Linking Science and Whale-Watching

Planet Whale is a global directory of cetacean conservation organizations aiming at working as a reference point for all those involved in the cetacean world, either as passionate, scientists, students or stakeholders.  In Galway, a small crowd of researchers and whale watching operators sat to discuss the feasibility of “Linking Science and Whale-Watching”, i.e. linking cetacean’s nerds with binoculars, cameras and more or less sophisticated gizmos AND enthusiastic visitors and able businessmen. What do they have in common that make us think they could possibly be linked? The answer is obvious: wherever there are dolphins and whales, they both wish to be on a boat looking for them. Aims, reasons and ways are different, of course..but in most cases not that much and with an enormous potential for mutual enhancement of each other’s activities. How? Well, cooperation between scientists and the whale watching industry have been already endeavored in a variegated range of cases and countries and proven to be successful.

So, let’s quickly analyze the issue from the two perspectives.

The scientist

Hi, I am a biologist and I do study cetaceans. I am doing a PhD on the species X in the region Y and, not surprisingly, I am struggling to find funds to carry on my project. In the simplest scenario, I would need some equipment and software as well as a small motorized boat, fuel, a captain and a few assistants. If I can’t cover these expenses, either I cancel my field work or I change the subject of my study. Moreover, I am a sensitive person: there are already so many boats out there, I don’t want to become the umpteenth disturbance for my animals. Why am I doing my job? I don’t care too much about numbers and figures per se, I want my work to be translated in conservation and knowledge available to the world. I am an idealist still (for how long, this remains to be seen 🙂 ), full of wild oats and the will to meet, share, learn and get in touch with people around me, involve and be involved.

The whale-watching operator

Hi, I run a whale-watching operation. Yes, a few years ago I decided to get involved in this business in steady growth worldwide, can you imagine that in 2008 13 million people participated in whale watching in 119 countries and territories, generating total expenditure of $2.1 billion (IFAW report) ?! I was born in the country Y, I know this place through and through, I have always been fascinated by the ocean and the marine life, I established a small business to let tourists enjoy our magnificent wildlife. I try to transfer my passion and knowledge to my crew and guests as much as I can, but my competences are limited..I am aware of laws and regulations, I handle the interactions in a sustainable way because, if there is something I cannot stand, it is the “abuse” of our natural resources. I want to contribute, I want to help conserve our nature. I also want my business to keep flourishing, with all these competitors I have to come up with something really cool.

Can you see the links emerging more and more clearly?

Basically, the whale-watching industry, in certain circumstances, can provide so called “opportunistic” platforms to scientists that would avoid desperate fund raising to cover research budgets; the scientists, in turn, would give a new flavour to whale-watching trips either involving operators in the research or by simply being the specialist on board willing to brief and answer questions. This would eventually benefit the community at large by backing conservation initiatives with scientific data and by providing education and awareness to visitors and locals. From a cetacean perspective, it is like killing two birds with one stone, i.e. the two activities would successfully happen on one vessel only and this equals less disturbance, less stress, less impact, less pollution.

It looks like a win-win situation, and in most cases it is. However it also require a certain flexibility and adaptability from the scientist, who would find challenging to adapt protocols (most of the time awesomely strict) to less structured contexts, as well a good dose of care for the natural environment and/or business sense from the operator. During the workshop, friends and colleagues Marijke De Boer (Cornwall, UK), Chiara Bertulli (Iceland), Marie Guilpin (Azores) and Annette Bombosch (Antarctic, presented methods and results of their scientific works, mentioning challenges and successes achieved during their surveys.

Rounds tables and team work provided exchange and debate opportunities and were focused on several points Planet Whale introduced as ‘Areas of Improvement’ identified by whale watching operators in occasion of a meeting held in 2011. Among those, the need to improve the quality of data gathered; the need for better communication between data collectors and data users; advice on where research is needed and where it may be unnecessary and the need to ensure that subsequent scientific research is fed back to operators. In a word: the need for proper clear transparent communication processes in all directions, involving all the actors, making use of adequate forms and formats, languages, approaches. Probably one of the hardest thing to do, as scientists are often poor communicators and businessmen tend to “quantify” by translating abstract values into tangible unit of measurement, thus putting the collocutors in levels hardly fitting together. However, with an effort from both sides, communication channels can be found and would eventually make real, actual, comprehensive conservation happen.  The HEPCA MEGAbase programme as well as our blog want to move in this direction..first steps, improvable, yes, but on the right track hopefully.

Madda (HEPCA Team)

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