Whale and dolphin watching, a multimillion-dollar industry that spans the globe, can have potentially negative impacts on the target animals.

In fact, water activity in general can significantly alter vital cetacean behavior. Some of the ways unsustainable tourism negatively affects marine mammals include the following:

Behavior Disruption

Marine tourism can disrupt the natural habitat and behavior of whales and dolphins within their habitat. Boats can disturb the animals’ feeding, mating, and resting behaviors, which can affect their health and overall well-being.

Physical Injuries

Boats and other watercraft used in marine tourism can endanger marine mammals. Collisions with boats can cause serious injuries or even death. Additionally, boats’ propellers and noise can injure or disorient the animals.


Whale-watching and dolphin-watching tours can sometimes result in harassment of the animals. Boats may pursue the animals too closely or for too long, causing them to become stressed or anxious. Additionally, people may attempt to touch or feed the animals, which can be harmful to both animals and humans.


Marine tourism can result in cetaceans moving away from their preferred habitats, which can lead to changes in their migration patterns, distribution and behavior. This can have negative impacts on these marine mammals’ reproductive success, survival and overall health. It is important to manage marine tourism to minimize negative impacts on whales and dolphins. This can include establishing guidelines for vessel behavior, limiting the number of boats in a particular area, and educating tourists on appropriate behavior around these animals.

Sustainable tourism, such as responsible whale watching, benefits humans as well as vulnerable marine animals through increased public support for conservation of ocean ecosystems, income generation for those living in coastal communities and even help fund ongoing scientific research.

Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) has studied the effects of ocean tourism on marine environments and wildlife throughout the Pacific region in an effort to quantify disturbance from human activity and provide science-based solutions. In Hawai‘i, a trio of published scientific papers by PWF researchers proved instrumental in establishing approach limits and time-area closures for local diurnal populations, such as spinner and bottlenose dolphins, ensuring that vessels don’t disrupt crucial rest periods necessary to effectively feed at night and reproduce.

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.

While PWF has long incorporated strict speed and approach limits for ecotour vessel operators employed through our social enterprise, PacWhale Eco-Adventures (PacWhale), continued education, research, regulation compliance and monitoring are critical in advancing sustainable tourism, or ecotourism, on a global level. To ensure appropriate monitoring of new forms of tourism and their potential impacts, we need additional resources to study tourism activities in new sectors as they are developed and implemented.

The sole owner, shareholder and stakeholder of social enterprise PacWhale Eco-Adventures, which has been providing eco-friendly ocean tours and sustainable whale watches for over 40 years, PWF is well positioned to study the impact of ocean tourism on marine mammals and endangered species such as the Hawaiian insular population of false killer whales. In addition, we remain passionate champions of sustainability, effective conservation management strategies and conservation-led guidelines applicable to the ocean tourism industry as a whole.

Photo Credit: David Fleetham

Research informing legislation

PWF spinner dolphin research essential in establishing a 50-yard approach limit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in October 2021.

Spinner dolphins in Hawai’i exhibit a predictable behavioral pattern; they feed at night in deeper offshore waters and rest during daytime hours in shallow coves and bays. This innate behavior makes spinner dolphins particularly vulnerable to human disturbance from dolphin-watching and swim-with-dolphin tours.

Our research not only provides science-driven population management recommendations but also data evaluating the efficacy of enhanced management measures implemented. We are currently monitoring the effectiveness of the 2021 MMPA regulation using shoreline monitoring and have contributed data in support of time-area closures.

The truth about commercial swim-with-whales tours

PWF researchers study behavioral and population health impacts of commercial swim-with-whales tours in Hervey Bay, Australia, and Okinawa, Japan.

Study objectives include a better understanding of how on-water human interactions impact humpback whales, factors influencing behavior change and mitigation strategies for governing authorities, resource managers and tour operators in research locations.

In Hervey Bay, Australia, research findings showed a significant change in cetacean behavior associated with in-water interactions, most notably a decrease in resting behavior. The study also seeks to examine the motivation of swim-with-whales tour participants to provide a well-rounded assessment of the impacts of such activities on South Pacific humpback whale populations.

Training tour operators in Ecuador

PWF annually trains tour operators in Ecuador’s Machalilla National Park on codes of conduct to minimize the potential impact of whale watching on targeted species.

In coordination with Ecuador’s Ministry of Environment and Machalilla National Park, Pacific Whale Foundation Ecuador provides free training for Puerto López residents who regularly interact with whales.

Targeted participants generally include park rangers, tour guides, vessel operators and members of the fishing community who receive valuable information on best practices when in the presence of whales.

Presented by PWF Ecuador Research Director Cristina Castro, Ph.D., the training sessions provide an opportunity to share whale-watching statistics gleaned from ongoing research, migratory patterns and behaviors, and other relevant factors pertaining to conservation efforts in the region.

We remain fully committed to continued training and education for Ecuadorian residents interested in whale conservation, imparting what we’ve learned during our 40-plus years of working to protect the ocean through science and advocacy.

Projects and Initiatives

Marine Animal Safety

Photo Credit: David Fleetham

Making Waves: Responsible Whale Watching

Photo Credit: David Fleetham


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A PWF board member writes down notes while holding a plastic bag to collect marine debris in.