Ask a Scientist: What does 'best-practice' mean?
When we're dealing with wildlife tourism, the term 'best-practice' frequently pops up. But for lays, this can be confusing, so I like to translate this technical term as 'as respectful as possible'. Best-practice guidelines manage approaching distances to wildlife or how long you're allowed to spend time with it and are based on scientific research. They also restrict you in any behaviour that could be harmful to wildlife such as initiating physical contact, and, as the latest development, how to use camera devices. However, the latter is still not as mature as I'd like it to be. If you check the Shark Tourism Guidelines by WWF, Project AWARE and the Manta Trust, you'll see that, for example, the prohibition of using flash photography is included in human-wildlife interactions with certain species but not in others. This is confusing as it can be argued that switching off your camera flash constitutes a must-do for any (!) wildlife encounter you may have (ever got blinded by a smartphone flash? You get the point ;)). Best-practice also means that we have as less impact as possible. We cannot fully eradicate that we affect wild animals in some ways when we're seeking close contact with them. However, we can manage how many people at once (or over a day) are interacting with individual(s) so that most of the time, wild animals can do what they're supposed to do. In in-water interactions, this means that you have to be a decent swimmer because boats often aren't allowed within 30, 50 or sometimes even 100 meters.
The biggest issue is that guidelines, on a global scale, are still not standardised. So best-practice in one location can be poorer than in another (developed countries are generally more progressive than developing countries, but there are lots of developed countries that really could do better!). So if you choose a particular wildlife encounter which is available in various parts of the world (for example swimming with whale sharks), it may be worthwhile to compare locations to make an ethical choice. Especially when you want animals to be treated respectfully and not pissing them off by your presence.
In any case, choose operators who clearly demonstrate that they are respecting local guidelines and chances are that you'll have a memorable wildlife experience!