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Is Whale Watching Ethical?

A Guide to Responsible Whale Watching

|June 1, 2023
Anhelina is a wanderlust-fueled soul who is also a cat mom, amateur cyclist, and painter in her free time. She believes that every location, no matter how remote or obscure, has a unique charm that deserves to be shared with the world.

Whale watching can be a thrilling experience, allowing us to get up close and personal with some of the largest and most magnificent creatures on earth. However, as with any interaction between humans and wildlife, there is the potential for negative impacts. Whale watching can be detrimental to the health and well-being of whales if not conducted responsibly and ethically.

In this guide, we will explore the potential impacts of whale watching and provide tips on how to enjoy this activity in a way that is both sustainable and respectful of the animals and their environment.

A Guide to Responsible Whale Watching

In this guide, we will explore the potential impacts of whale watching and provide tips on how to enjoy this activity in a way that is both sustainable and respectful of the animals and their environment.

Whale Watching Season in Greenland

Orca Whales in Greenland

Although conservation efforts have achieved some successes, many cetaceans are still being pushed to the brink of extinction by humans, either through hunting or carelessness. Of the 13 great whale species, six are classified as either endangered or vulnerable. Worldwide, whales face numerous threats, including hunting, loss of habitat, getting entangled in fishing equipment, and collisions with ships. Therefore, it's crucial to continue protecting these magnificent creatures and their marine environments.

What Is Ethical Whale Watching?

Responsible whale watching

Special regulations to safeguard the sea creatures

According to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), responsible whale watching adheres to the core principles identified by the IWC's body of experts and manages the potential impacts on the animals. To ensure the whale watching experience is responsible, operators must follow specific regulations to safeguard the sea creatures. And while these rules vary slightly according to which whale species you desire to see, some principles apply to each whale watching expedition. To summarize, ethical whale watching involves minimizing negative impacts on whales and their environment while providing an enjoyable and educational experience.

Whale Watching Excursions in Iceland

Whales in deep blue water

Potential Impacts of Whale Watching

Many travelers worldwide enjoy whale watching as a tourist activity as it provides a unique opportunity to witness the grandeur of these amazing creatures. However, as the popularity of this activity grows, there are increasing concerns about the potential harm it could cause to whale populations and their habitats.

Whale watching from boat in Iceland

Whale watching In Iceland

Negative impacts of whale watching may include:

  • Disturbance to whales: The presence of whale watching boats can generate noise and disturbance, which can interfere with the whales' natural behavior, potentially causing stress and negatively affecting their health.

  • Habitat degradation: Whale watching boats can lead to pollution and harm the whales' habitat, harming the ecosystem.

  • Risk of collision: Boats used for whale watching can be dangerous as they may collide with the whales, resulting in severe injury or death of the animals.

  • Behavior changes: Boat noise and close observation can harm whale and porpoise behavior, causing stress and reduced feeding. Mothers and calves are especially vulnerable.
Iceland Orcas In Ocean

Whale In Alaska Glacier Lagoon

However, whale watching can also have positive impacts, such as:

  • Increased public awareness: Observing whales in their natural habitat can provide valuable education for people, raising awareness about the significance of protecting these animals and their habitat.

  • Economic benefits: Whale watching can also bring economic advantages to the local communities committed to whale conservation. The benefits for local communities come from tourism, generating employment opportunities, and promoting the growth of local businesses.

  • Research opportunities: Whale watching tours can help scientists learn more about whales and protect them. Guides take notes on what they see and can share important information about whale behavior and health with researchers.

To minimize the negative impacts of whale watching, it's crucial for you as a tourist to choose an ethical tour operator that prioritizes sustainability and eco-friendly practices and follows regulations for interacting with whales. By taking a responsible approach to whale watching, we can enjoy this unique experience while supporting conservation efforts to protect these magnificent creatures and their environment.

How to Choose a Responsible Whale Watching Provider

Boat Tour in Iceland

Whale Watching Trip In Greenland

Responsible whale watching companies prioritize sustainability, eco-friendly practices and follow regulations for interacting with whales. Before booking a tour, learn how to choose an ethical whale watching tour to ensure your experience does not harm the whales or their natural habitat. We have prepared some tips to help you choose an ethical whale watching tour:

  • Do your research: Research the company providing the tour you plan to buy. Visit their website and search for information about their commitment to sustainability, responsible tourism, and environmental conservation. Check if they are affiliated with industry organizations that promote responsible whale watching practices. Avoid companies that prioritize profit over the well-being of the whales or use aggressive or invasive tactics to get closer to the animals.

  • Check for permits and licenses: Ensure the company has the necessary permits and licenses to operate their whale watching tours. The government usually issues these permits, ensuring that the company complies with local laws and regulations. You can contact the local tourism board or wildlife conservation agency for more information on permits and licenses.

  • Look for eco-friendly practices: Responsible whale watching trips should prioritize the well-being of the whales and their natural habitat. Look for tours that use eco-friendly boats, such as electric or hybrid vessels, and avoid tours that use large, noisy boats that can disrupt the whales' natural behavior. Also, check if the company has policies in place to minimize waste and pollution, such as using reusable cups and plates or avoiding single-use plastics.
Whale Watching in Canada

Whale in Norway Waters

  • Choose a company that educates about conservation: Responsible whale watching operators should also prioritize education about conservation efforts and the importance of protecting these animals and their habitat. Look for tours that offer educational materials or have knowledgeable guides who can teach you about whales and the threats they face, such as climate change, pollution, and overfishing.

  • Respect the whales: When on a whale watching tour, respect the whales and their natural habitat. This means keeping a safe distance from the whales and avoiding any behavior that could harm or disturb them. Always follow the tour guide's instructions, don’t throw food or rubbish overboard, and don’t make excessive loud noises.

  • Ask the right questions: To ensure a responsible whale-watching experience, avoid asking vague questions such as "Is this an ethical experience?" or "Do you keep the whales safe?" Instead, ask specific questions like "How close will we get to the whales?" or "Can we touch the whales?" and “How do you ensure that your tours are causing minimal disturbance to the whales?” An operator who says they will get very close to the whales or allow touching is irresponsible and should be avoided. 

By supporting responsible whale watching and conservation efforts, we can help protect these marine mammals and their environment for future generations.

About Whale Watching Destinations in the North


Iceland Coastline Whale Watching

Icelandic whales leap from the ocean

The rugged coastline of Iceland has often been named the best place to whale watch in the world. The Land of Ice and Fire is a popular spot for whale watching due to the abundance of whale food brought in by currents. Icelandic waters have around 24 whale species, including humpback whales, blue and minke whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises. The best time for whale watching is during the summer months of June, July, and August, with a success rate of 98%. 

When looking for a sustainable tour, pay attention to the members of IceWhale, the association that provides a sustainable whale-watching Code of Conduct for tour operators in Iceland.


If you want to observe whales, Canada is a fantastic location to consider, with more than 30 whale species. It's not a heavily visited tourist destination, but it boasts a sizable population of marine mammals. Canada is home to a notable population of orcas, belugas, and humpback whales, which are migratory and typically seen in the summer months. The best time for whale watching is between May and October when the salmon spawn draws resident orcas to the area.

Responsible Whale Watching Boat Tour Canada

Majestic giants of the ocean

When choosing a whale watching trip in Canada, search for companies that are active members of the Eco-Whale Alliance and the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), which are communities of ecotourism businesses dedicated to education, conservation, and responsible wildlife viewing.


Whale Watching Boat Tour in Norway

Orcas gracefully glide through the waves

Lastly, Norway is also renowned for being a top whale watching destination worldwide. The Vesteralen archipelago, Tromsø, and other areas like Lofoten and Bodo are the best spots for whale sightings. You can witness various whale species, including sperm, humpback whales, minke, pilot, and killer whales. Besides using the tips in this article, you can search for ethical whale-watching Norwegian operators in the World Cetacean Alliance directory to enjoy whale watching responsibly.

Remember, you are visiting whales in their home, so ensure you do it respectfully. Choosing an ethical whale watching tour ensures the well-being of these ocean giants and their habitat and provides a truly unforgettable and educational experience. Remember the information you learned from this article and embark on an ethical and inspiring journey.


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