Keep your distance

Whale watching is not as benign as watchers and tour operators would hope, finds Deakin expert.

Dr Fredrik Christiansen undertook whale research in Iceland.
Dr Fredrik Christiansen undertook whale research in Iceland.

Whale watching is a popular tourist pastime, with whale lovers understandably awestruck by these fascinating ocean creatures.

However, Deakin whale expert Dr Fredrik Christiansen has found that whale watching is not as harmless as watchers would hope.

His research shows that, while tourists pose no actual threat, thousands of years of evolution mean that whales don’t feel as relaxed as we do.

"Like most animals, marine mammals have evolved anti-predator responses that make no distinction as to whether the stimulus that triggers the behavioural response comes from a natural predator or a non-lethal whale-watching boat," he said.

Dr Christiansen has recently authored a chapter in the book “Whale-watching: Sustainable Tourism and Ecological Management,” published by Cambridge University Press. The book critically explores the complex issues associated with the sustainable management of whale watching, including historical, socio-economic and ecological aspects.

In the chapter "Understanding the ecological effects of whale-watching on cetaceans," Dr Christiansen and his co-author Dr David Lusseau (University of Aberdeen) attempt to explain why non-lethal human interactions with cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) can have such a negative impact.

"The causes are mainly to do with ecological and evolutionary mechanisms,” explained Dr Christiansen. "Natural predation shapes the lives of animals. Not only does it have life-or-death effects on the prey species, but it also has indirect effects related to predation risk.

"Because animals are unaware of the actual predation risk of whale watchers, their behaviour decisions are based on the perceived predation risk, which can be high even in situations where the actual predation risk is low or non-existent.

"This is why animals often respond negatively to interactions with humans, even when these interactions are non-lethal.

"Having to invest too much energy in anti-predator activities can lead to significant changes in the energy balance of an animal, which can result in a reduction in the animal's body condition."

Dr Christiansen explained that the cumulative effects of whale watching could ultimately effect survival and reproduction, as shown in some dolphin populations. For instance, dolphin watching boats in Doubtful Sound, New Zealand, have been linked to a reduction in the population size of the local bottlenose dolphin population, due to a decrease in female reproductive success.

So what does this mean for whale watchers and tourism operators?

Dr Christiansen urges wildlife managers and tour operators to take the issue seriously, but he is not advocating that we all stop watching whales or dolphins.

"Understanding how the short-term behavioural effects of whale-watching translate into long-term effects on individuals, and ultimately population dynamics, is of central importance,” he said.

"Most impact studies on marine mammals are still focusing on short-term effects, which, by themselves, might not have any biologically significant effects on the targeted population and therefore do not justify putting restrictions on the operator. Instead, we need to focus more on the potential long-term effects of repeated exposure to whale watching activities, and regulating these activities, when needed, to prevent situations like Doubtful Sound.”

Finally, he explained, taking the operators’ needs into account is an important means of protecting whales, as well as livelihoods.

"Socio-economic aspects need to be factored into the equation. Whale watching should not only be ecologically sustainable, but also economically sustainable for wildlife operators, or else we risk losing an important incentive for protecting these species.”

Originally from Sweden, Dr Christiansen joined Deakin’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences (Warrnambool campus) in September 2013 as a postdoctoral research fellow, after completing his PhD at the University of Aberdeen, UK.

Since his early years protecting sea turtles on Greek beaches as a volunteer, Fredrik Christiansen has had a boundless fascination for wildlife. He is also currently researching sea turtle movement ecology, snake morphometrics and shark attacks.

He has also undertaken whale research in Iceland, but, fittingly, saw his first whale at Ballina, NSW, Australia!

For more information about Dr Christiansen:

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