By Simon Woodhouse
In recent years, ecotourism has moved away from being the exclusive haunt of environmentalists, and shifted into the consciousness of your average holidaymaker (example – me). As with most things, there are degrees of ecotourism. Hardcore environmentalists might think nothing of tramping through the Himalayas, or paddling a canoe up the Amazon. I haven’t quite managed that level of commitment just yet, but I do like the idea of interacting with the world at large, seeing it as it really is, and doing so in such a way as to cause minimal damage.
Societies changing attitudes to the natural world can be seen in the decline and fall of one particular industry – commercial whaling. Thanks largely to mass media exposure, as soon as people saw just what a barbaric practice commercial whaling really was, it didn’t take long for organized public pressure to result in it being outlawed. This level of activism is understandable, because whales and dolphins are amongst the most beloved animals on the planet. Besides the decline in commercial whaling, attitudes toward marine parks are also changing. Though there’s nothing quite as spectacular as seeing dolphins and orcas up close and in full flight, is it really fair on an animal whose natural home is the sea, to keep it penned up in a tank? With the best will in the world, a marine park can’t offer the same environment as the open ocean. Though getting on a boat and spending a day at sea might not be as convenient as sitting in a marine park grandstand, it is the only way to see whales and dolphins at their best – in the wild and free to go wherever they please.
Whale watching tours out of Auckland, New Zealand, run nearly every day of the year (weather permitting). I first went on such a trip toward the end of May 2004. As I’d never been on that sort of excursion before I wasn’t sure what to expect. The boat departed from the quayside around mid-morning, and made its way out of the harbor toward the open ocean. As Auckland Harbor is a very sheltered body of water, the conditions there don’t reflect what might be happening out at sea. The harbor can be as flat as a millpond, whilst a little way out from shore there might be a heavy swell. On this particular day the sea conditions weren’t a problem. There was hardly a wave in sight, something which made whale spotting that much easier. We’d hardly been going for more than about twenty minutes, when one of the crew pointed out a pod of dolphins.
New Zealand has quite strict rules governing the whale watching industry, and if the animals are feeding or sleeping, tourist boats aren’t allowed to approach. Bearing this in mind, the boat’s pilot stopped the engine and just let the vessel drift. Almost straight away the dolphins made a sharp u-turn and headed straight for us. For the next fifteen minutes or so they performed beautifully, as if they liked being the center of attention. They jumped out of the water, swam as close as they could to the boat, and even came along side escorting very young calves.
After this first encounter we headed further out to sea and came across a Brutus whale. Compared to the dolphins this creature was massive, easily as long as the boat. Then much to the excitement of the crew, it became apparent this was a mother and baby. As well as taking tourists out to look for whales, the team on the boat make detailed records of all their whale and dolphin encounters. This was the first sighting of young Brutus whale for along time. We followed the mother and calf for quite a while, as they seemed to be going in the same general direction as our planned route. Not long after that the crew spotted a mass of feeding gannets. This is a good sign, because it means there are schools of fish close to the surface, usually forced up by dolphins feeding on them from below. The crew maneuvered the boat right in amongst the birds (of which there were hundreds), switched the engines off and for about half an hour we just sat there. Though we saw no dolphins, this was the best part of the trip for me. The ocean was absolutely calm, there wasn’t a breath of wind and the only sound was the birds diving into the sea.
Not long after this we had to head back to port. On the return trip we came across two more pods of dolphins, both of which stayed with the boat for at least fifteen minutes each. We were also shown just how environmentally concerned the crew were. Someone board dropped a plastic bag over the side, something that can be deadly to a whale if swallowed. Straight away the pilot stopped the boat, turned round and went back to retrieve the bag. We also came across a slick of what looked like oil floating on the surface. Though it’s illegal, many container ships swill out their holds just after leaving port, and dump the residue of whatever they’ve just unloaded straight into the sea. One of the crew took a sample of the slick with the intention of giving it to the harbormaster, who in turn would have it analyzed and checked against the contents of vessels that had recently been in port.
Having left Auckland around mid morning, we didn’t return again until late afternoon. I’m not much of a seafaring person, so I found being out on the boat all day pretty tiring. But the trip was worth it. Since then, I’ve never even been tempted to go to a marine park. Seeing animals in their natural environment, where they’ve got a choice about whether they want to be scrutinized or not, is so much more exciting than going to a zoo. Choosing to do this as part of a well-organized tour also ensures the animals are treated with respect. I can’t recommend this experience highly enough, even to people who may not be particularly interested in dolphins and whales.