Quiet please

Loud noise from whale-watching boats disturbs resting humpback whale mothers.
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A mother humpback whale and calf photographed from a drone. Image credit: Kate Sprogis (CC BY 4.0)

Whale-watching is a multi-billion-dollar industry that is growing around the world. Typically, tour operators use boats to transport tourists into coastal waters to see groups of whales, dolphins or porpoises. There is, however, accumulating evidence that boat-based whale-watching negatively affects the way these animals behave and so many countries have put guidelines in place to mitigate activities that may disturb the animals. These guidelines generally stipulate the boat’s angle of approach, how close the boat can get and the speed at which it can pass by the animals.

In general, these guidelines are based on the assumption that the animals are disturbed by the closeness of the whale-watching boats. However, whales, dolphins and porpoises have very sensitive hearing, and only have a short range of vision underwater. Therefore, it seems plausible that the animals hear whale-watching boats long before they see them and so the loudness of underwater noise from the boats may be enough to disturb these animals' behaviour.

To test this hypothesis, Sprogis et al. performed experiments where they simulated a whale-watching vessel approaching humpback whale mothers and calves who were resting off the northwest coast of Australia. A small motorised research boat travelling at a low speed passed different mother-calf pairs at a target distance of 100 meters, which is a common whale-watching distance guideline in many countries. The boat had an underwater speaker that played recordings of the boat noise at different volumes, while a drone with a video camera flew overhead to record the whales’ behaviours in detail and to identify individual animals.

These “controlled exposure experiments” showed that the quiet boat noise did not appear to disturb the mothers and calves. However, compared to when the quiet boat passed the animals the louder boat noise decreased how long the mother whale rested on the surface by 30%, made her swim 37% faster, and doubled the number of breaths she took per minute. If there are many disturbances from humans, then it can negatively impact the energy the mother and calf have available for nursing, fending off males and predators, and migrating back to their feeding ground nearer the Earth’s poles.

Based on these findings, it is shown that the loudness of the underwater noise from boats can explain why whales may be disturbed during whale-watching activities. To help reduce this disturbance, Sprogis et al. recommend that noise emission standards should be added to the current whale-watching regulations such that boats should be as quiet as possible and ideally around the volume of the ambient background noise. This would allow operators to approach the animals in a responsible, sustainable manner and offer tourists a view of undisturbed wildlife.