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Does Whale Watching Harm Whales?

Blue whale heads towards Captain Dave's whale watching catamaran

In 1950, a large group of curious land-living folk stood near the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, California, as they peered across the deep blue to catch sight of the barnacle speckled gray whales that were migrating through the area. A handful of years later in 1955, the first water-based whale watching expeditions took sail, enabling passengers on-board to view the abundant marine wildlife out at sea. Since then, the dolphin and whale watching industry has become a worldwide phenomenon, with an estimated 13 million people embarking on such an adventure in the year 2008 alone.

This unique and exciting recreational activity enables us ahoy mateys to trek out onto the open ocean to view marine mammals such as humpback, fin, blue, minke, sperm whales and a slew of other species of whales, along with an astounding amount of dolphins whose kind ranges from bottlenose, common, Risso’s, pacific white-sided, and even orcas. In Southern California, nearly seventy different living creatures are spotted, deeming our waters as some of the most abundant and lively in the world. As road-trippers, friendly travelers, and local residents make their way into the area to sport up this activity of watching whales, it has led our tour operators and others to question and secure the safety of such an event.

Many people may ask the question, “do whale and dolphin watching operators harm whales?” This is a wonderful question and one we’ve made sure to thoroughly ask as well. With concerns such as noise pollution, vessel strikes, marine environment disturbance, and commercial whaling, it’s no wonder why our fellow whale watchers would be mindful of the harm or threats one could impose aboard whale watching boats. You’re in for some good news though!

Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari has been providing sustainable wildlife viewing for over twenty years, all while following the guidelines outlined in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA.) While strictly following this outline, we view the marine wildlife at a respectful distance and in no way attempt to alter the behavior of the whales. Although we make sure to keep our distance, this does not mean that marine wildlife does the same.

Both whales and dolphins often mozy up-close to our whale watching vessels, as they attempt to sport up a little karma by taking a peek at us. These close encounters are referred to as “mugging.”

In addition, when approaching a large mammal, our vessels always remain in neutral, thus avoiding any collision with them. Vessel collision is a concern for many, and rightfully so, but it’s important to understand that the majority of accidents occur with large cargo ships. When whales happen upon these cruising giants, they miscalculate the size of the craft as well as their proximity to it. Because of the enormous size of these boats, whales will often take note of the engine sounds that are located towards the back of the boat. Making a judgment in regards to the location of the engine, the whales will think they are far from the boat when in reality they can collide with the front of the boat that is situated a long distance away from that roaring engine.

These unfortunate accidents, as well as those included in the data provided by NOAA, which include any vessel ranging from 1,000 feet to a small jet ski, are not primarily referring to whale watching vessels. So when NOAA states that an estimated 80 whales die per year due to vessel strikes, please remember that these findings are not solely alluding to whale watching vessels.

Whewie! Thanks for joining in with us on that sigh of relief.

But we’re not done yet.

Another bit of good news has to do with the concern of ocean noise/pollution. Fortunately, the sounds that come from the engines of whale watching vessels do not cause hearing damage or disturbance to the animals. And even though ocean noise is a threat to marine mammals, this is primarily referring to other human-related festivities such as military sonar. So no worries, we aren’t hosting any cannon battles or defense training off of our vessels, unless you’re referring to the tiffs some passengers may get into to score a second brownie.

One large and prominent concern that many worldwide animal advocates share is the devastating reality of commercial whaling. This alone makes our hearts sink, but since we’re on a roll with this good news business, we’ll throw a bit of conservation confetti your way and let you know that absolutely no commercial whaling is done in the waters of Southern California. In fact, in 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling. Sadly, there are several countries that still hunt whales, but thankfully due to federal regulations, the US of A is not one of them.

These “sigh of relief” inhibiting facts may have one a little more at ease, but what if we told you that whale watching tours are actually helpful to dolphins and whales? The conservation confetti just keeps falling, and we’re stoked to share that our whale watching excursions not only enable you to get out on the water to see those friendly swimmers, but we specialize in bringing awareness and education to each and every passenger we shake fins with.

As family, friends, and local communities acquire more knowledge about these incredible creatures, they begin to know and care about them. Awareness is key and we help to unlock the door to the amazing world we share with these magnificent mammals. In doing so, whale watchers are able to connect with whales, learn about them, and ultimately take vital steps to protect them. These small yet crucial steps can include conscious efforts to reduce plastic and make more wise decisions regarding seafood choices. Every bit and bite helps!

And while we’ve dived into the protection pool, we’re thrilled to tell you that our very own Captain Dave and trained members of our team are part of a network NOAA trained disentanglement teams. This team has first-hand experience with disentangling gray whales, humpback whales, and a blue whale. These whales, along with an astounding number of dolphins are entangled in fishing gear on the daily, reaching numbers of up to 1,000 deaths PER DAY worldwide. This is a heartbreaking amount of marine wildlife and we thank our lucky stars and great creator for the opportunity to aid in their disentanglement.

The news of these entanglements does not come from a tweet from our whale friends or a call from a common dolphin trapped in a crab net, but is discovered aboard our daily whale watching vessels. Thanks to whale watching companies that cruise up and down the coast of Southern California, many entangled whales have been located.

Here at Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, California, we believe in being good stewards of the ocean while setting an example for others who share our waters. Always eco-friendly and never disrespectful to those who call the ocean home, we strive to teach others the importance of good whale watching etiquette.

We were placed on this earth with not only the responsibility but the privilege to make our lives and the lives of others better. This privilege reaches our marine mammal matey’s and we are delighted to share that whale watching does not harm the extraordinary wildlife we have the privilege of spending time with.

We hope you will have the opportunity to experience such a once in a lifetime, unforgettable adventure with us as we accompany you during your safari in the near future!

Until then,

Your friends at Captain Dave’s.

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