A Tale of Tourism:  Fighting for Balance in the Whale Watching Industry
Under the Microscope

A Tale of Tourism: Fighting for Balance in the Whale Watching Industry

August 2, 2023

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Written by: Emmett Quibell-Quick 

It’s tourist season and people around the world are searching for fun and interesting ways to experience the outdoors while on vacation. A staple in every coastal region’s tourism industry is whale watching, where thrill-seekers are invited to get up close to majestic ocean giants. Whale watching is a thriving business, but is it really sustainable? In today’s blog post, summer co-op student Emmett dives deeper into this topic. Enjoy!

Whale watching began in California in 1955, when an aspiring entrepreneur began charging people to go on his fishing boat to see grey whales. Since then, whale watching has evolved into one of the biggest ecotourism attractions, with operations in over 119 countries. Despite it being a longstanding endeavour, it’s important to look at it through a more modern lens. One way to identify if an operation like this can be responsibly continued or not is using the “sustainability stool” model. The concept behind the sustainability stool is that in order to have something that can be used or done continuously, each ‘leg’ must be of the same level of importance. The three main legs to our stool are: economic, social, and environmental. Taking this mindset and applying it to whale watching can give us a new perspective and allow us to look with a more critical eye.


The first leg of the stool deals with economic factors. For a long time, whale watching has been a huge source of tourism revenue for many communities, with an estimated revenue of USD $2 billion per year. It has also become increasingly widespread. In some regions, whale watching has helped in gaining more tourism, therefore boosting the local economy. On top of that, the business is still growing, with more operations being established all over the world. The already impressive earnings mixed with the opportunities for more growth in the future will make for a very economically sustainable practice.

The second leg of the sustainability stool is social factors. In order for something in the tourism industry to be socially sustainable, it needs to promote community development. This includes creating jobs, redistributing income, and helping to alleviate poverty. In 2009, the whale watching industry provided 13,000 people with jobs in the United States alone. Whale watching is still growing and branching out, reaching further than before. This creates the need for more jobs and it helps other local businesses gain a larger market of tourists to sell to. Similar to many other tourism opportunities, whale watching helps to boost the local economy and checks all the boxes in the socially sustainable section.


The final, and arguably most important, leg of the sustainability stool is the environment. If something is to be sustainable, it needs to be able to maintain an ecological balance and conserve natural resources. Whale watching as a whole is a difficult topic to tackle in terms of environmental sustainability. It does have positives, but the negatives are so great that they have the potential to sink the industry altogether.

The positives of this business follow the same as many other ecotourism concepts. Whale watching allows people to get closer to whales in their natural habitat as opposed to seeing them in captivity. Whale watching also brings those who might not normally have cared for whales into a space where they are closer to the species, bringing more awareness to what they offer us. The guides that take tourists out also likely share facts and knowledge about the whales, which helps with educating the public about things they might not otherwise know. This may potentially spark an interest within someone, leading them to become more inclined to support marine conservation in some way. Shifting to look at the boats themselves, they could be used for more scientific research. If the larger boats were used by scientists during the tours, it would cut down on the number of boats going out onto the water and potentially disturbing the whales.

As mentioned before, the negative effects do outweigh the positives. Whale watching has had many effects on whales over the years. Boats have collided with whales, interfered with feeding habits, disrupted resting and nesting schedules, increased stress levels for whales, contributed to hearing damage and noise pollution, altered whale songs, obstructed migration paths, and caused swimming behavioural changes such as deeper and more frequent dives and faster swim speeds. While these negative impacts might seem inconsequential compared to the social and economic gains, the environmental part is huge! If these actions continue, they will permanently change and even lessen whale populations. Less whales to watch would almost certainly shut down whale watching operations, eliminating any possible benefits.


Balancing tourism with ethics and environmentalism can be difficult, but it is possible. Tourism is a demanding industry, requiring new and exciting things to be constantly available in order to continuously make a profit. Oftentimes, keeping up with these demands tourism can end up causing more harm than good. Despite this, whale watching could become more ethical with some effort. Ethical whale watching would mean being very cautious of the whales and making sure to not bother or affect them in their habitat. This could include being mindful of how close boats are to the whales, ensuring there is very minimal noise pollution (keeping whale watchers quiet and taking out smaller groups on smaller boats), not interrupting whales as you watch, staying away from sensitive ecosystems while watching and minimizing human effects on the body of water itself (no pollution left behind).


Ethical whale watching should be enforced everywhere. However, many companies value profit over the environment. In Canada, there are pre-existing regulations that are to be followed when taking tourists whale watching, and ensuring that these regulations are followed and enforced is a first step. Not only that, but the companies need to look closely at the effects their actions have on the whales and the environment and develop new rules and ways to help keep these whales safe. Looking at scientific research and finding out how they can develop their practices into more ethical ways would be a good median, as opposed to continuing their current practices and permanently harming the whales, causing them to shut down for good.


Overall, whale watching is a great way for people to become more interested in the species and learn more about them, butlike every other form of tourism, it must be done responsibly. Responsible whale watching isn’t difficult, it would simply require some dedication from companies, which should have happened much sooner than now. Our tourism industry standards are always changing and whale watching needs to adapt alongside it.


A Guide to Ethical Whale Tourism in the 21st Century. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/travel/2021/04/whale-tourism

Ethical Whale Watching in Canada. Retrieved from https://princeofwhales.com/ethical-whale-watching-in-canada/

Is Whale Watching Harmful to Whales? Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14107381

It’s Time to Rethink the Practice of Whale Watching. Retrieved from https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/07/02/rethink-whale-watching-practice/

Silent Whale Watching on Iceland’s First Electric Boat Tour. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2021/may/12/husavik-iceland-silent-whale-watching-electric-boat-trip

The Benefits & Impacts of Whale Watching. Retrieved from https://wwhandbook.iwc.int/en/responsible-management/benefits-and-impacts-of-whale-watching