SA a 'world leader in responsible whale-watching' but more regulation needed

Cape Town - Whale-watching is a growing tourist business in many parts of the world, and delegates to an international whale conference in South Africa say guidelines to protect the animals are increasingly needed.

Africa’s first World Whale Conference took place from 24 June to 29 June, while Durban hosted its first Welcoming of The Whales Festival on 24 June.

With the theme “Towards Responsible Tourism for Cetaceans” in support of the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, calls for more boat-licensing and monitoring were made.

'Climate change is a concern'

Heavily depleted whale species have been recovering well since an international ban on commercial whaling was imposed in 1986. However other threats such as fishing nets and contaminants remain, while the long-term impact of climate change is a concern.

About 13 million people annually board boats to see whales or dolphins, and commercial operators offer the activity in some 120 countries and overseas territories, said Dylan Walker, CEO of the World Cetacean Alliance. Cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoises.

'More safeguards to reduce stress on marine species'

The flourishing industry requires more safeguards to reduce stress on marine species and minimize disruptions when they are resting, socializing, feeding or traveling, Walker said.

"A large vessel that parks right next to the animals can potentially disturb those animals from doing those activities," he said, citing cases of mothers separated from their young by an approaching vessel.

Walker described South Africa as a "world leader" in responsible whale-watching, saying strict license limits mean there is only one commercial operator in stretches of water along many parts of the coastline.

SEE: PICS: Whales make stunning early arrival off the Cape coast

Scientists are studying the potential effect of repeated whale-watching on the behavior of individual whales, including any changes in feeding, reproduction and mortality rates, said the International Whaling Commission, which oversees conservation of the marine mammals and manages whaling.

The research has led to whale-watching measures including "limits on vessel numbers, speeds, approach distances and time spent with whales, and a variety of training and permit schemes," according to the commission. Over 50 countries have whale-watching guidelines or rules, it said.

Whale-watching boats in Madagascar must have a monitoring guide — paid or a volunteer — on board, said Francois Xavier Mayer, scientific adviser for Cetamada, a non-profit group that aims to protect marine mammals and their habitats.

The group is co-hosting a forum next week on Reunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, to discuss humpback whales, whose population has increased annually by 10 percent in some areas, including off southern Africa, South America and Australia.

SEE: WATCH: SA's Marine Big 5 at Grootbos is the most magnificent thing you'll see today

A group in Greece, meanwhile, is setting up a marine sanctuary in a bay on the island of Lipsi to rehabilitate any captive dolphins released from marine parks. Public unease with the treatment of dolphins in such entertainment facilities is growing, said Anastasia Miliou, scientific director at the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece.

There are 300 captive dolphins in Europe, out of 2 000 worldwide, Miliou said.

"We are hoping to bring back respect to dolphins," she said.

Simple guidelines to be aware of for responsible whale watching:

  • Make sure the operator has the right permit, which should be displayed on the boat.
  • Operators should not feed, touch or any attempt to control whales or dolphins, this is illegal according to the department of environmental affairs.  
  • Under no circumstance can the boat come within 300m of the cetaceans, they must proceed to a distance of 300 metres if a whale surfaces closer than 300 metres to the vessel or aircraft. 
  • You also may not swim with the whales or dolphins.
  • They should not be in possession of any part of, or a product made from, a whale or a dolphin. 
  • The boat should never deliberately drive through a school of dolphins. 
  • No person may approach whales or dolphins, tag them, or in any other manner interfere with them, in order to do research other than on the authority of a permit or exemption issued by the Minister. 

What to read next on Traveller24:

WATCH: Knysna whale shark dies despite rescue efforts

PICS: SA photographer named one of the best Underwater Photographers of 2017

WATCH: Wow! Surfing and dolphins, as you do in KZN

(Follow Christopher Torchia)

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