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Colin Williams is a writer, naturalist, conservationist and whale watching guide. His work explores the human relationship with nature and he has collaborated with writers, artists and scientists from across the world and his work has appeared in many publications. He is currently working as writer-in-residence for WhaleFest 2012.

Going whale watching can be the ultimate wildlife experience. Sharing a space with the biggest creatures that have ever lived is a breathtaking feeling and they say that you never forget your first whale. It’s now easier than ever to get that experience firsthand as the global whale watching industry is estimated to be worth billions and is growing all the time.

image by eGuide Travel on flickr

But the sad fact is that whales and dolphins are sensitive animals under threat through habitat degradation, over-fishing, by-catch, ship strike, pollution, whaling, noise pollution and increasingly busy seas. And irresponsible whale watch operators can contribute to these problems. So when you’re choosing your whale watching trip, how do you get the most out of your experience and how do you know that you’ve made a wise choice for you and for the whales?

1. First, do some research on the animals

Find out what species of whale and dolphin you’re likely to see in the waters around your destination and what time of year they’re likely to be there. Whales migrate and you don’t want to go all the way to Baja California in August to see the famous Gray Whale lagoons only to find that by that time they’re well on their way to the Arctic Ocean. Even though the whale watch operator will provide a knowledgeable guide, just knowing what it is you might see, what they look like and a little about the species will enhance your experience.

2. Do some research on the available whale watch boat operators

The old phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ is, sadly, true of whale watching too. Check out the websites of the operators and search for independent reviews. How professional do they look? How long have they been established? Have they got a good reputation? Responsible operators will ensure that their trips are educational as well as inspirational and many will have endorsements and partnerships with respectable conservation organisations and will use their trips for scientific research as well as tourism.

image by eGuide Travel on flickr

3. Choose a responsible whale watch operator

Different countries have different laws when it comes to wildlife but any responsible whale watching operator will be voluntarily signed up to a Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics for their whale watching trips. This protects you and the animals by stating, for instance, how close you should sail to the whales and when to cut their engines. Irresponsible operators harassing animals and sometimes injuring them is a genuine problem. So don’t be afraid to ask questions, any boat operator worth the money will be happy to answer them.

4. Enjoy it!

I’ve been on countless whale watching trips and have seen people reduced to tears of happiness by the sight of their first whale in the wild. It truly is an incredible experience and one that you’ll never forget and for most people they want to go back again and again. Take pictures, show your friends and share the experience.

Applying this advice is hard for the tourist – especially in developing countries where whale watching is sometimes unregulated – and although none of these things on their own guarantee you a perfect experience, they can help you sift through all the choices and protect the whales. So get out there and make a bigger splash by being inspired and by choosing a sustainable and responsible whale watch operator. There are plenty of online resources to help you.

image by eGuide Travel on flickr

More resources:

www.planetwhale.com – The global online resource run by experts where responsible operators are reviewed and rated
www.wdcs.org/wdc.php – WDC are a global conservation organisation dedicated to whales and dolphins. You can find great advice about whale watching on their website

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