What does it mean to be endangered?

In the 1960s, global whale populations weren’t looking so great.

Humpback whales in the Central North Pacific numbered a mere 1,400, gray whales had completely disappeared in the North Atlantic and were on the brink of extinction in the North Pacific, and there were likely less than 100 North Atlantic right whales off the coast of the United States (just to name a few). Protections, in the form of laws and whaling moratoriums of these whale species, gave them a second chance. 

In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed by president Richard Nixon. This Act brought added protections for individuals and their critical habitats. Under the ESA, a species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range, while a species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered in the future

Today many species have also been divided into Distinct Population Segments (DPS), based on their discreteness from other populations of the species and significant in relation to the entire species. This has allowed scientists to better understand which populations are recovering, and which are still struggling to return to pre-whaling numbers. 

Western North Pacific Gray Whale (Photo: D. Weller)

In 1994, the eastern North Pacific gray whale was delisted from the ESA due to recovery, being estimated at over 25,000 individuals! Meanwhile, the western North Pacific gray whale population continues to remain low, at less than 300 individuals. Similarly, in 2016, several DPSs of humpback whales were delisted from the Endangered Species Act, including the Hawaiian DPS, which are frequently found in Alaskan waters. However, the Mexico DPS remains threatened and Western North Pacific DPS and Central American DPS remain endangered.

Of the most endangered whale species are the right whales in the Northern Hemisphere. It is estimated that approximately 400 North Atlantic right whales exist today. Similarly, the North Pacific right whales are estimated at less than 500, while only about 30 individuals of North Pacific Right whales are estimated to remain of the Eastern stock that lives in Alaskan waters.

North Atlantic right whale (Photo: Regina Asmutis Silvia)

Whale watching at a higher standard to protect whales

Whale SENSE operators care about protecting whales and other marine life. In the Greater Atlantic and Alaska, Whale SENSE partners agree to not only follow wildlife viewing federal regulations, but follow additional guidelines and standards to support the conservation of whale species.  In the Greater Atlantic, federal law requires that all vessels approach no closer than 500 yards to North Atlantic right whales, while in Alaska it is illegal to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards. 

Whale SENSE operators take these protections a step further by abiding to additional operational guidelines to minimize their disturbance to whales and other marine mammals, and allows passengers to observe these animals behaving more naturally. These measures includes reducing speed when approaching and departing whales, limiting viewing time, and communicating with other vessels.

Operators educate and spread awareness

Participating staff also participate in annual Whale SENSE training, covering best wildlife viewing practices and  important information about whales and marine life in their area. Each company emphasizes education and whale conservation on their tours!


Photo: Whale and Dolphin Conservation

As a part of the program, whale watching operators also agree to conduct an ocean stewardship project. In 2019, several Whale SENSE companies in both regions kicked off the season by cleaning up nearby beaches to reduce marine debris in their tour areas. But, the stewardship certainly doesn’t stop there. Don’t be surprised if your operator slows to pick up floating trash during your whale watch either!

Whale SENSE operators in Juneau, AK at Beach Clean Up 2019

The next time you’re planning on going on a whale watch, you can support the recovery of endangered marine life by choosing a Whale SENSE operator! See our list of SENSEible whale watching companies here!

Read more answers to Frequently Asked Questions here!

Ali Schuler
Ali Schuler

Ali has been working with the Whale SENSE Program since 2018. She has worked as a whale watch naturalist in both Alaska and Hawaii, and spent her master’s researching the effects of whale watching on humpback whales and conservation.