Watching a humpback whale breach out of the water in an explosion of spray or seeing a pod of dolphins ride the bow of a boat is certainly awe-inspiring. And now the programme set up to help ensure the continuation of these experiences, in a sustainable way, is going from strength to strength.
The Whale Heritage Site (WHS) scheme was established by the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) in January 2016. It aims to promote sustainable tourism in areas popular with whale watching, and has recently signed up a range of new destinations that see value in the partnership, which will help them protect whales, dolphins and porpoises in their natural habitat.
Dylan Walker, chief executive for the WCA, says three out of the 12 applicants have so far been approved to start the auditing process to become a Whale Heritage Site: Vancouver Island North, Canada; Port Stephens in Australia; and Hervey Bay, also in Australia.
Walker reveals that each has a rich culture surrounding its marine wildlife.
“Port Stephens is known as the dolphin capital of Australia, providing high-quality eco-cruises and hosting the annual Human Whale Event, where 800 people get together to form a 100-metre long whale on the beach at Shoal Bay. Hervey Bay is an internationally significant new born whale calf nursery, where whales prepare their young for the long migration to Antarctic waters. Vancouver Island North is the habitat of eight species of cetacean and a global leader for whale research and conservation,” he says.
The establishment of a WHS will have positive effects for a region’s cetacean population and will enhance clients’ experiences, Walker explains.
“The science shows that when boats are respectful, there is better engagement with the animals. They are more inquisitive; they come up to the boat, stick their heads out of the water and even leap into the air more.”
Good practices include restricting the number of vessels out on the water at any one time, capping the duration that they stay out for and making sure they follow routes that won’t disrupt the animals.
“In 20 years’ time I would like to see 100 Whale Heritage Sites and a return to more pristine ecosystems,” says Walker.
“I truly believe that tourists going to the Whale Heritage Sites will have the best possible encounters with the animals. There’s a feel good factor when you have spent your money on a holiday that’s in the right place.
“We are seeing tourists moving away from viewing animals in zoos and aquariums, and choosing experiential holidays instead to see wildlife in their natural habitats.”
The WCA ensures a destination’s continued progression towards becoming a more responsible area by encouraging collaboration between responsible whale-watching companies, scientists, academics and non-governmental organisations.
Walker says: “It was apparent that those organisations never collaborated or had the chance to be in the same room together. While they were doing amazing work at a local level they had very little opportunity to have a voice on the international stage.”
A destination looking to become a certified Whale Heritage Site will have a series of processes to pass through, including an online application form, a review from the steering committee and two in-depth audits produced to highlight which areas fulfil the criteria, the impact of human activity within the proposed site, and what improvements need to be made.
Jared Towers, administrator for the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association, is pleased that Vancouver Island North has been approved for the auditing process to become a Whale Heritage Site.
“Whale Heritage Site status would provide us with validation. We already had a long history of responsible whale watching, but this takes it to the next level. The main change is the collaboration between not just the whale watching companies but also representatives from local government, tourist boards and local communities too. We need to bring the information to a broader audience rather than just whale watchers.”
Communities have taken the programme into their hearts, adds Towers. “When people hear about it they are really excited. There’s a genuine interest in ensuring continued protection. It’s a win-win both for the whales and also the surrounding population. This should help us become better-known as a whale-watching destination, and inspire more tourists to visit.”