabric dipped in beeswax.
  • ECOlunchbox: bento containers of various sizes to keep your lunch and snacks fresh and plastic free.
  • Blue Water Bento Lunch Bags: organic cotton lunch bags featuring turtles or whales.
  • Bamboo utensil travel set: bring this eco-conscious utensil set with you and never have to use plastic to-go-ware again.
  • Reusable straws: we use over 500 million straws in America alone per day, you can reduce that waste with these straws in either bamboo or stainless steel.
  • H2Go water bottle: get rid of those cases of plastic water bottles by switching to a reusable insulated bottle found in several colors and sizes.

Beauty Products

  • Bamboo toothbrush: an eco-friendly and compostable brushing alternative.
  • David’s toothpaste: an all-natural ingredient toothpaste in a recyclable aluminum tube.
  • Dental Lace: silk string dental floss in a refillable glass container.
  • Plaine Products: an aluminum bottle, all-natural, refillable service for shampoo, conditioner, body wash and body lotion to help reduce that plastic container waste.
  • Besame Mascara Cake: a solid state mascara in a tin compact so you can get rid of those plastic tubes.

Remember to #ReuseorRefuse and sign our pledge to use alternatives to plastic products.

Didn’t see your favorite product listed? Leave us a comment and tell us what sustainable product you’d love to see featured in the future!

Pilot whale encounters 30 miles offshore

Our Research Team has begun surveying the deeper waters southwest of Maui as part of our new false killer whale study. The first day of research took us ~30 nautical miles off the coast of Maui in waters >2,500 feet. Although we didn’t see any false killer whales, we did have two encounters with short-finned pilot whales, a species we do not typically observe in the near-shore waters of the Maui 4-island region. This species has distinctive bulbous heads, wide dorsal fins, and sleek black bodies. Short-finned pilot whales are sexually dimorphic, which means that males and females look different. Males typically grow to 18 ft long compared to females who grow to an average length of 12 ft. The dorsal fins on males are also larger and wider than females, making it easy to tell the two apart.

During our encounter with short-finned pilot whales, two researchers were taking above water photographs of the whale’s dorsal fins, another researcher was collecting underwater footage using a pole-mounted camera, while a fourth research was collecting detailed observations on pod behavior and composition. We observed two mother-calf pairs, two subadults, and the rest were adults, spread out into smaller sub-groups of 2-3 individuals. During the encounters we observed the pod feeding and resting at the surface of the water.

The majority of our research takes place after our field work ends, because the data we collected in the field must be processed. This involved looking through 520 pictures of dorsal fins, assessing each image’s quality, and matching each image within the encounter to see how many different individuals we saw. After data processing was completed, we had photographically identified 19 different animals. These individuals were then compared to our existing catalog of 133 short-finned pilot whales to see if any have been previously sighted. One individual matched to our catalog and was sighted back in September 2002. The other 18 animals had never been seen before and were added as new individuals, increasing our catalog size to 152 individuals. Since we do not often see this species, it was expected that there would be many new individuals to add, as the estimated population size for the entire Hawaiian Islands EEZ is 12,422 whales (Bradford et al. 2013).

This was a very successful day offshore! Stay tuned for other research updates from this exciting new study.