Responsible whale and dolphin encounters take place on the water, not in it
By Regina A. Asmutis-Silvia
Whale and dolphin-interaction programs, from touching and feeding, to swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving in the cetaceans' environment — be it captive or wild — are increasing in range and popularity. An understandable love for whales and dolphins might encourage the public to want to get close to them. However, while understanding the reasons why the public is keen to engage in such activities, we have several serious concerns about these practices.
Swimming with wild whales and dolphins is, potentially, an exhilarating and unforgettable experience. Sadly, it's very difficult to ensure that the encounter takes place on the whale's terms and is not an intrusive or stressful experience for what are, after all, wild animals. While there are responsible and thoughtful operators, sadly it's also true that in some locations, wild whales or dolphins are harassed and repeatedly disturbed by boats, which tend to drop swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers in the water as close as possible to the animals. Research indicates that, in some areas heavily targeted by commercial swim tours and other human activities, dolphins are actually leaving their traditional habitat in favor of quieter areas. There is concern that disruption to feeding, resting, nursing and other behaviors can have a long-term impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals and populations.
Another consideration is the safety of both scuba divers and cetaceans. Whales and dolphins are large, powerful animals and if not treated with respect, they are capable of injuring people in the water — either accidentally or on purpose, if they feel threatened. Like all animals, cetaceans are protective of their young.
Cetaceans have also been injured by boat propellers and by thoughtless behavior from swimmers, including damage to dolphins' sensitive skin caused by scratches from jewelry. Two-way disease transmission is also a possibility. Finally, in some areas, swim-tour operators offer cetaceans food, encouraging them to remain in the vicinity of swimmers. This practice might encourage "begging behavior," causing the cetaceans to neglect their normal foraging activities.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has funded research into the potential impact of swim tours upon wild whales and dolphins. Until we are satisfied this activity does not represent a risk to both swimmers and cetaceans, our policy is to recommend that the public opt for a solely boat-based trip — one that does not involve entering the water. We urge the industry to work toward a regulation system that ensures these concerns are no longer an issue.
Regina A. Asmutis-Silva is the Senior biologist and Vessel Strike Program lead for WDCS-NA (www.wdcs.org). Regina also serves on federally appointed Take Reduction teams reducing cetacean-entanglement risks.
Whales actively seek out interaction with divers and snorkelers
By Mike Ball
Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has been swimming and diving with minke whales for more than two decades, and has worked with scientific teams to study whether the interactions are adversely affecting the whales. This will be our 16th year working with the James Cook University Minke Whale Project research team, headed by Dr. Alistair Birtles.
It was recognized very early on that the minke whale encounters were not an occasional happening but a regular occurrence. Minke whales will follow us to and from dive sites, or appear from nowhere when the vessel has been at anchor overnight. The whales will swim with our snorkelers and divers, sometimes from a distance, but usually making very close repetitive passes. Research conducted by the JCU team shows that minke whales voluntarily seek out this interaction.
The Minke Whale Project team studied not only the behavior and biology of the minke, but equally the sustainable management of a "Swim With Minke" program. Best-practice guidelines and briefings have evolved around the findings of the research studies and input from the nine permitted operators in Queensland. Ultimately, after a comprehensive 15-year study, no reason has been found for us to discontinue this activity.
What's more, our encounters are carefully conducted. Participants hold onto a line trailed from the stern of the vessel and are given a thorough briefing beforehand with simple but nonnegotiable rules, such as 1.) no letting go of the line; 2.) no duck diving; 3.) no swimming toward the whales; and 4.) no flash photography. These rules might sound restrictive, but by simply abiding by them, our snorkelers have better, safer encounters. The whales very quickly establish their comfort zone, which allows them to approach on their own terms. Some of the whales come to within a few feet of snorkelers, presenting their bellies and even spy hop. While appearing more reserved, the whales will still approach scuba divers. (Divers are not permitted to enter the water within 100 feet of a whale.)
The same individuals return year after year, some with calves in tow, and seem as curious about us as we are of them. For this particular species of whale, and after 20 years of interaction, there is no question in my mind that this program has proved to be sustainable.
Mike Ball is the owner of Mike ball Dive Expeditions (mikeball.com). For 40 years, Mike has been an innovator of diving services on Australia's Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea.