people lean over on whale watch boat to see whale
Conservation

Satisfied? Uncovering visitor perspectives on whale watching

Study reviewed: Shea, R., Schwarzmann, D., Leeworthy, V., Hastings, S., Knapp, L., & Tracy, S. (2021). Whale watching in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary: Understanding passengers and their economic contributions. National Marine Sanctuaries Conservation Series ONMS-21-08. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Channel islands from air, with boat
The view from the Channel Islands. (Image: Ken Lund, on Flickr.)

Balancing visitors and conservation in a sea sanctuary

Let’s travel for a moment to the Channel Islands. This eight-island archipelago is visible from the coast of Santa Barbara, California. Originally home to the Chumash and Tongva peoples, the islands have been part of the United States since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Today, they’re managed mostly by US federal agencies, with five islands making up the Channel Islands National Park, and surrounding waters falling under the purview of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

National parks and marine sanctuaries both carry a twin mission: to allow for the protection and flourishing of natural resources, while also ensuring access and enjoyment of these places to visitors. This dual goal compels managers to play a balancing act, pursuing opportunities for visitor enjoyment that limit threats and disturbance for the non-human entities of the parks. Add to that, as well, the importance of maintaining good conditions for year-round residents, as well as people visiting these protected areas on a shorter timeframe. This balancing act explains visitor management schemes like the Zion shuttle system, or reservations to visit the top of Acadia’s tallest mountain. These are mechanisms that allow more people to have more enjoyable experiences in the park, while limiting some of the impacts on resources and keeping things slightly more manageable for residents. It’s all about balance.

Whale-watching as a win-win

people lean over on whale watch boat to see whale
Whale watchers in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. (Image: Bob Perry, on Flickr.)

When it comes to striking that balance between visitation and resource protection, whale watching may offer a sweet spot. Whale watching allows people to come close to animals who usually are fathoms distant. That kind of encounter can increase a visitor’s awareness of and care for the marine world, which in turn can lead to more support for conservation. Thanks to federal protections, negative impacts on whales are limited– which is not to say that whales aren’t disturbed at all by the increased human activity around them, but the conservation ethic benefits may be worth the costs. Finally, whale watching is also posed as an economic benefit to local (human) communities, since visiting whale watchers bring in demand for lodging, meals, and other activities.

How does that relate to the Channel Islands? The waters around the archipelago are home to a rich array of whales. Gray whales migrate past the islands, and other large whales (blues, humpbacks, fins) can be found feeding in the rich waters of the sanctuary. Dolphins and the occasional orca also visit these waters. And where the whales go, so go the whale watchers, carried on the boats of whale watch tour companies leaving out of Santa Barbara Harbor.

What kind of experiences are these whale watchers having? And what do they contribute to year-round resident communities? A team of researchers set out to answer these questions, plying whale watch participants with surveys to learn more about this popular activity.

Survey says…

To understand visitor perspectives, surveyors teased out different strands of the whale watch experience. They queried participants for their views on such points as “opportunity to see whales”, “level of protection for whales”, “clean water”, “clean air”, and “availability of public restrooms”. That last one may feel surprising, but keep in mind– whale watching is a holistic experience, and someone’s frustration over not having access to a bathroom could influence their overall take on the whale watch.

The survey results helped reveal the places where whale watches were working well. On the whole, visitors thought the opportunity to see whales, the presence of clean water and clean air were important aspects, and they were satisfied with their experience.

But perhaps even more helpfully than showing where the whale watchers were working, results could point managers to the places in need of the most attention: parts of the experience that visitors said were highly important but currently less-than-satisfying. Here, the survey revealed that visitors were dissatisfied with the current level of protection for whales, nor the lack of seeing other marine mammals (dolphins, seals, otters) while on their whale-watching trip. This information can help managers determine where to focus their attention on managing whale watches in the future.

Economic boon

In addition to ranking the satisfaction and importance of various elements of the whale watch experience, researchers also asked visitors to estimate the money they spent around their entire trip, including lodging and transportation and food.

They found that, overall, whale-watching in the Channel Islands contributed 126 full- and part-time jobs to the local economy— that includes everything from boat captains to naturalists, visitor center staff to restaurant and hotel staff. Drawing visitors to these communities for whale watching ripples out into a number of other opportunities for tourism support, and ultimately may help to sustain resident communities.

A caution about surveys

Do those positive survey results prove whale-watching is the win-win it promises to be? Maybe not. Demographic questions on the survey revealed that, most often, respondents were white woman over the age of 60, making upwards of $75,000 a year. In interpreting survey results, it’s important to keep that in mind– your results are really only as telling as your sample is. So while respondents on this survey had generally-positive experiences with whale watching, there’s still a lot to ask and learn to understand where this activity fits into broader questions of tourism, conservation, and community.

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