Dancing With Whales
edited: Saturday, December 24, 2005
By David Stanley
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2003
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We've all heard about whalewatching from boats or shore, and a few companies are now offering the possibility of actually swimming and snorkeling with whales in the wild. Is this a good thing?
Some whalewatching companies in the Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific islands, advertise the possibility of swimming and snorkeling with humpback whales during the cetacean's annual migration from July to October. This activity sounds appealing, yet there are a number of things to consider.
To drop clients off within snorkeling distance of a whale, the swim boats must come closer than the 30 meters laid down in Tongan government guidelines in 1997. Engine noise from a maneuvering boat can startle a whale, and repeated disturbances can lead to the animals changing their behaviour and even abandoning their traditional habitat. The nursing and resting routines of the pods can be disrupted, potentially threatening the health of the whales.
This high-risk activity is not covered by most travel insurance policies. The humpback whales of Tonga are wild animals with powerful fins, and swimming near one always involves some risk. The movements of these huge creatures can be fatal to a human swimmer, either accidentally or if the beast feels threatened, and a nursing mother with calf can be especially unpredictable. Swimming into the path of a whale greatly increases the danger.
In Tonga, sharks are known to frequent areas where there are whales, especially calves, and at least one shark attack on a Tongan guide swimming with whales has been recorded. A tragic accident involving tourists seems to be only a matter of time.
Most whale encounters occur in deep waters where unperceived currents and wave action can soon tire a snorkeler and possibly lead to panic. For these reasons, responsible whalewatching companies do not offer snorkeling with whales.
Of course, the demand is there, and pressure has come to bear on the Tongan Government to revise its guidelines to allow boats to come within 10 meters of a whale. Two new whalewatching licenses were issued in 2003, raising the number of commercial operators in this small area to 11, and vessels often have to queue to drop off swimmers. Cases were observed of boats approaching to within five meters of whale pods, and of mother humpbacks and calves being pursued out to sea. The constant disturbances and harassment may have contributed to the animal's departure from Tonga's Vava'u Group several weeks early this year.
Visitors should be aware that by purchasing such an excursion, they could be adversely affecting the noble creatures they came to see. It's a good idea to discuss these matters with the operator before booking your trip and to avoid those who seem most interested in maximizing their own profits at the expense of the whales.
Even if you decide to book such a tour, be aware that only 10 percent of swim-with attempts are successful and there are no refunds. These concerns only apply to attempts to actually swim with whales, and whalewatching from a boat at a safe distance is no problem.
Web Site: Tongan Holiday
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|Reviewed by Doug & Sharon Spence (Reader)
|Response to Allan Bowe’s Review of Dancing with Whales
Doug & Sharon Spence, Owner-Operators, Whale Discoveries 10/09/04
With reference to Allan Bowe’s review of David Stanley’s article Dancing with Whales, we wish to address Mr Bowe’s erroneous assumptions regarding our company, Whale Discoveries and other misconceptions.
Friendly Islands Kayak Company and her sister company, Whale Discoveries have been operating in the Kingdom of Tonga since 1991 and 2001 respectively. We have established a reputation internationally as a safe, environmental and culturally conscious company. Our safety and environmental ethics and policies accord with international industry standards and with those of non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) worldwide. As well, our team of naturalist guides have reliably attended annual whale watch workshops held in Vava’u. Whereas the other operators have either not shown or attended sporadically.
Our team has decades of experience on the sea observing whales from kayaks and, more recently, from our 8.5 metre motorised vessel Tropic Bird. Doug Spence, Sharon Spence, ‘Epeli Lavaki and Lotu Loketi have all undergone formal training in first aid, boat handling, whale watching and risk management. ‘Epeli has spent his entire life on the sea fishing commercially from powerboats while Lotu has skippered commercial dive boats. Doug and Sharon each have two decades of kayaking experience (white water canoeing and sea kayaking), and Doug raced 10 metre sailboats off the coast of Vancouver Island for eight years in winter series regattas.
Thus, whilst Mr Bowe and his young Tongan employee might have more hours skippering whale watch vessels per se, they most certainly cannot claim to have more experience on the sea or whale watching than Whale Discoveries’ skippers and crew.
Whale Discoveries does not swim with whales for safety and environmental reasons. In the absence of research into the impact of swimming with whales, we have adopted a precautionary stance consistent with that of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Whales Alive, International Fund for Animal Welfare, South Pacific Regional Environment Program, Greenpeace and other NGO’S.
Not long after the shark attack on a Tongan national, who was swimming with whales at the time, Mr Semisi Taumoepeau, the then Director of Tourism wrote the following memo dated October 24, 2002:
Please ensure that all whale watch operators in Tonga must appropriately display and explain to their clients and all whale watch excursionists the risk of swimming with whales. All whale watch brochures, promotional materials and guide books should clearly state that swimming with the whales is risky as sharks may be in the area. These precautionary measures are essential to be in place and conditional before their whale watch licences are renewed. This applies to 3rd party insurance cover (life and injuries) as well.
Thus, our "orchestrated PR campaign" to which Mr Bowe refers is exactly what the Director of Tourism has instructed all responsible whale watch operators to do. We believe that we are the only operator reliably implementing the above directive. Not only do we advertise the risks of swimming with whales in our promotional literature, but also we have been using waivers (assumption of risk, liability release and indemnity agreements) for the past 14 years. In contrast, according to those of our guests who have whale watched with other Vava’u operators, not one was asked to sign a waiver nor advised of the risks inherent in swimming with whales.
In consultation with other tour operators, government ministries and NGO’s, our team participated in the drafting of Tonga’s national guidelines, which the Government officially endorsed in 1997. The 1997 guidelines prescribe a minimum approach distance to the whales of 100 metres for one vessel at a time and 30 metres for swimmers. Whilst we have never condoned the practice of swimming with whales, we acknowledge that the 70-metre distance between vessel and swimmer is a safety issue, and that this aspect of the guidelines therefore needs to be reviewed. However, to allow a vessel to approach whales closer than the international industry standard of 100 metres is not a satisfactory compromise in our opinion.
On the other hand, the Government of Tonga has not endorsed the Tonga Whale Watch Operators Association (TWWOA) guidelines, which all of the licensed whale watch operators except Whale Discoveries practice. We suspect that one reason why the TWWOA guidelines have not been approved is the 10-metre approach distance for a vessel and swimmers, which distance Mr Bowe neglected to mention in his review of David Stanley’s article.
Our major concern with the TWWOA’s 10-metre guideline is the risk of engine noise and human presence disturbing the whales, in particular mother and calf pairs, which are relatively accessible and therefore the primary target for swim-with operators. Time and time again we have witnessed swim-with operators queuing and spending a full day with the same mother and calf pair. On the other hand, other whale watch nations, with the exception of Silver Banks in the Dominican Republic, do not permit swimming with whales and give special consideration to mother and calf pairs (some nations require a distance of 300m).
Thus, the TWWOA’s 10-metre approach distance effectively shifts the focus from the best interest of the whale to that of the swimmer and commercial operator.
We also take issue with Mr Bowe’s simplistic claim that either Tonga tourism promotes swimming with the whales or the Government will allow whaling to resume in Tonga waters. In reality, the Government chooses to maintain its 1978 ban on whaling upon the advice of NGO’s and researchers that such a practice is unsustainable at this time. Whales Alive has opened a Marine Awareness Centre in Neiafu, the capital of Vava’u, for the purpose of educating the general public on the preservation of whales.
We contest too Mr Bowe’s assertion that Tonga’s whale watch industry would collapse if the commercial practice of swimming with whales were banned. For Tonga’s visitors, including those who choose to swim with the whales, come to experience the Kingdom’s relatively pristine natural environment and cultural traditions – not exclusively to swim with whales.
We wonder if Mr Bowe has ever considered how many travellers choose not to visit Tonga because swimming with whales is legal here? Since just two of more than 70 nations legally permit swimming with whales, it is possible that Tonga is missing out on the business of eco-minded travellers (tourism’s fastest growing sector) because the majority of operators in Tonga do swim with whales.
Finally, contrary to Mr Bowe’s erroneous assumption, we have never met David Stanley. We have posted Mr Stanley’s article Dancing with Whales in conspicuous locations around Vava’u with the intention of informing travellers of the risks and environmental concerns of swimming with whales - as we have been directed to do by the Director of Tourism.
We thoroughly agree with Mr Stanley’s summary of the whale watch scene in Tonga, and are grateful to him for drawing to the public’s attention the multiple issues surrounding the practice of swimming with whales so that consumers may thereby make informed decisions. Mr Bowe has unjustly discredited Mr Stanley and our company. Ironically, it is Mr Bowe himself who apparently has not adequately researched the very topic on which he claims to be such an expert.
Mr Stanley, should you ever visit Vava’u you are welcome to join Whale Discoveries aboard Tropic Bird, and encourage you to also go whale watching with one or more of the swim-with operators as a point of comparison. We are confident that you would find the content of your article absolutely correct, and look forward to seeing Dancing with Whales in the 8th edition of Moon Handbooks South Pacific (page 455).
Mr Bowe, you too are invited to come whale watching with Whale Discoveries. Should you take us up on our offer, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that it is possible to enjoy a safe, fun and educational day of whale watching without encroaching on the whales in, what is after all, their wilderness habitat not ours.
|Reviewed by Allan Bowe (Reader)
|As the pioneer of swimming with the whales in the Kingdom as well as being instrumental in writing the Guidelines to which all members of the Tonga Whale Watch Operators Association adhere to I feel compelled to comment on David Stanley's article.
The Guidelines referred to are only that - guidelines. They were developed in 1997 in consultation with the Tongan Government, the NGO Whales Alive and the licenced whale watch operators. In 2001 the licenced operators formed an Association that all operators joined. The guidelines were amended by the Association to ensure the safety of our clients as well as ensuring our encounters had a minimal impact on the whales. Subsequently Doug and Sharon Spence of Whale Discoveries withdrew from the Association as they did not support or endorse swimming with the whales. The Association respects their position. However, we do contest the orchestrated PR campaign they are mounting to discredit our industry.
I was granted the first whale watching licence in 1993 and there are now 9 not 11 licenced operators. From a zero base whale watching has grown in the past decade to be a major tourist attraction in the Kingdom generating in excess of T$1.5 million and providing much needed employment for the locals. We now have two Tongan ladies skippering vessels having passed their Boatmaster Course (funded by NZAid).
Humpback whales can be viewed from boats in many locations internationally. However,only here in Tonga and the Silver Banks off Costa Rica are tourists allowed to swim with the whales. If swimming with the whales was banned in the Kingdom our industry would collapse which would severely effect the local economy. The alternative could well be that the Tongan Government allows the resumption of whaling. The Japanese Government are continously bringing pressure to bear on the Tongan Government to make this happen. Which would you rather?
In 11 years of operation the only accident that has happened was the one shark attack mentioned in your article. In the same year two Tongan fishermen died as a result of shark attacks. I don't hear you pushing for a ban on fishing. Yes there is a risk attached and this is explained to tourists before they enter the water. In fact the Tongan Government requires all licenced operators to carry Third Party Insurance. All our clients are covered.
I can only assume from the tone of your article your whale watch trip was with Whale Discoveries. Surely you should have come out with a licenced operator who does swim with the whales to enable you to gauge the professional standards we operate under and the respect we all have for these magnificent animals. We do not harrass the whales and more often than not the whales approach the vessel. If we believe the whales do not want an encounter we move away and look for other whales. It is not in our interest to harrass the whales.
I can provide you with hours of film showing the whales swimming to us, particularly the babies, and lying there eyeballing us. If they were under threat surely they would move off.
Our Guidelines dictate that no more than four swimmers plus a guide can be in the water with any single whale or group of whales. We also do not allow more than one vessel to approach closer than 300 metres to any whales.
Currents and wave action do play a part in our operations. However, as mentioned earlier, all skippers are qualified and respect the conditions they operate in. I have taken a woman of 82 swimming with the whales and a child of 6 with no problems. The decision to swim rests totally with the skipper of the vessel and his knowledge of local conditions and whale behaviour plays a vital role in his assessment.
Your statement re the early departure of the whales last season is rubbish. I photographed a mother and calf on December 19 last year which is extremely late in the season. I would suggest that as Tropic Bird, Whale Discoveries boat, spends less time on the water than the majority of operators there knowledge of what is actually happening out there is very limited.
All operators keep daily logs of encounters which are kept by the Association and open to anyone to peruse. My company's success rate for swimming last season was in excess of 80% and I know other operators achieved similar results. Where you got your 10% rate from is anyones guess.
As a professional journalist I would have expected your article to have been better researched and more factual. You were obviously brainwashed by an operator with minimal experience and I suspect qualifications.
Finally, if you do ever return to Vava'u please contact the writer to enable us to take you swimming with the whales and share with you an experience that will be implanted in your mind forever. The risk is worth the reward!
Whale Watch Vava'u Ltd
President Tonga Whale Watch Operators Association.