Sperm whale and calf

VERSION FRANCAISE

It is whale watching season in Mauritius. You can see all over the social media the cool pics of people swimming with the gentle giants, or at least some cool shots of bikini girls swirling around with dolphins on a white sandy background.

What you don’t necessarily see is that the selfie is only a tiny fragment of the whole picture. The people doing so are often promoting eco-awareness and helping defend what they love by sharing their passion. As such, most of the posts with people freediving, swimming or snorkeling with sea mammals are done in a very controlled and regulated environment in order to protect them.

So before you jump on the next whale watching boat for that one selfie that will make you super famous, let’s make sure that you have all the information and knowledge required to go on this adventure the proper way.

Effect of tourism on sea mammals

Ecotourism represents a booming industry, with whale watching worth US$2.1 billion on its own (Hoyt, 2009a; O’Connor et al., 2009), and plays a major role in increasing level of environmental awareness. It also creates a potential protective layer against commercial whaling as they don’t mix together [57].

But as with everything we do, there is the reverse side of the coin and the lack of monitoring and law enforcement around those activities are having an impact on the behavior of those sea mammals.

As such, published studies have shown that the impact of ecotourism around sea mammals includes reduced reproductive rates, along with feeding and resting behavioral changes [1].

A study in New Zealand depicting the impact of tourism on dolphin also shows how the unethical behavior of operators can affect the dolphin population, reducing it by 50% for a whole year in that particular case. [2]

The reality at sea

Despite the many laws surrounding the protection of sea mammals in Mauritius, like whale watching, (below) and around the world, a lot of operators are doing wrong and acting unethically [3] as enforcement is nowhere to be seen.

But let’s look at things as it is; competition is fierce and we all need to make a living. As with every booming industry, there will always be the cowboys that are in with only the short-term objective of making as much as possible.

Operators are not selling a tour around the stamp museum but hopefully the experience of a lifetime. As such, they may feel under the pressure of providing such an experience and feel obliged to disregard the regulations that were put in place to protect the sea mammals.

That said, the simple fact is that the operator is only trying to impress his client, YOU, and give him the best show, which consequently means that YOU have the power to dictate how you would like the show to go on.

What can I do?

It important to understand that you are here to admire the animals and not to impose yourself on them. It is important not to go in as a mere passenger but as an active team member. We will provide you with all the Dos and DONTs (below).

Talk to your group and tour operator before getting on the boat. Specifically request that all the rules and regulations surrounding the activity you will engage in will be respected.

Don’t feel shy; you are not a hostage on this boat but a paying customer. Tell your operator if he is acting in a way that doesn’t respect the existing rules and regulations (below). Reiterate that you want to respect the animals above all.

Feel free to say when you have had a good time and wish to end the excursion or move on. Operators often feel like they should keep continuing the excursion because you paid and want to provide value for money. If you had a great experience, let them know that you are done and happy to move on. There are no given time restrictions in the law regarding time spent with a pod of dolphins in Mauritius. You can use the general rule of thumb of 20 to 30 minutes.

The main rules that you should request

Below are the most important rules (section 129 of the Tourism Authority Act) for operators and clients to follow. Those are set to minimize the negative impact on dolphin and whale behavior:

  • Zone of approach starts at 150 meters from which boat speed should not exceed 5 knots;
  • The observation zone for dolphins is limited to 50 meters’ safety distance
    • no motorized vehicle can make its approach past the 50 meters’ zone,
    • at the 50 meters’ zone, engines need to be in neutral during the whole time of the observation;
  • in the case where the dolphins enter the 50-meter zone, the engine should be switched off and remain as such until the dolphins have moved to a safe 50 meters’ zone;
  • Boats have to stand off 50 meters either side of a traveling group:
    • It is prohibited to arc in front of dolphin school,
    • Making noise with the purpose of attracting dolphins is prohibited,
    • It is not allowed to feed dolphins;
  • Swimming with dolphins:
    • Entering the water should be done in a calm and quiet manner,
    • Only 2 persons and a crew member are allowed in the water at a time.

The same rules apply to sperm whales and humpback whales with the following additions:

  • The approach starts at 300 meters when whales have a calf,
  • Entering the water with whales is strictly prohibited.

Should I go or not?

There is an ongoing debate between conservationist and activists around the world regarding whether commercial whale watching (or for any cetaceans) should be done or not as it presents numerous negative sides.

In my opinion, it is a definitive ‘YES it should be done’ and the main reason being that observation induces conservation and increases environmental awareness when done properly.

The simple truth is that you can’t protect what you don’t know, let alone love. By having well lead activities, we potentially encourage more and more people to protect our oceans, including locals as it provides a sustainable mean of income.