Subject: Whale Watching Guidelines

Capt Fred Benko (
Thu, 03 Apr 1997 23:02:35 -0800

This is in response to a request from Michelle Wait asking for input on 
whale watching guidelines for a new tours starting up from South Africa.

I have been running gray whale watching trips from Santa Barbara, 
California since 1973 and, since 1992, summertime trips to visit the 
blue, humpback and fin whales that feed on the krill that is abundant in 
the Santa Barbara Channel. We carry over 20,000 whale watchers per year 
on my 88 ft. vessel, the CONDOR, and are affiliated with the SB Museum 
of Natural History and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The whale watching industry provides an important educational and 
entertainment function to the general public. An active whale watching 
fleet is the best insurance to assure the protection of our whale herds 
from whaling or other exploitive activities. Guidelines that are too 
restrictive will not allow operators to provide meaningful trips or 
passengers to appreciate the "personalities" of the various whale 
species. On the other hand, lax guidelines can be harmful to the whales 
being visited by interferring with feeding, mating or nursing behavior, 
or changing the animal's social interactions.

In the Santa Barbara Channel we try to adhere to the following rules:
	1. No more than one boat on a pod of whales at a time.
	2. If the animals are traveling, vessels should stay on a 
parallel course at about 100m, matching the animal's course and speed, 
avoiding any rapid changes in engine rpm or vessel direction.
	3. If the animals are feeding, or engaged in social interaction, 
vessels should observe from a distance of about 100m, essentially 
drifting with the engines idling. We have found that the low rumbling of 
idling diesel engines seems to fascinate some whales. Also, the sound of 
engines lets the animals know where the vessel is at all times. 
	4.Once they know that the vessel is not trying to approach them 
directly, and can trust that the boat is not making rapid changes in 
speed or direction, some animals will offer "friendly approaches". If 
animals turn and approach the boat, take off all way, drift and give the 
animal time to check you out.

I have sat drifting for 30 minutes or more waiting for humpbacks to 
surface and then, just as I was getting ready to leave, have them 
surface just 5 feet from the stern of the CONDOR. We realized then that 
the animals had been under us all along.
	5. Certain species, especially humpbacks, right whales and 
sometimes blues will frequently approach and study boats, particularly 
when seas are calm and the boat is not moving around very much. Your 
whale watch guidelines should take this behavior into account, allowing 
that, while boats should not approach whales directly, if the whales are 
approaching the boat, they should be allowed to do so and the vessel 
should not leave the area nor put the engines in gear, until the captain 
is sure that all animals are safely away from the screws.

The important concept here is that it must be the animals that initiate 
such close contact. Guidelines must strictly prohibit vessels from 
trying to initiate "friendly approaches" by crowding animals at closer 
than 100m.

Finally, there should be some requirement that operators offering whale 
watching cruises employ qualified naturalists on board each vessel so 
that the information imparted is accurate and germaine. Tour operators 
offering whale watching trips without naturalists are providing nothing 
more than a boat ride - neither the public, the whales nor the whale 
watching industry is well served by this type of trip.

I hope these thoughts will be useful to you in putting together your own 
guidelines. If I can be of any further assistance, please don't hesitate 
to contact me at


Fred Benko
Captain M/V CONDOR