Watching cetaceans in their natural environment is a tourist and/or pedagogical activity commonly known as ‘whale-watching’. Practiced in North America in the 1950s, it first appeared in the Mediterranean in the 1990s.

Over 10 million people around the world now go whale-watching every year, generating direct profits (increased sea excursions) and related profits (travel, accommodation, food, souvenirs) that reach a total of over a billion dollars every year, compared with 504 million dollars in 1994.

The Mediterranean has not escaped the trend, especially because of its relatively rich cetacean biodiversity (13 species make up the north-eastern Mediterranean population, 8 of which can easily be sighted). Whale watching in the French Mediterranean has sharply increased since the 1990s. In 2005, there were 23 whale watching tour operators, generating at least 1,730,000 euros of total tourist spend.

There are a number of positive aspects to whale watching. The activity contributes to the local economy (direct and indirect profit derived from the activity), is a pedagogical tool and helps to raise awareness on the marine environment; it furthers knowledge on cetaceans and helps to limit whale hunting in certain areas of the world etc.

However, whale watching is not always conducted in a responsible manner and can then add to the existing threats of natural and human origin, increasing the vulnerability of cetacean populations by submitting them to further danger.

Unregulated whale watching can be a source of ecological disturbance, but when well managed, the activity becomes a very effective tool for encouraging conservation and raising environmental awareness, as well as contributing to the local economy.

Mindful of the issues surrounding whale watching and eager to regulate the activity and ensure its sustainable development, the scientists of the Pelagos Agreement and ACCOBAMS have been exploring this topic since 2002. This initiative should soon result in a whale watching label, consisting of a set of specifications and specialist training for operators.

Click here to see the list of the whale watching operators engaged in the sustainable approach (French part).

Threats

Disturbance, noise, greenhouse gas emissions.