Blue whale Trincomalee

Whale and Dolphin Watching Guidelines

Threats to marine mammals from badly organised whale and dolphin watching excursions are mainly the result of poor and insensitive boat handling by the skipper. Restricting the animals’ freedom of movement is the cardinal error, to be avoided at all costs. Each and every one in a vessel must take responsibility to ensure that best practices are adhered to by the skipper and ultimately the tour company.

 

If you are fortunate enough to spot whales or dolphins on your trip, handle your boat with sensitivity and caution. Let the animals themselves be your guides; it is up to them, not you, to decide the agenda of your meeting. Their liberty should not be compromised in any way, no matter how apparently benign the intervention may seem to you. Excepting only the safety of members of your party, the welfare of the mammals you are watching should always be your first priority.

 

In addition to complying with the Sea Mammals (Observation, Regulation and Control) Regulations, No. 1 of 2012, here are some special guidelines to help you get the best out of your whale and dolphin watching expeditions in Sri Lankan waters:

General Protocols
  • Switch off all sonar and depth-sounding equipment to avoid noise pollution.

  • Never instigate physical contact – do not touch the animals!

  • Do not drop food or litter, particularly plastic bags (deadly to many forms of marine life) in the ocean. Never feed animals in the wild.

  • Report any breach of compliance with the whale watching regulations to DWC. Do not take the law into your own hands!

  • Report any incidents involving marine wildlife (e.g. net entanglements, collisions, strandings) to DWC.

Vessel Approaches
  • Use appropriate angles of approach. Never approach cetaceans from directly ahead or astern.

  • When entering, leaving or operating within 400m of a whale (the caution zone), travel at a constant 'no wake’ speed of less 6 knots.

  • Avoid sudden changes in speed, direction or noise level.

  • Approach whales no closer than 100m.

  • Approach dolphins no closer than 50m (for boats up to 6m long) and 100m (for larger vessels). Leave decisions about making closer contact to the animals themselves; dolphins, in particular, will often oblige.

  • In the event a whale approaches or is spotted less than 100m from the vessel, the vessel motors must be put into neutral immediately or cut-off when safe to do so.

  • Friendly dolphin behaviour (such as bow-riding) should be welcomed but never instigated or cultivated by feeding or calling out to the animals.

  • Do not chase, head off or encircle individual animals or groups.

  • Do not move through a pod or between groups so as to separate group members.

  • Take special care around mother/calf pairs, solitary calves and juveniles.

  • If unsure of the animals’ movements or intentions, simply put your engine into neutral and enjoy their company.

  • Contact should be abandoned if, at any stage, the animals show signs of becoming disturbed or alarmed. This is for the safety of your expedition party as well as the comfort of the animals.

  • Avoid spending more than 15-30 minutes in proximity to marine mammals.

Signs of Disturbance or Agitation

An agitated or alarmed cetacean may simply swim away or dive out of sight. In some cases, however, the following changes in behaviour may be observed:

  • Abrupt changes in orientation

  • Regular changes of direction, diving or swimming

  • Changes in swimming speed

  • More time spent under water than at the surface

  • Diving sooner than normal after surfacing

  • Changes in breathing pattern or an unusual blow (spout)

  • Changes in acoustical behaviour

  • Changes in surface behaviour, such as tail-slapping.

If any of these changes in behaviour are encountered, remain calm and retreat from the area, making as little disturbance as possible. Your vessel should move away at a speed that will not generate a wake.

Regulation

In order to develop regulations related to swim with whales it is essential to conduct trials which includes behaviour of whales and dolphins and the sustainable management of their interactions with boats and swimmers.

Thus, any swim with whales endorsed vessel should have onboard a DWC ranger or appointed Wildlife Sea Marshal to conduct trials. The DWC ranger or Wildlife Sea Marshal shall communicate the best approaches, overlook the in-water activities and shall have the authority to revoke the permit in case of infractions.

 

Swim with whales endorsed vessel operators should be expected to make a contribution by providing support and additional data from whale and dolphin interactions. These include: interaction behaviour diaries, vessel movement logs, photos and video footage for identification purposes, passenger questionnaires and by providing scientists and research volunteers with in-kind places onboard voyages.

 

An Individual Sighting Form should be completed for every swim with whales interaction that will eventually be used to develop a Code of Practice for sustainable management. This Code of Practice developed should be reviewed periodically and amendments made as part of an adaptive management approach.

Interaction between humans and wild cetaceans is rarely part of the natural order of things. On the contrary, such interactions are rare and precious. They are also fraught with danger to all parties involved, human and animal alike.

As whale and dolphin watching increases in popularity around the coasts of Sri Lanka, the need for guidelines setting out appropriate and acceptable conduct for all parties involved in such interactions has become critical. This is an area in which further legislation and regulation are urgently needed, particularly in relation to the most intimate encounters of all – the ones that occur when humans go swimming with cetaceans.

Be AWARE! Swimming with whales and dolphins is a restricted activity in Sri Lankan waters. You are breaking the law if you get in or attempt to get in the sea for such an activity without the express permission of the Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC).

In addition to complying with the Sea Mammals (Observation, Regulation and Control) Regulations, No. 1 of 2012, here are some special conditions that should be applied to “swimming with whales”. This section will continue to be updated with further learnings.

 
Pre-Swim Protocols

The following protocols should be conducted prior to any swimmer getting in the water with cetaceans:

  • All participants must be given a pre-swim briefing for possible weather and sea conditions, their likely reactions to seeing a whale or dolphin up close when in the water, and the way they must behave during their interaction with the whales and dolphins. The briefing must also give clear explanations as to why passengers must abide by legal requirements and detailed protocols.

  • All participants must perform a mock “soft-in-water” encounter using mask, fins and snorkel, prior to any in-water interaction with whales or dolphins.

Swim with Whales and Dolphins Guidelines