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An Easier Way to Find a Good Whale Watch on the East Coast?

Picking out a whale-friendly East Coast whale watch just got a little easier. NOAA and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society just started Whale Sense, a voluntary program to ensure tours from Virginia to Maine don’t bother whales.

The rules are complicated–more than just stay back 100 feet, though that is the basic distance. (If the whale approaches you, stay put. If it’s a right whale, back off 1,500 feet.) What I found more amusing were the rules against advertising showing whale watchers touching, swimming with or even chasing the whales. Is Jerry Bruckheimer running a watch somewhere?

So far the group has signed up five companies, mainly in Massachusetts. I count at least 30 tour companies from Virginia to Maine, with 18 going to Stellwagen Bank–not included the odd charters that line the whole coast. So what about the ones not on the list?

Even Frank Kelley, operations manager for Mass Bay Lines (listed) says that right now the program is so new that you can’t judge an operation for not participating. Lots of the tours work with other whale groups. For example, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company is tied to Allied Whale. The New England Aquarium’s whale watch, which I just went on, isn’t part of the program yet (they’re still examining the details), says spokesman Tony LaCasse. But since they already do most of it and they helped push voluntary standards decades ago, they’ll probably be part of it.

When you’re out on Stellwagen it’s not the commercial whale watching boats you see encroaching on whales, but the tiny recreational fishing boats. Kelley says many tour operators worry that the small boats don’t understand the protocols (which is elaborate when it comes to many boats wanting to see the same whales). NEAQ’s LaCasses says that personally he’d like to see an enforcement presence on the water–like the Coast Guard is for boating regulations.

When I talked with marine mammal expert Toni Frohoff (she’s a behavioral biologist and research director at TerraMar Research) she mentioned that generally it’s better to have one big boat in the water around a whale instead of a bunch of little ones. At first that seems counterintuitive; we normally don’t think of going out in a big, hulking, Hummer of a boat as being eco-friendly. But that’s what it is, at least to the whales.

The tricky thing for whale watchers is picking tours that won’t annoy–or hit–the whales. In Puget Sound tour boats are known to crowd the orcas, which could interfere with their eating or mating. I haven’t seen that on the vast waters East Coast boats troll.

Consumers can’t easily tell from an ad or website that attitude of operation. (Well, ok, I am a little skeptical when I read “Imagine the sight of dolphins dancing and frolicking right alongside The Silver Bullet. See whales surfacing and breaching…[from a] shiny, brand new 70 ft. long ocean going projectile.” But most whale watches at least claim to be whale-friendly. But is that like a processed cereal labeled as organic? I hope the Whale Sense program grows and offers up an easy way for wildlife watchers to pick the responsible tours.

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1 comment to An Easier Way to Find a Good Whale Watch on the East Coast?

  • R.A.R. Clouston

    I respect and admire the work you are doing on behalf of whales and dolphins. In a similar vein, I submit that public interest and concern for these magnificent beings can be heightened even more by blending scientific fact with speculative fiction, thereby taking the public beneath the waves into a world where they could not otherwise venture. Please visit my website http://www.rarclouston.com or read my blog http://whaleanddolphintalk.blogspot.com/