The Doctor's (not) in (yet): Wildlife Tour Providers – The Key to successful Research


What a week that was! I finally got my last puzzle piece in planning my case study research! Why I am so relieved? Well, it has been quite a hassle.

But let me go back to 2016. Then, I drafted my very first outline of how my research should look like. Where to go, what and how to do it. I decided to go for three case studies of in-water interactions with marine wildlife – all being situated in the South Pacific. Why three? Apparently, this is the optimal number of cases when you do case study research (sorry, forgot the source. Too many at this stage). Plus, there are three commercial encounters that are particularly interesting in the context of my research questions.

The truth is: You can plan as much as you like but chances are good you cannot stick with your initial Plan A. When you do research in marine wildlife tourism, on a social or environmental level, there is almost no way to get past the tour operators. They are the backbone of the research. Not your methods or your research aims. It’s them. Because frankly, without their support there isn’t much you can do. Most marine wildlife activities require a boat. To get access to the animals or the people who want to encounter them. If you got enough money to hire a boat plus captain for the entire time of your fieldwork - good on you! But if not, and I think that’s concerning most scientists, you’re depending on the help of tour providers.

Sounds cool? Well, it depends. Getting in touch to ask them whether they would host you for couple of months feels a bit like asking your crush out. There is a 50/50 chance of success – or total misery. As option 1, there can be a ‘we totally love to!’ or an ‘eww, not in one billion years!’ as option 2. However, I should mention the third option: the silence. Which is pretty much like the latter response but a bit more nerve wrecking because you don’t know whether to move on or to be persistent.

For my case studies, I got in touch with the targeted operators early after I have started my programme. I wanted to let them know that there was something planned, and I didn’t want to get under time pressure in case they were not happy with the idea of me getting on board. Luckily, the tour providers for the first two destinations gave me option 1. I’ve celebrated for days and was just overwhelmed that they wanted to support me and my research. I do not take anything like that for granted as they don’t know me or my work ethics, so this requires lots of initial trust which is just a great thing. Besides, I really just had one shot as they were the only ones in the study area who offered these kinds of interactions…So that’s probably one in a million for a researcher.

However, the third was a tough one. Although there were much more operators at this particular site, I got grounded with option 3. By all of them. This was pretty frustrating, and it put my whole research at risk. To change to another species didn’t make much of a sense because this one is irreplaceable for what I want to find out…I started to move to another location, which was my Plan B but actually way too expensive. However, I needed to find out whether I’d be any lucky to find an operator who thinks my project is worthwhile.

I did find an operator who actually had this opinion. Yet my euphoria didn’t last for very long as I learned that my sample size would probably be insufficient because the tours were low scale (which is great!) and only sporadically conducted for this animal group. Bummer! So yeah, there is this thing with the adequate sample size when you want to hand out surveys and do quantitative research. For many species (and even tourists!) you need to consider seasonal occurrences.

So I gave it another try in being persistent on the initial study site because it is about my research and then you have to put all of your eggs in one basket! I even had direct contacts now, so I felt confident. But still: Silence. Not only that I found this incredibly rude (there is always time to drop a short message saying ‘thanks, but no, thanks’) I slightly started to panic. There were no other options in my restricted study area! So I had to adjust. Or in my case, to expand. I moved to another region and looked at interactions that were slightly different to those of my first two case studies. I got in touch with one of the operators and – succeeded! As promptly as with the other two operators who agreed on a collaboration. In fact, I was on my way to one of the outer islands that day when I received the message – there was no better way to start my holidays!

I’m all set now. And incredibly grateful.

Conducting fieldwork in New Zealand is comparably relaxed as many tour providers are happy to help out. They even have a long tradition in hosting scientists on board and are willing to contribute to research. In other parts of the world it’s a bit different. Many operators are not interested in participating in science and/ or do not feel comfortable with an investigative person on board and do not know what to expect. Some fear that it would interfere with the tours’ schedule or they feel to be judged. Which is fair enough as I would claim that the outcomes of doing this is much greater for the researcher than for the operator. There is not that much in for them except for getting access to data in the end. Some would argue they benefit from hosting researchers to add quality to the tours. But not all (external) researchers are respectful and bring the right attitude with them, so it is debatable whether research always adds on the quality…In most cases the operator doesn’t know what he or she gets.

So it’s great that there are those out there who are taking this kind of risk and who see the purpose of the projects they were asked to patron. Without them, we would not be able to do our stuff and there definitely should be a ‘World Tour Operator Day’ to appreciate what they are doing for us and our research projects!

In my case, adjusting the research design is totally normal. In fact, I’ve expected even more blocks on the road…The only thing I wasn’t happy about was the way some operators handled my requests. It’s a bit like applying for a job. When you’re making an effort to introduce yourself to a company, it is a decent thing to get at least a notification when there is no mutual interest. I have this mindset, that anything happens for a reason. Maybe I’d have got lots of trouble by getting a visa or this destination will be haunted by a massive Kraken or Cthulhu himself making data collection impossible. You never know why things don’t work out. But sometimes we’re getting redirected to something even better!