How to Select a Whale Watching Boat Tour

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How to Select a Whale Watching Boat Tour

How do you decide? There are dozens of boat companies from which to choose. They all offer “whale watching tours.” Many claim they are the best. Others guarantee you’ll see a whale. It can get a tad overwhelming. How is a person to decide?

Here, we provide a few questions to ask—the boat operator and yourself—in order to make sure you experience a pleasurable whale watching outing.

1. Do you have any environmentally-friendly practices? Here, we’re looking for things like the company uses bio-diesel as their fuel source, they do not use single-use plastic items on board, they do not “dump” waste anywhere near the ocean, they donate a portion of their proceeds to a reputable non-profit.

2. How are your crewmembers trained? Here, we’re looking for whether they provide a naturalist on board who is educated in whale behavior and may even be a marine biologist. We are wondering whether their crew is well staffed to give focused attention to the spotting and narration of all things whale. Sometimes, we find that a crewmember has also spent time as a member of a whale research team—a big lucky-strike extra.

3. What size is your boat, what is the maximum number of passengers you’ll take out? Here, you have to do a little thinking. There are advantages to both bigger and smaller boats. Some people who “respect” the ocean prefer bigger boats. Great. Choose a bigger boat. Other people do not want to be stacked up one behind the other and risk a head popping up in their prize-winning photograph may want to select a smaller boat. The key here is to match your personality with the boat.

4. How close do you get to the whales? How much time do you spend with the whales? There are federal laws in place to protect the whales. One is that a boat operator cannot approach less than 100 yards. At that point, the captain is required to put the boat in neutral. If a whale approaches a boat, that is fine. Also, boat captains are encouraged not to spend more than thirty minutes with a group of whales, not to “leapfrog” whales and not to cut off, approach head on, race, surround or separate a mother and calf. If you witness a violation, speak up. And, when you get back to shore, report it.

As a responsible visitor wishing to spend time on the ocean in the hopes of spotting whales, it is imperative you take seriously your role in choosing a boat operator. Do your research.

That said, last year, the Hawaii Ecotourism Association developed its first ever certification program in order to “support, promote, educate, and strengthen on-the-ground tourism practices with respect to honoring and caring for our natural and cultural resources, resulting in better resource conservation, higher visitor satisfaction, and more community support for the visitor industry,” said HEA president Chris Colvin.

Eco-tour operators who apply may receive a gold, silver or bronze designation based on the following requirements:

• Provide a direct, personal experience of nature for customers;  

• Maintain a written sustainability plan that guides operations and demonstrates commitment to HEA ecotourism principles; 

• Contribute to conservation outcomes annually to statewide and/or local community-based environmental conservation initiatives;  

• Contribute to the local communities in which the applicant operates; 

• Demonstrate effective management of operating principles tied to the environment, interpretation, consumer evaluation, marketing, and staff.

The inaugural group with whale-related activities includes: 

Atlantis Adventures (Oahu, Maui and the Big Island)
Trilogy Excursions (Maui)
Hawaiian Paddle Sports (Maui)
Kayak Kauai (Kauai)
Pacific Whale Foundation (Maui)
Wild Side Specialty Tours (Oahu)

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