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Top of many people's lists, when visiting Sydney, Australia, is a whale watching trip. And for good reason, too! Humpback whales pass through Sydney from mid-May onwards, all the way to October and November. In the early part of the season, whales are on their annual northern migration from the Antarctic; June and July tend to be peak months for whale sightings in the area, while toward November you will be more likely to see mothers and their calves.

There are plenty of coastal walks from which you may be lucky enough to spot a whale or two in the ocean; for something closer to a guaranteed sighting of these incredible creatures, many people choose to hop aboard a whale watching cruise - just as we did while we were in Sydney. But is this an ethical practice? Are we using animals as entertainment in a problematic way here? These are just a few of the questions that were in our mind when we visited.

Is it ethical to go on a whale watching cruise?

Firstly, it's important to note that whales are protected in Australian waters under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This is because many whale species (including the particular humpback whales that frequent Sydney's coast) are vulnerable or endangered, largely due to human activities. The area known as the Australian Whale Sanctuary is a perimeter around the country within which it is illegal to kill, injure or interfere with cetaceans (whales, dolphins, or porpoises). Obviously we wouldn't expect to encounter anything so horrifying on a whale watching trip, but the real question is: do whale watching cruises bother, or even interfere with whales? This was something that we sought to understand while we were in Sydney. Some of the articles that we found helpful are listed at the end of this blog.

The conclusion that many of the sources we studied came to was that whale watching is a bit of a grey area. To be truly ethical, activities should not disturb the animals at all, which is clearly impossible when you're on a boat with noisy engines. It is important that the number of vessels in waters frequented by whales is limited, and so is the time that any individual vessel spends watching a whale, to avoid it getting stressed. However, this comes with the caveat that our waters are already full of fishing and shipping vessels. Providing whale watchers maintain the recommended distance from the animals, and watch them quietly and only for a short amount of time before moving on, this is less of a problem.

Ultimately, many sources believe that whale watching is one of the better ways to see whales - as long as the tour company behave responsibly - because this allows tourists to see the animals in the while, rather than in unethical captive environments. This can encourage greater awareness of these animals, and our responsibility to the planet on a larger scale. Encountering whales in their natural environment could spark a lifelong passion for conservation. But it is crucial that we all remember that we are visitors to the whales' home, and we should treat our visits as such.

What does responsible behaviour near whales look like?

During the Great Migration every year, whales travel to Australia where they mate and then give birth. Whales only give birth every two to three years, so young calves really are exciting to see, and we counted ourselves lucky to see some while we were in Sydney. However, we were very conscious that we didn't want our activities as tourists to be detrimental to their welfare. And this was a tricky thing to figure out. Ultimately, the question of whether or not whale watching cruises are problematic depends on the behaviours of the company that you choose to travel with. This includes their knowledge and respect of the behaviours of the whales, and their attitudes towards sustainability and responsible tourism.

Responsible whale watching tours should be very upfront with customers that there is no guarantee that they will see whales, and - if they are spotted - that this will likely not be a close encounter. There should be no expectation, for instance, that you will get that perfect photo for your instagram, or that the animals will be in touching distance (they absolutely shouldn't!) This is because, depending on the species of whale, a boat should never be closer than 100 yards to the whale (for some species, this could be 500 yards). When it comes to often playful pods of dolphins, and other creatures, marine experts should be on board to observe their behaviour and guide the activities of the boat, ensuring that dolphins initiate proximity to the boat, and not vice versa.

Whale watchers should also never be feeding whales, as this may disrupt their natural behaviours; while you're out on a tour, the boat should slow as soon as a whale is spotted to limit the engine noise that could disturb whales in their natural environment. Boats should never get between a whale and her calf (or between a pod of dolphins), and should always approach whales from the side, never chasing them from the front or behind. Boats should never crowd whales, and time spent with one whale should be limited to a maximum of twenty minutes.

Which whale watching cruise did we choose, and would we recommend them?

We went out into the ocean with Whale Watching Sydney, one of the most popular whale watching cruises that operate out of Sydney Harbour. We actually found the choice pretty hard to make, since hardly any of the tour operators provide information about sustainability and whale welfare on their website. Ultimately, we went with Whale Watching Sydney because their staff team comprises of a significant number of marine biologists and conservationists, so we felt in good hands trusting their knowledge and expertise here.

The trip itself was really enjoyable (though we recommend taking a seasickness tablet and only eating a light meal beforehand, as it can get choppy on your way out of the bay!) When we were allowed out onto the deck we picked a spot by the railings in the corner and, though we moved a couple of time, this was our favourite place for peering out into the distance for that prized sighting! We were really impressed by the level of detail that the guides went into when explaining how to sight a whale under the surface from a distance. We felt like we learned a lot, and were even spotting their movements ourselves by the end of the trip.

But onto the real question: did we spot any whales, and how did the tour company respond to sightings? Well, yes, we spotted a couple of whales, including a couple of mothers and their calves. Though some other passengers grumbled that we weren't getting closer to the animals, we were delighted that we could see their behaviours from a distance, and that the vessel was operating in a responsible way. As soon as whales were spotted, the boat slowed to a stop. This meant that our activities were causing the least disruption possible to the whales' natural movements. When we did spot a whale we watched it for a short while before moving on, in line with international guidelines.

There seemed to be good communication across the waters too: when other boats spotted a whale this was reported to other boats nearby. Initially I was concerned that this might mean lots of vessels rushing to crowd an animal, but in actual fact it meant that we could stop with distance from the whale: if it wanted to come towards us, great, if not, we would wait before moving on. The closest encounter we had came from a pod of dolphins, who spent a few minutes playing around the very corner of the deck that Mike and I were stood at. This was a very magical and emotional moment for us, and again the boat allowed the dolphins to be curious and then leave the ship of their own accord.

Overall, then, we were impressed by the information and knowledge displayed while we were on Whale Watching Sydney's cruise. We were even more satisfied by the respect shown towards the animals we sighted while we were on board, and therefore we feel we can recommend them, based on the trip we took part in. What would make us even more confident in recommending them would be some more obvious statements and guidance on their sustainability and animal welfare initiatives, so this might be something you want to look out for while deciding on you own whale watching experience. If you are at all concerned about the impact of whale watching on the animals, there are plenty of more secluded coastal spots you can reach on foot, where you may be lucky enough to view whales on the Great Migration.

Helpful Links:

Have you been whale watching in Sydney, or elsewhere? Do you think it is an ethical activity? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


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The centre of Vienna with tall, historic buildings all around
You won't be short of things to see in Sydney!

Where should I stay?

There are obviously a lot of places to stay in Sydney, so first of all you need to decide if you'd prefer to stay in the city or close to one of the popular beaches (Bondi Beach, Manly Beach and Coogee Beach are all favourites!)

There are tonnes of hotels, apartments and hostels available - for affordable places to stay with a choice of single, twin or dorm rooms, check out Wake Up! in Sydney Central or Bondi Beach. Or closer to Manly Beach, why not try Stoke Beach House, which offers complimentary breakfast and yoga sessions!

Tours & Experiences

There's so much to do and see in Sydney, and in this sprawling city can be pretty difficult to see everything if you only have a short amount of time - especially if you plant to whale watch too! If you want to check out everything from the Rocks, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, to Bondi Beach, and the CBD, with the flexibility of a 24 or 48-hour ticket, why not try the Big Bus Sydney and Bondi Hop-on Hop-off tour? Or, if that's not for you, check out some of the top-rated Viator tours below!

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