With the rise of social media and sharing our adventures, we have also seen a rise in popularity of swimming with whales and other marine animals. A big part of travel is having once in a lifetime experiences, often ones you may have thought you'd never have, and of course so many of us have a natural curiosity about these magnificent creatures.
I have internally struggled with this topic myself before; whales are one of my favourite animals and I would love nothing more than to have an experience with one in the wild, but I have also wondered whether we should be forcing interactions with them at all. Many of my beliefs revolve around leaving nature be and not putting a human footprint on everything, so I have gone back and forth on this issue in my mind many, many times. In saying that, it's inevitable that such experiences will continue to be desired and there are many operators and guides out there leading responsible tours with a real focus on education and minimal impact. I decided to call upon the extremely knowledgable ocean photographer and whale tour guide, Matt Draper, to help dive into some of the things to consider before booking a marine animal swim or dive.
One of the first things to consider before booking a marine animal swim is the reason you want to have this experience. Unfortunately with the rise of social media and nailing "that shot," whale and shark swims are becoming more and more popular as more of us are chasing that token image swimming next to an enormous humpback. So ask yourself why you want to be doing this, what experience are you looking for? Are you curious about whales and want to witness them in their natural habitat? Do you want to learn more about how we can protect these incredible creatures? Check in with your intentions.
Matt leads humpback whale tours in Tonga and a big differentiation for his trips is the way he sees these tours as a life-changing event, not just a random travel experience or photo opportunity. Matt uses his tours as a once in a lifetime opportunity that evokes an ongoing love, appreciation and connection with the ocean. Naturally after having such an intimate and powerful interaction in the wild, you are going to be driven to want to protect these animals and their environment. This is a great way of approaching what could be a very commercial operation, and transforming it into something powerful.
Ultimately, responsible travel really does come down to the individual and taking the time to do some independent research before booking any tour or trip. Reach out to local tour operators and ask them about their practices; how many people do they have in the water at one time, what do they do to ensure minimal disturbance to the animals, do they have a whale license, do they have up to date first aid certificates? There are different laws and governing bodies in every country, but some basic research will show you what the laws are in the area you are visiting. In Tonga for example, operators need to be licensed TBEC certified guides and licensed whale swim operators.
You can go another step further and look into their environmental practices; what kind of food is served on board, do they use plastic water bottles? Find an operator who is willing to engage in conversation with you and share information; if you don't hear back or don't get adequate information that may be a warning sign. Be sure to also check out customer testimonials on both the operators website and other review platforms too.
There are a number of ocean photographers and independent people or brands who lead their own tours as well. You can learn a lot about where their values lie simply by checking out their social media and seeing what kind of content they post. Do they regularly share messages of sustainability? Do they openly talk about how they respect the animals in their interactions?
Responsible tourism comes down to taking ownership of where we choose to spend our money and what we choose to support, so make sure you do take the time to do some research and ask questions. The more questions we ask, the more tour operators will realise how important ethics are to their customers and better practices can become standard in the industry.
Something important to remember is that this experience is not just about you, it's about the whale too. Respect their boundaries, listen to your guides and use the incredible experience you have to drive a love for the ocean and desire to protect it.
Image by Matt Draper.