Impacts of whale watching on humpback whales' behavior

Humpback whale tale above water and sea bird flying overFaculty and students from the ASU Center for Biodiversity Outcomes and the Conservation Innovation Lab co-authorized a paper published yesterday in Frontiers in Marine Science, presenting their pilot study conducted last summer in Las Perlas Archipelago, Panama. The publication, titled “Impacts of Whale Watching on the Behavior of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Coast of Panama,” is a product of the ASU-Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute partnership and our collaboration with the University of San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. Learn more about how the project assessed how local whale watching activities were affecting the behavior of the humpback whale population.
Lab students Arielle Amrein and Katie Surrey on a boat in Panama
Lab students Arielle Amrein and Katie Surrey on a boat in Panama. Photo credit: Leah Gerber
Ecotourism focused on whales and dolphins has become a popular activity and an important source of revenue for many countries. Whale watching is vital to supporting conservation efforts and provides numerous benefits to local communities including educational opportunities and job creation. However, the sustainability of whale-based ecotourism depends on the behavior and health of whale populations and it is crucial that ecotourism industries consider the impact of their activities on whale behavior. To address this statement, we collected behavioral data (e.g., change in swimming direction, frequency of breaching, slap behaviors, diving, and spy hops) from humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the marine protected area of Las Perlas Archipelago off the Pacific coast of Panama. The goal was to determine if tourist vessel presence had an influence on whale behaviors. We conducted this study during the humpback whale breeding season from August through September 2019. Based on 47 behavioral observations, we found that higher boat density corresponded with humpback whales’ frequency of direction changes, which based on previous literature is believed to be a sign of disturbance. Alternatively, no changes in behavior were observed with varying boat density. This result is important given Panamanian regulations first implemented in 2007 by Resolution AMD/ARAP No. 01, 2007 prohibit whale-based tourism from disturbing whales, which is explicitly measured by changes in whale behavior. Because there is no systematic monitoring of whale watching activity to enforce the regulations, there is currently little compliance from tour operators and tourists. The integration of animal behavior research into management planning should result in more effective regulation and compliance of such conservation policies.