Major Threat: UNSUSTAINABLE Tourism

Whale and dolphin watching is a multi-million-dollar industry that spans the globe and can have potentially negative impacts on the targeted species. Sustainable eco-tourism can both garner increased public support for conservation and generate a stable income for people living in coastal communities. Conservation education, regulation compliance, and continued monitoring and research contribute to the positive impacts of marine tourism. Any activity on the water has the potential to cause disturbance to the animals and, as such, we are studying the impacts of whale and dolphin watching and how to quantify this type of disturbance.

The findings from our research are incorporated into best practice guidelines to minimize the impact of whale and dolphin watching. PWF has developed Be Whale Aware and Be Dolphin Wise as general guidelines that have global relevance where geography-specific guidelines are not available. We aim to use our findings to develop geography-specific regulations, such as the Go Slow, Whales Below inter-agency guidelines implemented in the state of Hawai’i.

Spinner dolphins in Hawai’i exhibit a predictable diurnal behavioral pattern; feeding at night in deeper offshore waters and resting during daytime in shallow coves and bays. This predictable pattern makes them particularly vulnerable to human disturbance from dolphin watching tours and swim-with-dolphin tours. Our research focuses on providing science-based recommendations for management as well as evaluating the efficacy of the enhanced management measures after their implementation. Our research on spinner dolphin movement and behavior contributed to the creation of a 50-yard approach limit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in October 2021. We are currently monitoring the effectiveness of this regulation using shoreline monitoring and have provided data in support of a proposed time-area closure.

We investigated the behavioral impact of commercial swim-with-whales tours in Hervey Bay from 2018-2020. Our objectives were to better understand if humpback whales changed their behavior due to in-water interactions with humans. We also aimed to identify factors which may influence behavior change, and provide recommendations to governing authorities, resource managers, and tour operators to ensure that Hervey Bay’s humpback whales are not negatively impacted by swim-with-whales tourism. The results demonstrated a significant change in behavior associated with in-water interactions, most notably, a decrease in resting behavior. Our next step is to assess the motivation of participants in these tours. This information will be added to our previous results to give an overall assessment of the impacts of swim-with tours on the whales in Hervey Bay.

In response to the swim-with-whales study from Australia, we were approached by whale researchers in Okinawa, Japan, that were concerned about the sustainability of the commercial swim-with-whales industry in their country. In 2022, we began a pilot project to study the potential impacts of these unregulated tours, with the aim of contributing scientific information that could be used to develop regulations for this existing industry.

In Ecuador, we provide annual training sessions to tour operators in Machalilla National Park and emphasize our Be Whale Aware and Be Dolphin Wise codes of conduct to minimize the potential impact caused by whale watching.

Project Partners
Nozomi Kobayashi, Okinawa Churashima Foundation 

Recent Publications
2021: Currie, J.J., McCordic, J.A., Olson, G.L., Machernis, A.F., Stack, S.H. The impact of vessels on humpback whale behavior: the benefit of added whale watching guidelines. Frontiers in Marine Science 8:601433. Download PDF
2021: Stack, S.H., Sprogis, K.R., Olson, G.L., Sullivan, F.A., Machernis, A.F., Currie, J.J. The behavioural impacts of commercial swimming with whale tours on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Hervey Bay, Australia. Frontiers in Marine Science. Download PDF
2021: Stack, S.H. Serra, S. Summary of swim-with-whales tourism around the globe. Document SC/68C/WW/03 presented to the IWC Scientific Committee (virtual): 27 April – 23 May. 8 pp.
2020: Stack, S.H., Olson, G.L., Neamtu, V., Machernis, A.F., Baird, R.W., Currie, J.J. Identifying spinner dolphin movement and behavioral patterns to inform conservation strategies in Maui Nui, Hawai’i. Marine Ecology Progress Series 644: 187-197. Download PDF


Please consider donating to our foundation so we can continue to employ Maui residents and conduct vital Research, Education and Conservation programs to protect the ocean and its inhabitants.

Disaster Response Funds

Hawaii Visitor Update

Aloha, We Are Open!  Our PacWhale Eco-Adventures are open for booking as we welcome visitors back to Maui.  Quarantine restrictions were lifted on Oct. 15th for those following the state’s pre-arrival COVID-19 testing requirements.