Behavioural responses of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) to whalewatching boats near Isla de la Plata, Machalilla National Park, Ecuador

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Meike Scheidat
Cristina Castro
Janira Gonzalez
Rob Williams


Machalilla National Park, on the coast of mainland Ecuador, supports a growing whalewatching industry that focuses on Southern Hemisphere humpback whales, which spend the austral winter (June-September) in this area. This study was designed to measure short-term reactions of whales to the whalewatching vessel activity typically seen in this area for two reasons: (1) to identify the nature of whales’ avoidance response, if any, in order to draft whalewatching guidelines that help local mariners identify when they may be disturbing whales; and (2) to quantify the magnitude of any avoidance response, to examine how this relatively understudied population behaves around boats compared with whales in other whalewatching areas. A shore-based theodolite tracking team created a ‘natural’ experiment to observe relationships between whalewatching traffic and whale behaviour in 1998 and 1999. Swim speed and path directness of humpback whales were measured in the absence of boats, and how those parameters changed when boats arrived was recorded. When whales entered the study area accompanied by boats, a record was made of how their behaviour changed after the boats left. Humpback whales reacted to the approach of whalewatching boats by increasing swim speed significantly, and adopted a much more direct path after boats left. Future research is needed to determine whether responses vary with number, proximity or type of vessel. Similarly, future studies are recommended to determine whether different age-sex classes vary in vulnerability to disturbance. Meanwhile, this study enables provision of much-needed, practical advice to local operators who are concerned that they may be disturbing whales: one way that mariners can tell if they are causing disturbance is if they need to increase their vessel’s speed to keep pace. The average behavioural responses measured were strong enough to recommend that Machalilla National Park adopt precautionary management procedures to limit number and proximity of vessels.

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