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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Evaluation of a developing ecotourism industry: Whale watching in the Gulf of Tribugá, Colombia

  • Author(s): Zapetis, Maria E.
  • Samuelson, Mystera M.
  • Botero Acosta, Natalia
  • Kuczaj, Stan A.
  • et al.

The ecotour industry continues to grow with a distinct focus on providing the public with up-close encounters with cetaceans. As a result, research focusing on both the effects of ecotourism on cetaceans and the efficacy of conservation-focused educational interventions for whale-watching operators is necessary to monitor and develop industry standards. Each year, whale-watching tours target humpback whales along their Colombian Pacific breeding grounds. There are many benefits to ecotourism in this area, including the use of whale-watching vessels as a platform for scientific research and environmental education. However, some whale-watching operators may lack species-specific knowledge and/or do not follow the suggested industry guidelines. Researchers held educational seminars for whale-watching staff at six hotels that border the Gulf of Tribugá. Seminars focused on whale anatomy, behavior, anthropogenic effects on the species, and sustainable whale-watching protocols. Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire aimed to assess constructs related to the conservation of this species. This self-report information was accompanied by implicit measures (e.g., sighting duration, distance from whales) recorded during tours in situ. Behavioral observations aimed at assessing whales’ response to ecotour vessels demonstrated that whales increased rates of surface-active behaviors (e.g., tail slashes) with increasing nearness and duration. Whale-watching operators’ conduct during sightings demonstrated that positive attitudes toward humpback whales did not translate into adherence to sustainable practices. This relationship between the whale-watching operators’ questionnaire results and their behavior in the field demonstrates the need for careful monitoring of this developing industry. This project represents a preliminary evaluation of this budding ecotour industry. Continued efforts to increase knowledge while promoting self-advocacy, positive perceived behavioral control, subjective norms, behavioral intentions, and attitudes towards these animals will enable the safeguarding of near-shore waters essential for breeding and nursing humpback whales.

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