Watching the Way we Watch Whales

By Belinda Recio / August 29, 2013

State of the Ark_01The first time I watched whales, I departed from Gloucester, Massachusetts, where the waters off the coast are home to Blue, Humpback, Finback, Sperm, Minke, Beluga and other whale species. Soon after departing, the marine biologist on board shouted, “Whale at two o’clock!” just as a female Humpback and her calf emerged from the depths to breathe. The two giants encircled each other in a graceful dance at the surface, slipped under the waves, and then reappeared right next to the boat, very close to where  I was standing. The mother whale then opened her eye and looked right me. It was one of those sublime moments that I will never forget.

People have been whale-watching for as long as our species has shared the planet with them. Unfortunately for whales, until the 1950s, most of the watching was done by the whaling industry, which hunted them for meat and oil. But starting in the middle of the 20th-century, we began to watch whales for recreational purposes. Initially, people were drawn to whale watching because of their acrobatic behavior, such as breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping. Then, in the late 20th-century, as the scientific community learned more about whales (and other cetaceans, such as dolphins), the public interest deepened. People began whale-watching as much for their newly discovered qualities of heart and mind as for their athleticism.

Scientists have learned that whales have large, complex brains, live in groups called “pods,” form strong social bonds, possess self-awareness, recognize one another, engage in play, communicate through “songs,” and exhibit what appears to be empathy and grief.  Despite their tremendous size, whales are elusive, which contributes to their mystery and allure. Although it’s possible to catch a glimpse of a whale from shore, or when kayaking, the most reliable way to see whales is go on a whale-watching tour.

As our understanding of whales has expanded, so has the whale-watching industry, which now serves more than 10 million people and brings in over a billion dollars each year. There’s no doubt that has helped to increase awareness and to foster interest in marine conservation. But not all whale-watch companies are created equal. Some follow codes of conduct that cause less disruption to the whale’s routine.

Two basic variables in the way a whale-watching company can limit impact are distance and speed. Getting too close to the whales and traveling too quickly can impact feeding behavior  or cause calves to separate from their mothers or pods. Inappropriate proximity and excess speed also increase the risk of injuries from propellers. This is why it’s important to ask questions when looking for a whale-watching company. Not only will you end up finding a reputable company, but you’ll let the industry know that good codes of conduct matter. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see one of nature’s most magnificent creatures rise out of the water and look you right in the eye.


An easy way to locate responsible whale watching tour companies around the world. They support tour operators that ensure whale safety and promote conservation.

Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown, MA
Cape Cod is ranked as one of the top ten whale-watching spots in the world by World Wildlife Fund, and Dolphin Fleet adheres to NOAA Northeast whale watching guidelines.

Monteray Whale Watching in Monteray, CA
Monteray Whale Watching offers year-round trips narrated by marine biologists, and they follow federal whale watching guidelines regarding speed and proximity.

Pacific Whale Foundation, Maui, HI
Maui is one of the world’s top whale watching locations, and the Pacific Whale Foundation adheres to federal whale watching guidelines regarding speed and proximity.

Taz Whale Watching Tours, Glacier Bay, AK
Taz Tours offers responsible whale watching on commercial vessels and kayaks in Icy Strait near Glacier Bay, Alaska.

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio

Belinda Recio is a writer and curator working at the intersections of nature, art, and soul. She has authored books and iOS apps on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from animals to sacred arts. She is the founder of True North Gallery, where she exhibits art that connects people with the natural world. She is also a past recipient of the United States Humane Society’s Award for Innovation in the Study of Animals and Society.
Belinda Recio

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