My heart is pounding, and my stomach is doing somersaults as I look around the room of friendly faces. Why am I so nervous? To be fair, we all are. I think it’s because it means so much to us. We’ve spent a week with the World Cetacean Alliance, training to become responsible whale watching guides and I’m about to do my final presentation. It’s been a fabulous week. I’ve learnt so much with a wonderful group of people from around the world including Mexico, the Azores, Slovenia, Hungary and Spain. But have I learnt enough?
The World Cetacean Alliance
The World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) is a global partnership made up of researchers, tour operators, NGOs and individuals working together to protect cetaceans, namely whales, dolphins and porpoises. It’s the largest organisation of its kind in the world with partners in over 35 countries.
Based in Brighton on the south coast of England, the WCA’s headquarters are, handily for me, just an hour by train from my hometown in West Sussex but others on the course come from much further afield.
The WCA’s recent work includes developing a set of international responsible whale watching guidelines sponsored by Club Med. It was a huge undertaking, relying on feedback from their partners and taking into consideration local laws and regulations.
These guidelines provide a valuable framework for tour operators, allowing them to give their guests the wonderful experience of observing the animals in their natural environment, displaying natural behaviour. Future feedback from their partners will help shape the guidelines further and ensure the animals’ welfare continues to be the top priority.
You can download the responsible whale watching guidelines here.
Another key aspect of the WCA’s work is training and education. They run several courses in Brighton, including the one I signed up for to qualify as a responsible whale watching guide. Anyone who passes the course becomes an individual partner of the WCA and as well as being part of this fabulous network of like-minded people and will have access to information about volunteer work and jobs around the world.
How to find a responsible whale watching tour
This couldn’t be easier with the World Cetacean Alliance’s app. The WCA has partners all over the world who have proved that they follow the responsible whale watching guidelines and you can easily find them with the app.
If the company you are thinking of using is not listed then some key things to inquire about before booking are:
- Does the boat have a naturalist onboard?
- Is there an educational aspect to the tour?
- Do they follow responsible whale watching guidelines?
- How do they minimise their impact on the animals and the marine environment?
Responsible whale watching guide training
Have you ever dreamed of a career in marine biology but had no idea where to start? One option is to take a responsible whale watching guide course with the World Cetacean Alliance.
I’ve spent the last few weeks watching Blue Planet and reading up on different cetacean species, feeling a growing mix of nerves and excitement. Finally, the first day of the course arrives and I meet my fellow students; Viviana from the Azores, Nina and Zita, who are setting up a whale watching company in Chile, Juan from Tenerife and Elizabeth and Ali, who have each worked as an interne with the WCA and have degrees in marine biology. There are 11 of us in total and over the next five days, bonds grow between us as we learn together, laugh together and get seriously stressed out together.
The course modules include responsible whale watching, species identification and animal behaviour, as well as presentation skills. The latter is an essential part of being an effective guide so that you can teach people about the wild animals they may see, the environments they live in and the conservation challenges faced in this increasingly polluted world we live in. Most importantly, a good guide will inspire people to get involved in protecting cetaceans and he environment they live in. From signing petitions or joining a beach clean to helping with a specific campaign, there are many ways to get involved.
Citizen Science and the Brighton Dolphin Project
Did you know? Dolphins are regularly spotted off the Sussex coast in the south of England and there is a colony of seahorses by Brighton Marina.
While I knew that sometimes dolphins are spotted off our shores here in Sussex on the south coast of England, I had no idea about the variety of species that can be found here. A recent initiative by the WCA is the Brighton Dolphin Project, which is raising awareness about the cetaceans found off our coast. Members of the public can also report sightings of dolphins to the project so that they can collect and analyse the data. This citizen science, as it is known, is used all over the world to collect far more data than professional researchers could ever hope to collect on their own.
above and featured image credit: Cabo Trek, a WCA partner in Mexico
Did you know? Individual cetaceans can be identified by markings on their bodies, including scars and, in the case of the gray whales I saw in Clayoquot sound off Vancouver Island, the barnacles on their back. You can upload your photographs of a whale or dolphin on a website called Happy Whale and they will identify it for you and email you about future sightings. How wonderful to be able to follow the journey of a whale you have seen. Some of them travel thousands of miles each year.
How are we poisoning our oceans?
One of the assessed course modules requires the attendee to prepare a presentation which includes an interactive educational activity and share it with the group. We all learnt a lot from each other about the numerous issues, with many shocking examples of how we are poisoning the seas and the creatures who live in it. There were some very amusing moments in some presentations, as well as more poignant ones. When Zita referred to animals starving to death because of all the plastic bags found in their stomachs, I was close to tears.
Discarded plastic and fishing nets I saw washed up on a beach in the Caribbean.
While popular beaches were regularly cleaned, this quiet, off the beaten track beach was not.
The whole beach was covered in rubbish after a storm.
The plight of resident orcas in British Columbia
As the planet’s human population grows, the challenges these intelligent, self-aware animals face will only increase as we continue to pollute the seas they live in. From pesticides to sun cream, harmful toxins are increasing in our oceans. These toxins build up as they move up the food chain. Plankton absorb the toxins, fish eat the plankton, marine mammals such as seals and porpoises eat the fish and top predators such as orcas eat marine mammals. At each step, the toxin levels increase. Orcas have been found with many times the amount of fatal toxin levels in them. These toxins cause infertility or calves to be born with both sexual organs, as well as premature death. Suddenly, the science fiction movies where humans become infertile seem a likely reality if we carry on the way we are.
In her presentation, Ali referred to the recent heart-breaking images in the news of a female orca carrying her stillborn calf on her back for 16 days. This was the first calf to be born to this community of 75 orcas in three years. One of the problems that these orcas are facing is the reduction of their main source of food, namely salmon. They live in the waters around southern Vancouver Island and neighbouring USA and are known as resident orcas, as they live in a relatively small region, feeding off salmon and other fish. In contrast, transient orcas cover much wider ranges, migrating from place to place and feeding on a greater variety of food, including fish and marine mammals. While believed to be the same species, there is no interbreeding between the two types of orca, so they may well turn out to be different species after all.
Unsurprisingly, the resident orcas are much more vulnerable to environmental changes than the transient orcas, especially when it comes to their food sources. Many rivers within their habitat have been dammed, with intensive salmon farms being set up. This has encouraged the spread of disease, which has been passed on to the wild salmon, depleting their numbers. Combine this with the infertility issues arising from pollution and the outlook is grime.
While the intelligence of these mammals is without doubt, just how intelligent they are is uncertain. The thought that the mother orca carrying her stillborn calf somehow knew that the world was watching keeps popping into my head. A call for us to change our ways, but I see little chance of their survival unless we make some big changes fast.
A virtual reality guided tour
Another assessed module of the course uses virtual reality. Having donned a life jacket and holding a paddle imagining I’m in a kayak. I sit with virtual reality goggles on in the WCA office and guide a tour around Vancouver Island with two real people (Sophie and Lyn from WCA) role-playing as my tour participants. I’m surprised how much I enjoy this. I love telling them all about the animals we might see, what we should look out for and how we might identify one species from another. Despite this being a virtual reality test, it feels so natural to be sharing my growing knowledge of cetaceans with others. I long to do this in real life.
above: Kayaking in the Bay of Fundy on the east coast of Canada. Sadly we saw no whales that day.
Did you know? Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are actually dolphins. The largest dolphin there is.
Our final assessed presentation
We spend the penultimate afternoon of the course learning presentation skills with Pippa Lee, an excellent tutor from LifeCollege.org and an experienced whale watching guide. Her tips and encouragement are invaluable. On our final morning, the first few presentations from my fellow students are superb and then it’s my turn.
I take a sip of water and a deep breath before I begin talking about WCA partner, Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures, in the north of Vancouver Island. While I’ve been on several whale watching tours at different places around the island, I’ve not been lucky enough to go with these guys, but they would undoubtedly be my first choice. Not only do they run small group tours, where they can give you more personal attention, but they use kayaks, resulting in less impact on the animals they encounter and the environment. I love kayaking and can imagine that observing the animals from this level must be a thrilling experience.
As I begin my talk, I’ve got a crib sheet of bullet points to cover but no other prompts to help me. Will I remember everything? Will anyone ask any awkward questions? Will I die of stage fright?
Watch the video below to find out!
All my worries are unfounded, I remember (nearly) everything I had intended to say, and the questions were great. The feedback I receive is really useful. In particular, I must let people finish asking a question before I answer it!
When someone asks about First Nations people in the area, it reminds me of their traditional storytelling around a fire that I learnt about in a planetarium in Ontario. These included tales of creation as well as stories about animals, such as the spirit bear in the Great Bear Rainforest or orcas, who had the power to transform people lost at sea into killer whales. Orcas are naturally curious and it is said that those seen swimming close to shore or interacting with boats were once people and they are trying to communicate with their families. Many of these animals from First Nations’ tales can be seen as constellations in the night sky. As my presentation was coming to an end I suddenly remembered this and thought that if I were a guide leading a kayaking party that camps out at night, such as Kingfisher do, I’d tell evocative First Nations’ stories each evening, pointing out the relevant constellations.
Once all our presentations are done, I feel confident that everyone has passed, although it’s still a great relief when Sophie, who runs these courses, confirms that we have all indeed passed and are now officially individual partners of the World Cetacean Alliance and qualified responsible whale watching guides. We’re all chuffed to bits and after a celebratory drink or two, we go our separate ways. It feels so sad to say goodbye, but I’m sure I’ll see some of them again someday. Who knows where my travels around the world may take me in the coming years.
One thing is certain, I’ll be doing plenty more wildlife watching, especially of the cetacean kind, be that as a guide, a research volunteer or by joining a whale-watching tour. I’ll be tracking down the best responsible experiences and finding out more about conservation campaigns and how we can all take steps to save our seas and the amazing creatures that live in them.
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