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Easy riders: The expert's guide to sailing with whales and dolphins

29 January 2019 • Written by Dr Isabella Clegg

Sailing with whales and dolphins can be a real thrill, says Dr Isabella Clegg, but be careful not to disturb them...

There’s nothing quite like watching dolphins bow ride in front of your boat, or seeing whales heaving their gigantic bodies out of the water. Unfortunately, the increasing number of boats and wildlife tourists on the water has caused problems.

The disturbances can affect the animals’ behaviour, causing them to flee and abandon their socialisation or hunting sequence. In extreme instances, the animals can end up being injured or killed by boats, which is especially devastating to endangered species. Disturbance can be caused by the physical presence of boats as well as the noise pollution of vessels in the area. The inhalation of exhaust fumes is also likely to pose health risks to the animals.

When done responsibly, sailing with whales and dolphins can be an unforgettable past time. Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

So how should we approach these magnificent creatures to observe them at their best? Follow the advice below. And, if you can, take some photos of the complete dorsal fins (on the back) and flukes (tails) of the whales or dolphins, by which species are identified. Send them with GPS co-ordinates to local marine observatories, who usually conduct their own photo ID studies, to help them monitor the animal population in the area.

  1. When whales or dolphins are first sighted, note which direction they are travelling in and at what speed.
  2. Move parallel to them at a distance of about 100 metres, forming an L-shape by pulling ahead of the group. Turn slightly towards them and slow down, but don’t obstruct their path. Let them come to you.
  3. Maintain a no-wake speed when the animals are approaching. If they have chosen to bow ride then keep going at a constant pace.
  4. Take note of how many animals are in the group so that you can avoid getting between group members, especially any mother-calf pairs.
  5. If there are already several other boats trying to get close to the creatures, hang back and wait until the conditions are right for a responsible approach.

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