While watching whales from a vessel, you may often wonder if the whales know that you are there. If so, does it bother them? 

The short answer:

It would be great if we could ask the whales themselves! But, until then, we have to interpret their behavior in the presence of vessels and physiology to better understand what may “bother”, or negatively affect whales.

The long answer: 

Behavioral studies have shown that whales behave differently in the presence of vessels, compared to the absence of vessels. Some of the factors related to whale watching vessels that can disturb or cause stress in whales include:

  • Noise emission from boat engines
  • Aggressive vessel behaviors (i.e., approaching too close or head-on) 
  • Overcrowding and/or encircling around whale(s)
  • Prolonged exposure to vessels

Above is an example of a boater speeding up and intercepting the whales direction of travel which caused them to prematurely dive.

As stated by NOAA Fisheries the activity of a vessel can impact the natural behavior of a whale and if done irresponsibly could result in multiple impacts to whales, as well as other marine life, such as:

It is possible that whales are aware of the boat’s presence, but that may not always be the case.

One of the strongest senses is their sense of hearing, and they often rely on sound for detecting the presence of vessels.

But, depending on what they are doing (i.e., feeding, resting, etc.), it is possible that they may not be paying attention to where you are. Therefore it is important the captain of the boat and naturalist on board are actively looking out for whales to make sure the proper distance and protocols are maintained to prevent any disturbance to them. 

There are certain behaviors whales display that may indicate they are uncomfortable with a vessel nearby.

There are several important behaviors to monitor in order to know when it is time to give a whale more space.

By visiting companies accredited with Whale SENSE, you are guaranteed to be guided by those who care about the whales just as much as you do. Whale SENSE makes it a priority that all whales are being treated with respect and do not feel that their personal space is being invaded. Participating companies are held to the highest standards and are making the whale watching experience not only fun, but safe for everyone on deck and down below.

When on a Whale SENSE trip, your vessel’s captain will:

  • Slow down a safe distance away from the whales. (Sometimes the whales will choose to come closer to you!)
  • Keep the vessel either behind or alongside the whales so as not to change their path of travel.
  • Maneuver your boat carefully around not only the whales but also other nearby vessels. (In many cases they are in radio communication with other captains.)
  • Wait until they know where the whale you are watching is before leaving the area.

Following proper guidelines greatly reduces the chances of disrupting the whales but it is still essential to continuously monitor body language in order to be aware of when the presence of a vessel is becoming too much.

To learn more, visit NOAA Fisheries’ specific guidelines and regulations for Alaska Marine Mammals and in the Atlantic.

Read more answers to Frequently Asked Questions here!

Samantha Gallardo
Samantha Gallardo

Samantha is currently an Intern at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. She is studying Environmental Studies and Biology at SJSU.