Sea Shorts: Whale watching with care

Every spring humpback whales swap the warmer tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean for the cooler waters further north... a lot further north. After several months of travel, the whales finally arrive in Newfoundland and Labrador around mid-May, where they stay until late September before heading back down south. In these colder, northern waters they feast on capelin - a small, pelagic fish that schools in large numbers and rich in nutrients the whales need.

A female humpback whale in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. There was also a calf, but you cannot see it in this photo. Credit: Samantha Andrews/Ocean Oculus.

A female humpback whale in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. There was also a calf, but you cannot see it in this photo. Credit: Samantha Andrews/Ocean Oculus.

Whilst the capelin draw in humpbacks, the humpbacks draw in people. They are undoubtedly beautiful and with their long, white pectoral fins (the ones on their chest - you can see one in the photo), a small dorsal fin about two-thirds of the way down it's back, and a tendency to flash their large tails (known as flukes) out of the water when diving, humpbacks are pretty easy to identify. Speaking of their flukes, each one is distinct making them really useful for identifying individual whales. 

In Newfoundland and Labrador, you don't have to go on a boat to see the whales (although it helps). They come really close to the shore so if you are there during the whale season, make sure you take a walk along the coast - and keep an eye on the water!

This humpback is called "Flounder HWC#8439" (catchy name right!). HWC#8439 was photographed at Massachusetts, USA during its migration north. Credit: Dave Fletcher/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).   

This humpback is called "Flounder HWC#8439" (catchy name right!). HWC#8439 was photographed at Massachusetts, USA during its migration north. Credit: Dave Fletcher/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).   

When watching any wildlife, it is important to consider their needs. In the first photo you can see someone on a jetski. This person was really excited to see the whales, and got super close and followed them around, sometimes moving quickly. This can be bad for the whales. It might disturb them from hunting, it might cause them distress or panic, and it could even result in injury to the whales or even people! For this reason, many countries have implemented whale watching guidelines to keep the whales and us safe! Rules do differ from one country to the next but generally they ask people to:

  • Slow down - and don't change speed or heading (direction) quickly.
  • Don't surround the whales. You wouldn't like it - they don't either.
  • Don't approach them from behind - they can't see you! 
  • Keep at least 100 meters away. Since the whales don't know they are supposed to stay 100 meters away from you, they might get closer - sometimes really close! Don't panic - just stop moving and let the whales pass (or take a peek at you - sometimes they do this).
  • Don't throw anything into the water - including yourself! Sure you might want to swim with them, but it's not the best idea.
  • If the whales leave - let them. Don't chase them down.