Photo Contest Winners Announced!

Congratulations to all of our winners!! All of the winning photos were taken in Virginia Beach and on board with either Rudee Flipper Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours or Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Coincidentally, their whale watching season is starting later this month. We encourage you to reach out to them and book a trip this winter now that you know what fabulous wildlife you can see!

Breaching- Stephanie Johnson

Stephanie Johnson, Wave Dancers, Sept 14, 2017 Rudee Flipper

Scenic View- Pete Federico

Pete Federico December 31, 2016 Rudee Tours Virginia Beach
Tail Shot- Taryn Paul

Taryn Paul, Virginia Aquarium, Humpback fluke; taken January 1, 2017
Non-marine mammal- Taryn Paul

Taryn Paul, Virginia Aquarium, Fish singing; taken on September 10, 2016

Many thanks again to everyone who submitted photos (they were all amazing!), shared the album, and voted. We hope you will continue to spread the word about the Whale SENSE program and the importance of responsible wildlife viewing. As always, visit for more information.

Whale SENSE launches Facebook photo contest


How to Enter

  1. Submit your photos via message to the Whale SENSE Facebook page or to by FRIDAY NOVEMBER 3rd. You can enter up to one photo per category.  With each photo include your name, the name of your whale watch company, date it was taken and a caption/description.

Categories include: a) breaching, b) scenic view c) tail shot d) non marine mammal, i.e. birds, fish, sharks.

  1. Voting will happen on the Whale SENSE Facebook page, so make sure you “like” or “follow” us to see how your photo(s) ranks.
  2. Voting will run from November 7- November 14. When voting opens, encourage your Facebook friends to “Like” your photo in the contest album!  Each like/reaction is a vote, and participants can vote for as many photos as they want. The photo with the most votes in each category wins!
  3. We will notify the winners within 24 hours of the contest ending date. Winning photos will be featured on our Facebook page and website, and winners will receive a prize.

Like our Facebook page to get all the updates!

breaching orca- NMFS


Any photo of marine mammals taken aboard a boat that participates in the Whale SENSE program (Atlantic and Alaska regions!) is eligible for submission, provided that they meet the Whale SENSE responsible advertising criteria. You will be disqualified if your photo shows any of the following:

  1. People touching, pursuing, chasing, attempting to swim with, or closely interacting with wild marine mammals or any activities that would violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act or other regulatory measures.
  2. Pictures taken from a vessel underway within close approach zones. (The close approach zone is 100-300 feet from whales, or less than 3 boat lengths.)
  3. Photos should be taken while following all regional whale watching guidelines.
  4. We will not accept photos of right whales due to the 500 yard approach regulation.

Make sure your whale watch company participates in the Whale SENSE program here.




Whale SENSE Heroes

By Mark Haver, NOAA Fisheries Communications Intern

You’re the last boat on the water on a summer evening. The setting sun breathes a rich orange reflection over the water’s surface. A killer whale dorsal fin calmly breaks the orange sheet. It is not just the sighting that makes the experience so exciting– it is the passion for these marine mammals that the crew shares with you, helping you to connect with the place and the wildlife viewing experience, and inspiring conservation action on behalf of wildlife and wild spaces. This is an experience that belongs to many, thanks to the incredible work of Whale SENSE captains and crew members.

This year, Whale SENSE is recognizing one captain and one naturalist/guide in Alaska for their leadership in the realm of marine stewardship. With the outstanding efforts of naturalist Wendy Byrnes and Captain Heather Rothenberger, passengers are rewarded with the education and conservation messages so integral to the Whale SENSE mission.

NOAA Fisheries Whale SENSE coordinator for the Alaska Region, Suzie Teerlink, reached out to companies involved in the program to ask crew members to nominate captains and naturalists/guides who exemplified the standards and responsible practices set forth through the Whale SENSE program. Although there were many nominations describing excellent personnel, it was clear that Wendy and Heather are outstanding leaders on the water, demonstrate the principles of Whale SENSE, and are respected by co-workers and passengers alike.

We interviewed each to learn more about their experiences and perspectives.

Wendy Byrnes: Naturalist_WendyByrnes

Wendy is from Alaska and has a background in music. During the winter, she works as a special educator for the public school district. She has been an example of how citizens can get involved in marine mammal research. Her passion for conservation and whales grew during her time at Gastineau Guiding Company, where she still works.

The part of her job she enjoys most is simply teaching people about whales and helping them to care about them. She references how humpback whales almost went extinct in the 1980’s and how education was able to help support the species’ repopulation. She loves working for her company because of its focus on sustainability and its emphasis on conservation.

Wendy enjoys being part of Whale SENSE because it furthers her ability to foster deeper relationships between the public and whales. As told in the history of the humpback, public concern contributed to the whales’ recovery. Wendy knows that if she can inspire that same sense of care and commitment, then her job is complete.

Whale SENSE matters to her because it emphasizes her beliefs: the importance of ocean stewardship, providing educational resources to the public, encouraging sustainable whale watching, and inspiring people to participate in the mission of conservation. Wendy says, “You don’t have to have a background in ocean science to be excited about the environment.” Not only does she reinforce this mantra in her personal life, but she works hard to share such excitement with those on her whale watching tours.

Heather Rothenberger: Captain_HeatherRothenberger

Heather first started as a tour boat captain in 1998. She’s spread her message of conservation in Hawaii as well as Alaska. According to a TripAdvisor review, “Heather is dedicated to providing her passengers with an unparalleled experienced that conveys the importance of marine conservation.” When she’s not giving whale watching tours, she works as a school nurse.

Heather loves doing what she does because her job is so dynamic: “it’s always something new.” She is proud to work for her company, Kenai Fjords Tours, which has always emphasized responsible whale watching operations. Thanks to Whale SENSE and Kenai Fjords Tours, Heather knows that she and her fellow captains understand how to act safely and responsibly around whales.

Interacting with passengers aboard her vessel has allowed Heather to convey how important it is to know and understand whales. She asks, “How can people conserve something if we don’t know about it? We need to educate ourselves about it… the more we are aware, the better.” Education is one of the first and most important steps of conservation. Heather integrates this component into her tours with a passion that reveals her bold enthusiasm in getting people excited about protecting whales.

Whale SENSE Alaska would like to thank Wendy, Heather, and the entire Whale SENSE community for dedicating themselves to responsible whale watching practices and encouraging others to commit to conservation.

Why More of Alaska’s Whale Watching Companies Are Recognized for Responsible Tourism

Jenna Schwerzmann

Back in 2015, the Whale SENSE program welcomed six new companies from Juneau, Alaska.  Until that time, all participants were located on the Atlantic coast.  Now, in 2017, the number of Whale SENSE participants in Alaska has doubled! Tourists can now find Whale SENSE-approved companies in Juneau, Ketchikan, Valdez, and Seward.

I was curious how this expansion happened so quickly.  So, I spoke to the coordinator of the Whale SENSE program in the Alaska region, Suzie Teerlink.  Suzie is also a Marine Mammal Specialist at NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division.

“I’d love to hear the history of how Whale SENSE came to Alaska.”

“Operator interest in Juneau was the impetus to bringing the program to Alaska.  There is a relatively high number of tour operators in Juneau compared with other whale-watching areas. In general, most operators are good at sticking to the regulations and there is good community collaboration where operators will help remind one another when and if it is needed.

Suzie Teerlink

However, because there are so many companies in one area, there have been issues of vessel crowding around whales. This has raised concerns over the welfare of the whales, the reputation of the industry, and the relationship between the industry and the community. So, in this sense, it isn’t necessarily an issue of enforcing regulation, but more about ensuring sustainability in this industry.

Several Juneau-based operators recognized these potential issues and organized to brainstorm solutions. In my eyes, these operators are real leaders. Their goals were to: help reduce vessel crowding, increase on-the-water communication, and work with NMFS management to reduce impacts to whales and increase educational standard. They came together and agreed that Whale SENSE was the program they would like to work with, and were pivotal in shaping the Alaska sector of Whale SENSE.”

“Why did they choose Whale SENSE, rather than create their own program or work within a similar, existing framework?

“Ultimately, it was the operators’ decision to join forces with Whale SENSE in 2015. I believe that there was interest in collaborating with NMFS and Whale and Dolphin Conservation and working together toward similar goals. That is the beauty of this type of partnership, we are all interested in the same thing: reducing impacts to wildlife and increasing educational messaging as a way to ensure sustainability of whales and whale-watching.”

“What proportion of Alaskan whale watch tour operators are currently recognized by the Whale SENSE program?”

“This is difficult to answer, because there are some companies that have a fleet of whale watch boats, and others that operate mainly as a fishing charter but offer whale watching tours. One company to another is not apples to apples. If you look at it in number of vessels, there are over 70 boats that advertise whale watching out of Juneau. Of those, approximately 75% belong to companies that are part of the Whale SENSE program.”

“Why do you think the number of recognized whale watches doubled this year?”

“I think that as the program gains recognition, more and more companies are interested in participating. Also, I believe that the program aligns well with the mission of the participating companies, so the small changes that needed to be made were not overwhelming.”


Photo by Suzie Teerlink under NMFS permit #14296.


“Many tourists are drawn to Alaska for its natural beauty and wildlife.  Do you think tourists are eager to support this kind of program?”

“I think so.  I think that people care about general ocean stewardship and want to be sure that their presence isn’t contributing to something that’s bad for wildlife. However, it might not always be the first thing on their radar. Sometimes they are thinking of other priorities first, and it isn’t until they become aware of potential impacts that, that they make something like Whale SENSE a priority when choosing a tour.”

“What do you mean by “other priorities”?”

“Some may want to know which tours are going to get closest to the whales. Once they know about the regulations that all whale watching operators must follow, and realize that all companies must stay 100- yards away, that’s not important anymore. It frees them up to consider other factors, such as stewardship and onboard education.”

“I’m curious, what kinds of stewardship projects do the Alaskan companies have going on?”

“There are several companies doing beach cleanups. Many are doing in-kind donations for school children, running educational trips for them.  It’s my preference for the companies to take the stewardship project in their own direction. I love seeing companies find projects that are meaningful to them and fit within their companies’ missions and priorities.”

 “What are your goals for the Alaska sector of the Whale SENSE program?”

“I would like to work on the recognition angle, versus the regulatory angle. Monitoring for compliance is a challenging endeavor, even with our written regulations and guidelines, these situations are nuanced and rarely black and white. While compliance and accountability are important and we will continue to invest in these, I’d also like to encourage leadership within the whale watching industry and create ways to further encourage companies that prioritize conservation and sustainability.”

 “Is there anything else you would like readers to know?”

“In the Juneau area, the program has really changed the culture.  The operators are now much better at communicating.  Managers are on a first name basis, where they weren’t necessarily before. Camaraderie between the companies has improved, and there has been a lot of improvement in courtesy among operators out on the water.”


Photo by Suzie Teerlink under NMFS permit #14296.

It was encouraging to hear that participation in the Whale SENSE program is paying off in Alaska.  And according to Suzie, she hopes to have even more recognized companies around the State next year! You can support the Whale SENSE program by choosing one of these companies the next time you go on a whale watch, or simply by spreading the word about the program.

A Day on Stellwagen Bank: Where Whale Watching Was Born.

Written by Jenna Schwerzmann

On a partly-cloudy June morning, nearly three hundred passengers boarded the Hyannis Whale Watcher cruise. Prepped with backpacks, coolers, and extra layers for the chilly Cape Cod winds, the passengers seemed hopeful as they handed their tickets to none other than the naturalist, Jonathan Brink.

Jon Brink has been with Hyannis Whale Watcher for 14 years, but has been in the industry for longer.  Along with Captain Mike, with over 30 years of experience, it is safe to say that these guys know their whales.

J. Brink- J. Schwerzmann

Naturalist Jon Brink, searching for whales. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

They first took us to an area off Stellwagen Bank informally known as “Finback Alley.” But what we actually found at first were a bunch of minke whales!

The minkes were quick.  The crowd got a really good look at one in particular, which surfaced just off the port side of the boat.  It was then that I noticed the “minke mittens,” or the distinctive white patch on their pectoral fins.

minke WDC

A close look at a minke whale. Notice its white “mittens” under the surface. Photo: Melissa Steinberg, WDC

While we were with the minkes, we saw not one, but two very tall spouts in the distance. These were the blows of finback whales.  I learned that it was special to find two fin whales together, as the crew had typically seen them feeding alone.   When they are observed close together and synchronized in their movements, an “association” has formed.   I heard this from the intern on board, Melissa Steinberg, who collects data and photos for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.


Melissa showing some passengers a sample of baleen. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

It was Melissa who spotted the next whale.  After traveling to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, near Provincetown, the boat was quietly anticipating the next sighting. It started to feel like our luck ran out, but then Melissa saw a spout in the corner of her eye.  Captain Mike took us closer to the area, but we still had to wait a few more minutes until we saw yet another species of whale – a humpback!

Everybody loves to spot a humpback on a whale watch tour.  This one did not disappoint.  Though we were running out of time, we were able to observe the whale for a little while. It even showed us its fluke!


A humpback whale tail, or fluke. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

Jon told the crowd that we were probably the only tour on the Cape to find a humpback today.  All the naturalists in the area know each other well and communicate often, in order to coordinate whale watching. In fact, these Cape Cod companies pretty much wrote the book on the whale watching industry as they worked collaboratively with NOAA to develop the measures and protocols now included in the Greater Atlantic Regional Whale Watching Guidelines.

This naturally fits the values of Whale SENSE, a program that recognizes responsible tours. Whale watch companies volunteer to participate in this annual training.  They agree to follow regional guidelines and regulations, educate passengers, notify officials of whales in distress, set an example for others and encourage ocean stewardship.  Hyannis Whale Watcher was the second company to join the program in 2009, after Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown.

It is clear that Hyannis Whale Watcher is proud to be a part of this program.  Jon said it was a mutual decision for the company to join, as they mostly wanted to set an example for other vessels. While the whale watch companies in the area are all well aware of the guidelines, recreational boaters might differ.  This is why Jon incorporates information about Whale SENSE in his narration.

When asked what his favorite part of the job was, Jon said it was educating kids. “They’re the ones that are going to save the whales,” he said. “If you save the whales, you’re going to save everything else out there.”

“Think of the threats they face as raindrops. Giving them protection is like giving them an umbrella. If you give whales protection, it’s a big umbrella, and everything else fits in underneath.”


Two finbacks together in an association. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

This is great reminder that all species—from seabirds to sharks to whales—rely on us to keep the oceans clean.  Conservation is only successful when people work together to do our part. Getting out on a responsible whale watch is certainly a great way to respect wildlife and support conservation, but it is important to remember that we can all be responsible stewards for the environment at any time.