Whale Watching

A Win-Win for the Economy and the Whales in Massachusetts

By Jordan Koetje

December 2020

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, is recognized as one of the world’s top whale watching destinations. The sanctuary is dedicated to the conservation of marine resources. A recent study revealed that by working with local businesses, such as tour operators, the sanctuary also provides significant economic benefits to the surrounding community, showing why conservation is important.

Whale watching can be an unforgettable experience. It is an opportunity to learn first-hand from naturalists, make memories aboard a whale watching tour vessel, and of course, to catch a glimpse into the mysterious lives of some of the largest animals on Earth. In addition to offering exciting animal encounters, the whale watching industry provides several benefits that many people may not realize.

Whale watching tourism contributes billions of dollars to the U.S. economy, while providing thousands of jobs for those directly and indirectly involved with whale watching. Coastal North American cities that are popular whale watching destinations see the benefits of this sector of tourism trickle throughout their local economy.

Breaching the Benefits

Humpback whales are a sight to see in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

A recent study conducted at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in collaboration with Emerson College and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, surveyed for-hire whale watching passengers to estimate the economic contributions of their expenditures. With a series of questions, the spending of passengers was used to estimate the economic contributions to the local economy, providing information on how jobs, income, value added, and output are supported by whale watching tours. They were also asked questions about the purpose, duration, satisfaction, and what was important to them on their trip.

A total of 1,853 whale watchers were surveyed on the vessels of six whale watching companies that frequently sail through Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Of the passengers surveyed, 94% said they specifically planned their trip to see whales, and 40% said they specifically looked for a tour that would take them into the sanctuary.

Of the nearly 500 respondents that completed the longer survey, on average, visitors spent approximately 5.6 days vacationing on their whale watch trip, while spending $50 per person, per day on lodging, food, and activities. Researchers concluded that nearly 1,500 jobs are supported annually by whale watching operations that frequently visit Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This translates to $76 million in labor income, and $182 million in sales annually to the sanctuary community.

Supporting Local Businesses

Gloucester is a coastal city on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts, and has one of the oldest fishing seaports in the U.S. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

The economic benefits of whale watching tourism extend beyond the whale watch operators themselves. Laura Howes, director of research and education for Boston Harbor Cruises and a member of the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary Advisory Council, explained that after passengers finish their whale watching tours, they frequently ask for recommendations for nearby hotels, restaurants, and other activities to do in the area. Businesses have the opportunity to cross-promote and suggest other tourism activities, which keep tourists engaged in the area. Whale watching tours are often sold in package deals, where they are included with other tourist attractions. This includes places like the New England Aquarium which then promotes other local businesses.

Wendy Northcross, chief executive officer for the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce added that “whale watching is part of a larger 'blue economy' which encompasses tourism, but also anything related to the water – research, aquaculture, fishing, marine trades/transportation, off-shore energy, and recreational pursuits on the water such as sailing and water skiing.” Each of these activities benefits from the continued conservation of the ocean that allows these businesses to thrive.

An Educational Experience

Whale watching offers excellent educational opportunities for people of all ages. Photo: Matt McIntosh.

Whale watching companies offering daily seasonal tours are often privately owned and operated, but can play a major role in research, public educational outreach, and raising awareness of whale conservation efforts and the factors that put the whales at risk. “Historically, Cape Codders went to sea to kill and harvest whales, which sustained them economically. Today, Cape Codders bring guests to Stellwagen Bank to see the whales and learn about them which increases appreciation and conservation of these beautiful mammals,” said Northcross.

Whale watching tour staff are local naturalists, and often have a background in marine research and conservation. According to the surveys that were conducted, respondents said the factors they were most satisfied with during their whale watching trips were 1) having a knowledgeable naturalist on board, 2) friendly staff, and 3) that the naturalist host was available to answer questions.

Laura Howes explains that on a whale watching tour with Boston Harbor Cruises, passengers are guided by staff who usually have completed a bachelor’s degree in life science, have great customer service skills, and who have experience presenting complex ideas like climate change to passengers from a wide range of backgrounds.

three kids looking at a whale breach
Whale watchers of all ages are fascinated by the sanctuary's whales – in this case, a humpback whale spouts as the passengers of two vessels observe its behavior. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

“I’ve been on the water since I was a little kid, and our head naturalist, Diane, has been whale watching for over 25 years,” said Bob Avila, co-owner and captain for Captain John Boats in Plymouth, Massachusetts. “Most of our naturalists have a background in fields like marine biology, and Diane trains them before they ever touch the microphone. Our naturalists are in love with what they are doing – many who have been with us for over 10 years.”

The sanctuary works with whale watching operators, with the goal of educating the public about this fragile and increasingly threatened ocean ecosystem. Whale watching tours at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are places for education, for sightseeing, but also for the advancement of important research that is used to protect and conserve the whales themselves.

“Since we're an offshore site, the whale watch fleet is one of the main avenues for sanctuary visitation. We are extremely fortunate to work with such an outstanding group of naturalists and we rely on them to serve as sanctuary ambassadors to enhance the visitor experience while building a more informed public on ocean stewardship issues,” said Pete DeCola, superintendent of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Businesses Supporting Wildlife Conservation

Whale watching passengers in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary often observe massive humpback whales feeding on schools of small fish, like sand lance. You can see a couple of fish leaping to safety at far left. Photo: Jeremy Winn, under NOAA Fisheries Permit #605-1904

Whale watching companies frequently partner with non-profit organizations like the New England Aquarium and the Center for Coastal Studies to conduct research that may help protect the future of whales in the sanctuary. Data collected from whale watching vessels has been instrumental in backing up some of the most important steps taken to protect the whales in recent years.

One of the biggest successes according to Laura Howes has been the relocation of the Boson Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS), which is a busy shipping lane for ships heading to Boston Harbor and tankers traveling to and from the liquid natural gas offshore port located just outside the sanctuary. The shipping lanes formerly crossed the southern section of Stellwagen Bank, which has been recognized as an area with a high concentration of feeding whales. Using data from several whale conservation organizations collected by researchers and naturalists, often aboard whale watching vessels, the sanctuary proposed a new route, which was adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 2007. The changes resulted in a decrease in the potential threat of ship strikes to right whales (81%) and all baleen whales (68%).

Research conducted during whale watch charters has also been instrumental in the implementation of whale-detecting hydrophones, whale location alerts, and the development of a whale-tracing app, Whale Alert. The app was developed through Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in collaboration with partners, and is “a global effort to reduce ship strikes and other human activities that threaten marine mammals.” Through this app, users can report whale sightings to the appropriate response agency, which helps reduce whale ship strikes.

“Every day we collect data on the whales we see and send that data to Whale Alert and Whale SENSE. We also post the names and number of the whales that we see every day on Facebook, and that data is public information,” said Bob Avila.

Your Cetacean Destination

Spyhopping is a behavior that whales, such as this right whale, sometimes use to poke their heads out of the water to view the sea’s surface around them. Photo: Peter Flood/NOAA

Seal popped out of the water
Guests aboard whale watching charters also enjoy observing other marine mammal species found in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, such as grey seals. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Whale watching is an integral part of the community and local economy surrounding Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Visitors are provided with a rich educational experience, while often getting a chance to directly contribute to whale research and conservation efforts.

In 2019, nearly 270,000 people went whale watching within the sanctuary, and in the past decade, operators have noticed an increase in visitors requesting and supporting more sustainable and responsible practices in the industry. Like many businesses in 2020, whale watching companies have not been unscathed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary alongside local whale watch companies, passionate researchers, and curious passengers, all continue to contribute to a cycle of economic and educational benefits that will help the whales continue to live peacefully in the waters they call home.

Jordan Koetje is an environmental science student at Oregon State University and a Virtual Federal Student Service intern with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.