Ask a Scientist: How sustainable are in-water interactions?


Wanting to spend time in nature and to get close to its creatures is widespread in today’s society. This reconnection is important to many, to give meaning to one’s life and to stimulate positive emotions associated with being outdoors and encountering wild animals. Particularly after many of us had to stay put in urban settings during lockdown.

Swimming with whales is trending. If celebrities are quizzed by magazines about what’s on their bucket list, or when a contestant on a game show is asked what they will do with the money they’ve just won, ‘I want to swim with whales’ is now a frequent response. The days of dolphin swims seem to be over – too 2006! Anyone has done it now and many probably don’t even remember what species they had in front of them when they got their ‘dream’ fulfilled. What’s left is the emotion felt when the space was shared, maybe a photo somewhere on the refrigerator to keep the memory alive. Now the ‘swimming partners’ have to be bigger for more impressive tales to tell over dinner parties, and virtually, via social media.

The latter deserves a closer look when we ask for the ‘why’ behind the boom of swimming with large baleen whales such as humpback whales. Content on Facebook and Instagram showing #gentlegiants emerging from the Big Blue – with or without swimmers present – paint a romantic image of an ‘invisible bond’ between humans and whales. However, what many whale lovers don’t know is, that their decision to enter the water may have a bigger impact on humpback whales than previously thought.

With the popularity of whale swims now emerges more scientific evidence provided by researchers that close encounters alter the behaviour of whales. In 2019, Fiori et al. concluded this in the context of commercial whale swims in Tonga; Barra et al. and Hoarau et al., 2020, made similar observations in Réunion. The latest study puts the spotlight on the operations in Queensland, Australia. Stack et al. found that humpback whales changed their swim directions more often when swimmers were in the water. And even more concerning: the whales did not resume the behaviour they had displayed before the start of the in-water interaction.

Another important finding also suggests that swim-with-whale interactions are more invasive than their conventional boat-based observational counterparts where people stay on the vessel to see the whales. So, the closer we get to wildlife, the more disturbance we cause. While such interactions may be good for our wellbeing, the same may be in question for the animals we seek contact with… Guidelines and regulations are already managing how close we are allowed to get and how much time we can spend around lingering whales. Resting, just for any moving and living being, is critical for survival and results from the Australian study show that this state gets highly compromised when we enter the water.

We also need to take a closer look at the biology of humpback whales that use popular holiday destinations for humans as their mating and nursing grounds. In essence, these animals are pressured through tourism during a critical time in their lives – to raise their young. If we discuss the future of commercial swim-with programmes and the suitability of certain species to be part of the portfolio, the life cycles of animals should play a major role in the decision of whether an industry should be established. Especially, when the target population is endangered and currently recovering, such as in the case of the Oceania humpback whales.

Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Unfortunately, sound research and studying impacts on populations takes time. So usually, commercial operations are already in place and long-running before we get an insight into whether what we do is sustainable.

Many people now become aware and demand more responsible interactions with wildlife. The social facet of the industry, however, requires more attention to learn about the potential drivers which will paint a more holistic picture. For this, I made my own contribution and will soon introduce a study on tourist motivations to swim with humpback whales which is currently in press with the Journal of Qualitative Research in Tourism – so watch this space.


Remember: In the end, it is up to you how close you need to get to have a #onceinalifetime experience.


Further reading:

Stack et al. (2021). The Behavioural Impacts of Commercial Swimming With Whale Tours on Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hervey Bay, Australia. Frontiers in Marine Science. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.696136