Whale breaching in manuel antonioMost of us share a mutual love for the ocean and all the marine creatures who call it home. This is why we dive into the depths. We take photos of fish, visit destinations in search of specific marine life and even absorb countless documentaries about the underwater world. However, along with this passion comes a desire to get up close and personal with these creatures.

We all long for that once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a marine animal where you get to touch and swim with them. But we also know this is probably one of the worst things we can do.

It’s all about passive interaction

It is standard practice for guides to remind divers not to touch or actively interact with marine life. There’s a good reason for this. Many sea creatures have defense mechanisms that can be fatal if a human comes into contact with it. In addition, if marine animals are alarmed or aggravated, they can also defend themselves and hurt divers. Moreover, marine animals secrete a protective layer of mucus on the surface of their skin that acts as a protective barrier. If a human comes into contact with this, they alter this protective layer and the animal is left more susceptible to infection. Not to mention the damage done by sunscreens and other elements present on human skin.

pectoral fin slapping in manuel antonioWhale watching concerns

It is estimated that at least 13 million people go whale watching annually. What this entails varies between regions. In most places it is illegal to get into the water and swim with them. There are also strict laws about how boats conduct themselves when whale watching. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean people abide by these laws and there is no such thing as a standard whale watching trip.

Because whales are so much bigger in size than boats, one wouldn’t think that they would be bothered by whale watching, but these tours do pose a significant risk to them. Think about how humans react to spiders – even though they’re much smaller than we are, we’re still not exactly comfortable around them. Whale watching, when not done in an environmentally conscious manner, can alter the natural behaviour of whales. This could include their ability to feed, rest and rear their young.

“In the short term, a boat interacting with whales can disrupt their activities.  This could be stopping them foraging for food or resting. In the long term, this can have an impact on the whales’ vital rates. Females can even stop producing enough milk for their calves, which can decrease the survival rate of their young. Ultimately the viability of a pod can be threatened.” This according to Dr David Lusseau of the Institute of Biological and Environmental Science at the University of Aberdeen.

humpback whale breaking the surface manuel antonioWhale watching with a conservation twist

There is a probability that whale watching can distress whales. However, this does not mean we can’t get closer to these gentle giants. But, this should be done in a responsible way. In Costa Rica, we’re very lucky to have whales near our coastline for 8 months a year. Oceans Unlimited has decided to seize this opportunity.  They have created whale conservation tours that allow members of the public to learn about the physiology and biology of whales. These eco-tours will first involve an educational presentation.  Then you will head out to try get up close and personal to these majestic creatures in a non-invasive way.

During these tours, we will also gather data.  This will be used for a project that’s happening in conjunction with the International Maritime University of Panama. This project aims to study whale population patterns and trends and gives regular citizens the opportunity to become citizen scientists. Our whale conservation day tours will run on the weekends of 15 and 16 September as well as on 22 and 23 September, with a tour going out at 7:30 and again at 10:30. Tours will start with the educational presentation after which you can look forward to 2 hours on the boat with refreshments and guides. Contact us to book your spot.

whale watching vs whale conservation toursAll images provided by John Williamson.