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Whale Watching in Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
Photo: Courtesy of Cynde Bierman

March 21, 2002
"The Economic Value of Whales in their Live State: Part II"
  Real Audio

Last time I promised I would tell you about some of the less-well-known whale watch industries and would relate a harrowing tale that happened to me back in the 1980s when I tried to get Iceland interested in starting a whale watch industry.

Most whale species are now the subject of at least one whale watch industry somewhere in the world, and dolphin watching is growing fast as well.

Individual photo-ID studies using natural markings, nicks and scratches on the bodies of living whales as a means of identifying individuals are now linked with whale watching in some 46 countries and overseas territories. (It is a technique that was largely pioneered by my institute.) When the scientist/naturalists on board a whale watch boat can tell their guests the name and history of the individual whales they are seeing it increases the experience for those guests, hugely.

Because most of the new information we have about whales comes from long term studies of known individuals, whale watching and whale science are a natural mix-the whale watch boat providing a relatively steady platform from which scientists can take identification photographs during trips that occur once or twice each day, every day, throughout a whole season-an expense that no whale researcher was able to sustain before the start of the whale watch industry.

Although most whale watching (72%) is done from boats, more than two and a half million people in ten countries watched whales from land in 1998. so land-based whale watching accounts for a significant percentage (28%) of all whale watching.

Airborne whale watching, however, has yet to really catch on. Less than 10,000 people (a tenth of one percent of all whale watchers) saw whales from helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft in 1998. However, I've used such aircraft for taking identification photographs of the right whales we study, and I can assure you that the most spectacular view you can get of a group of whales is always from a plane. It allows you to watch the behavior of several individuals at once. Although it may seem like a strange claim, if you really want to know what's going on between whales without interrupting it by your presence, get out of the water and up in the air. You'll also learn faster from that viewpoint. So even though it's so expensive, I suspect that it's just a matter of time until aerial whale watching catches on.

Of course the ultimate experience for anyone interested in whales is to swim with them, and there are several programs in other countries that let you do so. It's a totally memorable experience and includes the very real element of fear, which instinctively helps to imprint the experience on one's memory. Swimming with whales is outlawed in most countries, including the United States, as being too disturbing to the whales. However, there is no solid evidence to back up that view, and as the scientist/explorer Sylvia Earle once pointed out: unless they pursue them in boats, divers cannot effectively harass a whale. For when a diver is swimming with a whale and the whale wants to leave, it simply takes a single stroke with its flukes and even the fastest human swimmer ever born is immediately left behind. When you swim with a whale, it must be willing to participate in the experience or you won't get more than a fleeting glimpse. For that reason I feel that forbidding people from trying to swim with whales probably represents the invention of a cure for which there is no disease.

Worse, it guarantees that we will never be able to find out what kinds of mutually rewarding interactions might come into existence between whales and people if it were allowed. The ancestor of the first dog that took the initiative to step into the firelight of the cave and co-exist with humans in peace did its genes the greatest favor it could possibly have done them-guaranteeing that they would multiply and increase for thousands of years-a process that still shows no sign of diminishing. The relatives of that wolf who elected to remain in the wild are barely making it.

With the danger whales now face from cheating whaling industries, and the fact that the meat from a blue whale is worth several million dollars, it should be obvious that unless we take steps to learn how to entwine our lives more intimately with whales' lives we may not be able to keep them from being destroyed entirely by the combined effects of whaling, pollution, and entanglement in fishing gear.

The friendly grey whales of Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California, Mexico show clearly, CLEARLY, that some whales seek out contact with humans; they come up to tourist boats now and then, and lie so they can be stroked, correcting their positions in relation to the boat whenever it is pushed away from them by the wind. I have sat in a small boat with my arm inside the mouth of a friendly gray whale for 20 minutes, stroking its tongue, along with three other equally beguiled people. Try forgetting that experience. If a whaler had the courage to expose himself to the danger of having to admit to himself that he had changed his mind after an experience similar to mine, and now liked whales, I am confident that his enthusiasm for killing them would be dealt a body blow, even if he might still be able to present a face of bluster to the world.

In most countries, most whale watchers are visitors from foreign lands and are therefore a source of foreign currency. However, in the United States, Australia, Japan, and the United Kingdom the majority of whale watchers are nationals of the country in which they go whale watching.

In 1998, the United States accounted for 4.3 million people, or 48% of all whale watching worldwide. Whale watching started here in 1955 (in San Diego where gray whales were the attraction) and although the industry appears to be leveling off, it still grew at a respectable 4.2% per year between 1991 and 1998. As the world's biggest whale watch industry it is already worth more than the world's biggest whaling industry-Japan's.

The speed at which whale watch industries have grown is the subject of my next talk to you. And I promise that when I speak to you next time I'll tell you about how an effort I made many years ago to get a whale watching industry started in Iceland turned into an altogether harrowing experience.

This is Roger Payne speaking to you from the Odyssey and hoping that you're having lighter winds than we are.

(c) 2002 Written by Roger Payne


  • Go to Part I and Part III of "The Economic Value of Whales in their Live State"

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