Mexico whale disaster: is whale watching becoming a problem?
A recently jumping humpback whale landed on a whale watching boat off the coast of Mexico, injuring everyone on board. Whale expert Fabian Ritter explains what could be behind this. And what tourists should pay attention to if they want to watch whales
GEO.de: A humpback whale recently landed on a whale watching boat off the coast of Mexico, injuring people. what happened there?
Fabian Knight: A little video material, the one we have only shows bounce and impact, but no context. To assess what the whale may have been doing and whether it was an accident would require information about minutes before, as well as how whale watching tourism in the area is generally run.
It is possible that the whales were surrounded by boats for several days or weeks and annoyed by them. If a particular boat were to come too close and too fast, then at least one can assume that the whale would have done something similar. In any case, this remains a big exception. It might as well have been the oversight of a young, inexperienced whale. A third possibility was that the jump was a “leave me alone!” type of signal. And then the animal would misjudge it.
Keith is unlikely to knowingly take the risk of injury…
Therefore, I would almost rule out conscious purposeful attacking behavior. This would also be atypical for humpback whales. What I see in the video: After the whale falls from the boat into the water, it hits hard. This indicates that the whale is either frightened or in severe pain at this point.
Whale watching is considered a more benign alternative to whale hunting and also thrives in countries where whales have traditionally been hunted. Is this becoming a problem for animals?
As an alternative to whaling, whale watching is beneficial in principle. Watching a humpback whale jump from a safe distance is an unforgettable experience. Watching dolphins with others is like flipping a switch: everyone on board is suddenly in a good mood. But it depends on how you do it.
Whale watching has become a multi-billion dollar business around the world. Where it is poorly regulated or the rules are not enforced, which is now the rule rather than the exception, there are often too many operators and too many boats. Whales are often not handled very carefully. There are dozens of studies on how whale watching affects their behavior. As a rule, sleep and eating behavior are reduced. On the other hand, wandering or evasive behavior increases statistically. Boat stress and underwater noise can make whales sick, just like us humans.
What does responsible whale watching look like?
Whales are social, complexly organized creatures that can suffer. They are smart and cultured, so they are a lot more like us than we thought. Therefore, they should be treated with the greatest respect. This means approach slowly, keep a minimum distance, watch the animals and let them decide for themselves whether they want to come closer or not. Operators must provide information about animals and their threats before, on board and after the tour. At best, suppliers also document when and where they saw which animals for research purposes. In our opinion, if such criteria are met, whale watching should be approved. By the way, watching animals from land is the least of all disturbing.
How to recognize an animal friendly tour operator?
Use your critical mind, review the supplier’s information materials, ask the counter if there is any collaboration with research institutes or environmental and whale protection organizations. First of all, the provider must be licensed – if licenses are issued at all in the relevant area. In addition to licensed providers, there are also illegal providers in countless places that I would stay away from. Even if there is a pirate show and free sangria on board, as in Tenerife, for example, or if an orchestra is playing, it has nothing to do with a natural history tour. This is a sight and fun on the backs of whales – literally.
Fabian Ritter is a Policy Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC). The organization has published a (paid) guide to sustainable whale watching: whits.org/wdc-shop/whale-watching-package.