Whale & Dolphin Watching:

THE BEST way to look at CETACEANS


Rating Whale & Dolphin Watch Operators Around the World




by Erich Hoyt

Prepared for Vier Pfoten e.V.

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Price: DM 30,- plus postage


Whale & Dolphin Watching:

The Best Way to Look at Cetaceans


Over the past decade, whale and dolphin watching has come of age as an exciting, inspiring activity of growing popularity around the world. More and more people are making whale watching a part of their holidays. As of 1995, more than 5 million people in 65 countries and overseas territories went whale watching.


At its best, whale watching teaches people to appreciate whales and dolphins, helps researchers study them, contributes to the conservation of the animals, and helps ensure the economic security of local communities which serve as protectors of marine habitat.


Some whale-watch operators, however, have haphazard or unsafe practices. They may make money from the whales without putting anything back to research, education, or conservation. As well, careless whale-watch practices can bother the animals, perhaps causing them to steer clear of boats or even to abandon an area. Whale watching that is only commercial is a wasted opportunity.


In an effort to encourage quality whale watching, we have contacted hundreds of operators around the world involved in whale and dolphin watching, dolphin swimming, and marine ecotourism which features cetaceans (a cetacean is any whale, dolphin, or porpoise). We have included operators using every type of boat, from kayaks to cruise ships, as well as operators offering land-based tours. We have asked each to complete a survey form, and this information has been supplemented in many cases by reports from independent sources.


What is quality whale watching?


Probably the most important key indicator of quality whale-watching is the presence of a good naturalist, or nature guide. Ideally, this guide should be enthusiastic and personable, combining experience of cetaceans at sea with good background knowledge about marine species and ecology. A good naturalist can make or break a trip, turning even a day with no, few, or distant whale sightings into an exciting, memorable adventure.


Quality whale watching offers both an educational and scientific component. The operator should be keen to teach people about whales. Many invite students and other interested people from their local communities to see the whales, free or at a reduced rate, as a good will gesture. At minimum, operators should keep a logbook with accurate information on sightings and take photographs useful for identification of individual animals, which can be contributed to photo-ID programs now or in the future. The better operators also get involved with researchers, allowing them to do research on the boat, sometimes in exchange for acting as a naturalist. Everyone benefits from this arrangement. The researcher gets free boat time to do his work; the operator gets an additional, experienced pair of eyes for finding, identifying and watching the whales; the whale-watching visitor gets a good insight into how science is done and learns much more about the whales.


Whale watching is also enhanced by the presence of certain equipment and other items, which can be used on the ship, such as hydrophones for listening to the whales, binoculars, whale and bird guide books. Providing these and other extra features is simply good customer care, but some features also add to the educational experience.


Two final key items essential for every trip are, first, good safety practices. For the most part, safety for tour boat passengers is legislated by government regulations, so this will not be a concern for people travelling with established operators. But with smaller operators, if in doubt, ask about safety features — such as life jackets, life boat, radio, survival suits (for cold temperate and polar waters). The last item is the importance of following whale-watch guidelines or regulations to ensure the whales are not bothered by whale watching. Most tour operators are careful around the whales, and the individual whale watcher can be sure that all care is taken. In some areas, however, whale watching is new or it has become overly competitive and, in both cases, may not be properly regulated. Here, whale watchers with some experience of quality whale watching can be outspoken about how to approach and observe whales and dolphins. Comments can be made in person or in writing to tour operators, local conservation groups, or even, for flagrant violations, to local or marine police.

It is impossible to make blanket regulations for all cases. Below is a brief summary of the minimum key points boat operators should follow in most parts of the world for most species of whales and dolphins.


• Do not charge toward or chase the whales or dolphins with a boat, or drive through a group, separating them. (For example, do not try to get dolphins to bowride by driving fast through the pod.)

• Approach whales and dolphins slowly from behind and to the side, not head on or directly behind.

• Do not approach closer than 300 feet (100 meters) (a few places have even stricter minimum distances). Of course, sometimes the whales will close the gap to "inspect" a boat or person in the water or, in the case of dolphins, to ride on the bow. In this case, allow the animals to control the nature and duration of the interaction.

• Do not make sudden changes of speed, direction, or noise when close to the whales.

• If other boats want to watch the whales, it is important to take turns, with no more than 2 or 3 boats whale watching at one time, and to limit the time that each boat stays with the whales.

• Do not reach out to try to touch whales or dolphins.

• Do not feed whales or dolphins.

• Do not throw litter into the water.


How to choose a good whale-watch operator


Look over the attached list, noting locations where you plan to travel. Examine the ratings for each operator (see Key below). Most operators offer day (or shorter) tours; a few offer multi-day packages or extended field studies on which whale watchers pay to help with or observe the research. In the list below, the multi-day and field study trips are marked. Please do not contact these companies and organizations if you only want a day tour.


After you have made your decision about possible companies or organizations, the best thing is to write for more information some months before you plan to travel. Or, particularly if you are already in the area, ring the company and ask for departure times and costs. Many companies require reservations, though most can accommodate visitors who ring a day or two before. Of course, some operators can even take those who simply show up at the dock or booking office. Weekends, holidays and peak tourist seasons tend to be the busiest. Remember that tours can be cancelled on short notice due to weather or sea conditions.


No tour can promise 100 percent satisfaction in terms of finding whales. Some tours offer free rain checks if no whales are seen. When bad weather cancels a trip, free trips are normally offered or a full refund.


The best chance of enjoying a successful whale-watch trip is offered by operators with high educational, scientific, safety, and conservation values. As well, this kind of trip ensures that the whales will also benefit from your whale-watch trip.




Four categories are used in rating each whale-watch operation:


Nat = Naturalist — whether a naturalist or nature guide is available on the tours to explain about the animals and answer questions.

Ed = Education — whether an operator supports educational programs in schools and in the local community, and offers educational materials and displays for customers.

Sci = Scientific research — whether an operator conducts scientific research or helps scientists by contributing data or space on the boat to researchers.

Eq = Equipment — whether an operator is well equipped for whale watching. Key equipment includes: whale/dolphin identification guide books; binoculars; fish guide books; bird guide books; local guide books; seasickness medication; hydrophones (for listening to the whales); educational brochures; exhibits on cetacean & marine ecology; survival suits; and cetacean/ nature books or other educational materials for sale.

The listing of one or more categories below an operator's name and address indicates distinction in that category. If a category is not listed, that means the operator is lacking in this area, or we do not have sufficient information. If a category is listed with an asterisk or star*, that signifies excellence. The best operators, therefore, have all four categories listed with a star for each.




Wild vs. Captive Cetaceans: You make the choice


There is nothing like seeing a wild animal in its own habitat. If you have only seen dolphins in an aquarium or marine zoo park, you cannot imagine the feeling of experiencing them in the wild. And once you see a family of dolphins or small whales in the wild — at least for most people — it is difficult to imagine dolphins kept separate from their families, living in an enclosure not much larger than a swimming pool, and performing human-devised tricks for dead food.


It has never been easier to visit and see whales and dolphins in the wild. There are a wide variety of tours available on every type of boat. There are land-based tours for those who would prefer to watch from a cliff or lookout, where whales often come very close. It is our hope that this brochure and rated list of operators will lead to more whale watching of a high quality that will make it unnecessary to keep dolphins or whales in captivity.



Note to whale watchers:


This brochure attempts to list only competent whale- and dolphin-watch operators. While we have taken great pains to ensure accuracy, we cannot be responsible for errors. Still, we would be grateful for reports of operators whose rating should be reconsidered.


The operators have been rated and evaluated independently, and no economic benefit was obtained by Vier Pfoten or other conservation organizations for these listings. We are not interested in endorsing particular operators but in improving the overall quality of whale and dolphin watching so that it has the maximum benefit to the animals themselves.


We want your feedback. Tell us about your whale-watch experiences good and bad. We need up-to-date reports on the listings of operators for future editions of this brochure.


Note to whale-watch operators:


The ratings for each listing are based on a combination of surveys and independent assessments by researchers and whale-watching customers familiar with your trips. No rating means either that no survey was returned or that there was insufficient information to give a positive rating.


If you are an operator and are not listed, it could be due to one of three things:

1. You didn't send in a survey form. Please write for one, for the next edition.

2. You are new or we simply don't know about your operation. Please tell us.

3. We have had negative reports about your operation, or there were discrepancies between your survey return and reports from customers. If you suspect that this may be true, we would be happy to clarify.


Contact: Whale Watch Survey, c/o E. Hoyt, 29 Dirleton Ave., No. 11, North Berwick, Scotland EH39 4BE, UK, Fax 44 1620 895 257


VIER PFOTEN e.V. Gr.Brunnenstr. 63, 22763 Hamburg, Germany,

Book ordering:
Price: DM 30,- plus postage

Fax 49 40 399249 99 or local NGO




USA - Maine

USA - New Hampshire

USA - Massachusetts

USA - New York

USA - New Jersey

USA - Virginia

USA - South Carolina

USA - Florida [see The Bahamas]

USA - Texas

USA - California

USA - Oregon

USA - Washington

USA - Alaska

USA - Hawaii














Dominican Republic


British Virgin Islands




St. Vincent & the Grenadines












The Faroes (Føroyar)


Russia: Arctic









ITALY (and nearby Mediterranean)



AZORES (Portuguese territory)



Contents (continued)


CANARY ISLANDS (Spanish territory)

























On the Mediterranean coast, bottlenose, striped, and Risso's dolphins are seen, as well as sometimes long-finned pilot whales and sperm whales. Long-range tours out of Barcelona can also see fin whales. In the Bay of Biscay and the nearshore waters of northwestern Spain, minke whales can be seen, as well as striped, common, bottlenose, and Risso's dolphins, and sometimes orcas.


CEMMA, Coordinadora para o Estudio dos Mamíferos MAriños

Rua Anxeriz 19. 5º D


15895 AMES (A Coruña), Galicia

Spain (España)

Ph. +34 (9)8 152 0769


Arión - Whale Watching Tours


Ph:(+34) 630 68 20 20

Fax:(+34) 956 86 02 56



Asociación Proyecto Alnitak

C/. Jazmin, 12

E-28033 Madrid

Spain (España)


Steenbakkersweg 25

PO Box 800

7550 Av. Hengelo

The Netherlands

Multi-day science/conservation excursions.

Ph. +31 (0)742 478 985

Fax +31 (0)742 478 361

Nat* Ed* Sci* Eq*


WildOceans/ WildWings

International House

Bank Road, Kingswood

Bristol BS15 2LX

England, UK

Mainly multi-day excursions.

Ph. +44 (0)117 984 8040

Fax +44 (0)117 967 4444

Nat* Ed* Sci* Eq*