Ask a Scientist: Row, Row, Row your Boat around Wildlife


When we talk about marine wildlife tourism, such as whale-watching and swimming with marine life, as well as wildlife tourism in general, we look a lot at the impacts we have as humans on the animals we’re interacting with. In fact, tons of scientific publications out there deal with how our presence affects individuals and populations of animals and how we can manage this. Encountering animals in their natural habitat has experienced a sheer boom over the last few decades as more people seek the company of wildlife while being on holiday. It doesn’t take a genius to learn that millions of folks seeking the presence of wildlife will alter animal behaviour big time.

The ways to encounter wildlife are manifold, but primarily, we tend to move the spotlight on to commercial operators who make a living out of bringing people closer to wild animals. To minimise impacts, operators usually must respect local guidelines which include approach distances, interaction times and the right speed. If they fail to do so, and if there’s clear evidence of them disrespecting wildlife, they may lose their license and ultimately, their livelihood. So commercial operators usually have a great interest in following these rules to remain in business. This is also true when it comes to tourist satisfaction as research has shown that people are very much concerned about animal welfare and the ecological footprint they cause when they engage in close interactions. So they’re more intrigued in choosing operators who clearly know their stuff, but, of course, are still able to provide them with a memorable experience.

A source of disturbance to local fauna which is not well-discussed and dealt with is people like you and me, going out on their own. Private boaters seem to cause trouble all over the world when it comes to marine wildlife tourism, and that’s pretty alarming. There’s evidence of people harassing whales, dolphins, seals, sharks and other marine life by chasing them with jet skis or motorboats or encroaching on animals by invading their personal space. It’s a fact that people who use their own boats to engage in wildlife viewing often fail to stick to regulations – out of ignorance or simply because they don’t care. As I’ve mentioned above, many people do care about the wellbeing of animals which is why we can assume that they often don’t know about local guidelines and regulations. In highly managed places such as New Zealand, this can become pretty expensive since managing authorities are prepared to fine those who break the rules. And in this case, ignorance is no excuse!

On the other hand, I feel there’s room for improvement when it comes to educating the general public about such issues. Yes, there are websites people can look at, but people usually don’t like to get active, so the information about how to behave around wildlife has to be pretty much in their face to be effective. So instead of running four fast-food-ads on TV within one break, it would make a difference to show one dedicated commercial on how to be a responsible wildlife watcher.

Sometimes I’m also wondering to what extent topical sighting groups on social media cause trouble because everyone is always aware of the approximate location of individual whales, dolphin pods or resting seals. If I think about it, I feel this is restricting the right of animals’ privacy on a large scale. Don’t get me wrong; I’m amazed about the popularity of marine wildlife and how people get positively affected by it. Because in the end, such opportunistic encounters may contribute to an increased sense of care towards these beings. Unfortunately, people often put their needs over the needs of animals (e.g. for self-promotion) which may cause animals to suffer from injuries or choosing less suitable but people-free areas to go about their business which may affect their population as a whole. So in the end, it’s a lose-lose situation for all of us because animals will have enough of our shit.

What is maybe important to remember is that you cannot force wildlife to interact with you. And isn’t it much cooler when they decide to come to you? I bet!

If you happen to have questions about what to do when you’re encountering wildlife by chance, browse your local conservation department website or ask your nearest scientist![nbsp] ;)