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Mozambique tour operators warn against over-loving whales

Humpback whales and other cetaceans use surface behaviour such as breaching for many functions including breathing, feeding and communication.
Humpback whales and other cetaceans use surface behaviour such as breaching for many functions including breathing, feeding and communication. Pixabay/CC

Whales are travelling thousands of kilometres to give birth off the coast of northern Mozambique, but humans are getting in the way, warn tour operators. 

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Tourism operators on Mozambique’s Ilha de Mozambique (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are trying to lay down some rules for those taking tourists to see humpback whales, which migrate to these tropical waters each year between June and December from Antarctica to give birth.

The animals have done this for thousands of years, but there are fears that if sightseers and their guides get too close, the whales will leave and go elsewhere.

Peter Allsop, operations manager at Ilha Blue Island Safaris, said a greater interest in whale watching around the island in 2018 resulted in more boats and more interference with the whales.

“I became aware that the whales were avoiding boats in a way that had never happened before. They were being adversely impacted and reacting,” he told RFI.

His company, together with two others in the area, have teamed up to try to promote responsible whale watching, which future livelihoods may depend on.

Fish harvests are dwindling and responsible whale watching may provide a lifeline for those who make their living from the sea, says Allsop.

From whaling to over-loving

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), a species that occurs in all the world’s oceans, were driven close to extinction along Africa’s eastern coastline during the early 20th century. Researchers say from 1908-1915 as many as 25,000 were killed.

The good news is that recent studies suggest the populations have recovered significantly. But having survived whaling, the giant mammals now need to survive tourism, however well-intended.

As Allsop’s company said in a recent press release: “The whales face a new challenge – being over-loved.”

Intrusive tourism isn’t a problem everywhere in Mozambique.

In places like the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve situated along a section of Mozambique’s coastline far to the south of Ilha de Mozambique, strict regulations on viewing whales and dolphins (also known as cetaceans) apply.

“In total there are only five operators permitted to observe whales in the reserve and these are spaced out along the coast so the impact is minimal compared to other unregulated areas,” said Diana Rocha, a Mozambican biologist who chairs the responsible whale watching working group of the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA).

Tourist power

Last year, 117 whales were recorded passing through the reserve. Rocha, who spent seven years in the reserve and conducted her research into humpback whales there, says the WCA has come up with guidelines for tourism operators that can be applied worldwide.

“Our goal is that in time all Mozambican operators become accredited partners of WCA and follow their set of guidelines and that the Mozambican government also adopts these as mandatory,” she told RFI.

She says tourists themselves have the power to influence operators to up their game. But it may require tourists to up theirs too.

How many tourists for instance know that swimming with dolphins, a growth industry in Mozambique, can have serious negative impacts on the animals if not done properly?

Diana Rocha, from World Cetacean Alliance, conducting underwater fin identification on dolphins in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve.
Diana Rocha, from World Cetacean Alliance, conducting underwater fin identification on dolphins in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve. Angie Gullan/Dolphin Encountours Research Centre

It does, according to Rocha. She says the practice can have both short and long-term effects, like forcing the dolphins to move to different areas, or affecting their ability to reproduce.

Interfering with the seasonal migration of whales could be equally damaging.

Allsop, the tour operator at Ilha de Mozambique, says the best way to see whales is the same way as with any wildlife – “with curiosity, humility and plenty of patience.”

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