Cetacean Tourism: It Takes Time and Space
Over the past ~30 years, cetacean-based tourism focused on free-ranging animals has grown rapidly, providing an alternative source of wealth to communities and a way to educate people about ocean conservation. It has also led to unsustainable practices causing stress, declines in reproductive success, displacement and poor education. The opportunity to have close encounters via swim-with and boat-based tours is now available throughout the world and with increasing numbers of whales there are more opportunities arising. One of the challenges is sustainable management. Typically the onus has been placed on government, regulatory bodies and scientists to prove that cetacean-based tourism has a biologically meaningful impact rather than the operators and industry proving that they will have minimal impact. In the 1980s and 1990s as tourism was growing rapidly, there were early signs that interactions could impact on the behaviour of the targeted populations. The responses were often subtle shifts in respiration rates, swimming speeds and dive times. Over time it became apparent that there were more serious impacts with cumulative interactions leading to complete shifts in habitat use, abandonment of core habitat, social disruption and declines in abundance. For the whales, population recovery masked the impacts on individuals but for some of the small cetaceans there are clear impact from tourism that should not be ignored. We know how to minimise impact, with time and space being key components to a sustainable industry, yet the value of tourism has often outweighed conservation management. Now may be the time to reflect on the paradigm shift needed to ensure future cetacean-based tourism does not come at the expense of the animals needs.