10 Do’s and Don’ts of Humpback Whale Watching
Between January and April each year, the Turks and Caicos Islands become host to a spectacular show as Humpback whales make their annual reproductive migration. Mothers and calves are frequently seen in the waters around Grand Turk and Salt Cay, along with males and occasional breeding groups.
As more and more videos and photographs of in-water encounters are shared online, we know you’re keen to get in on the action, but how can you get that dream encounter and amazing footage you’ve been searching for without stressing and impacting the whales?
Here are some do’s and don’ts to get you started!
Do your research!
Make sure that when you’re looking for a whale watching operator to go out with, you choose a company with experience and reputation for running excursions that aim to get you the best encounters but not at the expense of the whales’ health and comfort. Check their reviews online and talk to the company about how they conduct their tours before making your choice.
DON’T chase and harass the whales.
Did you know humpback whales do not feed while here in the TCI? That means a mother migrates south, gives birth, supplies milk for her calf, ensures it is strong enough to migrate, and then migrates north again using only her fat reserves. If boats are chasing and stressing the whales, they burn excess energy that should be reserved for this important life phase, meaning that chasing the whales could impact the calf’s chances of survival. Interactions with whales should be stopped if:
- The animal starts to leave the area. They shouldn’t be pursued or chased.
- They show regular changes in direction and speed of swimming.
- They begin to make hasty dives.
- They begin to show changes in respiration patterns.
- They begin to increase dive times compared to surface times.
- They show changes in acoustic behaviour.
- They begin to show repetitive deep dives.
- They begin to demonstrate behaviours that may show agitation, e.g., slapping pectoral fins.
DO remember that safety (yours and the whales’) is the top priority.
Always listen to the Captain and boat crew as they will tell you what is safe. There are certain situations where it may not be safe to get in the water, e.g., a heat rush where a number of males are swimming together and asserting their dominance, or if the conditions are too rough to safely be in the water.
DON’T forget that encounters should be led by the whales.
If they aren’t happy with the boat’s proximity, you’ll be able to tell – don’t try and force them into interactions. Manipulating encounters to try and get the video footage you’ve been dreaming of can stress the whales unnecessarily and result in the whales responding negatively to the presence of boats in the future.
DO approach slowly and create as little disturbance as possible
if the boat has more than one engine; just use one when you are approaching or watching the whales to keep any noise to a minimum. Put the engines in neutral or turn them off if the whales are resting and not moving.
DON’T jump off the boat and swim as fast as you can toward the whales!
By the time you can get in the water, you’ve probably spent some time allowing the whales to get comfortable with the boat. If you jump in and make a lot of noise, you’ll most probably scare the whales, and they’ll leave quickly. Slide into the water as quietly as possible from the side or back of the boat once the Captain tells you it is safe to do so. Follow your guide in the water and don’t swim past them – they have the experience, and know-how close you should safely get. If you have to swim towards the whales, swim gently on your side, so your fins don’t break the surface of the water, and don’t use your arms. This way, you keep noise and splashing to a minimum, and it doesn’t scare the whales. It’s so easy to get carried away with the excitement of what you’re about to see, but take your time, and the encounter will be much more memorable!
DO take it all in
Be in the moment, and don’t just focus on the GoPro video you’re trying to get, as you might miss the magic completely. If you’ve chosen a reputable company to go out with, they will most like be taking videos that they can share with you after the trip so you can spend your time enjoying the encounter. Check with the company first and see their policy regarding videos and sharing of footage.
DON’T approach other boats that are with whales
without contacting them on the radio first. Boat Captains work very hard to get their guests the best encounters possible and spend time working with the whales to build trust and get them to relax. Other boats approaching without communicating effectively can be very frustrating!
DO share any videos and photos
you may have with the Turks and Caicos Humpback Whale Sightings Facebook page. Throughout the past few humpback whale seasons, whale watching operators have been working through this page to submit images that can be used to gain valuable insight into humpback whales in the TCI. Photos of the underside of the tail, dorsal fin, and pectoral fins can be particularly useful in identifying whales as they have distinctive markings. These are used to match the whales to other locations. Matches have included the Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland, and even as far as Norway!
About our guest author: Katharine Hart is a Marine Biologist and Eco tour Coordinator at Deep Blue Charters on Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos. Cathy Bacon is a marine mammal biologist and manages the Turks and Caicos Humpback Whale catalogue curated by The Marine and Coastal Ecology Research Centre.
For more information about humpback whales and whale watching in the Turks and Caicos Islands, contact KatharineAHart@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.