The global whale-watching (WW) industry has grown exponentially, becoming one of the most productive tourism sectors in many regions of the world, namely in the Azores. Managing WW sustainably is vital not only for cetacean welfare, but should be a natural interest of the industry and authorities. Yet, establishing direct relationship between cetacean exposure to WW and biological significant effects at the population level is challenging. To assess WW disturbance and adequately manage the activity, we need to understand cumulative effects of WW interactions on the vital rates (survival and reproductive success) of individual animals and how this, in turn, may impact the dynamics of populations.
Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) use the Azores as a foraging and calving ground. Most of the social units (females, subadults and calves) return to the Azores regularly, and remain in the area from weeks to months. Past studies investigating WW effects on sperm whales uncovered behavioural changes (e.g. respiration intervals, swimming speed, aerial displays) in the presence or approach of WW boats. However, results are often contradictory and the biological relevance of those behavioural responses is unknown. As a result, currently WW regulations in the Azores lack specific measures to address potential effects on whales from cumulative exposure to WW.
To address this conservation concern, the Project WATCH IT will investigate if and to what extent exposure to WW activities impact fitness enhancing behaviours, like foraging and reproduction, and/or cause additional energetic expenditures to sperm whales. Subsequently, the project will assess potential for cumulative effects from repeated disturbance by determining exposure rate for individual whales and examining how it varies across the study area and over time. Finally, current WW regulations will be reviewed in light of novel information obtained in this project and, if necessary, a new management proposal will be presented to assist the regional authorities creating a strategic plan to foster the development of WW in a sustainable manner.
The cooperation from local whale watching (WW) companies is essential for the success of the project. We acknowledge their valuable support during field experiments and by contributing data. This cooperation is testimony of their commitment to improve WW quality in the Azores, and to guarantee it's sustainability in the long term. A special word of gratitude is owed to thefor their unconditional help in locating animals.