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Running head: LET’S GO WHALE WATCHING!
Let’s Go Whale Watching!
University of Georgia
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Let’s Go Whale Watching!
Why This Topic Chose Me
I am not sure when my fascination with whales began, but I have been searching for a
glimpse of a whale whenever I am at a beach or on a boat for many years now. It never really
occurred to me that we should plan a trip specifically to go see whales in the wild until one of my
colleagues came back from a whale watching vacation. She had gone to the Boston area and had
incredible photographs and stories to share about her experience. Several years later, another
colleague went to the same area specifically to see whales. Shortly after he shared his
experiences with me, I told Mark that I wanted us to plan a trip to see whales. Health and
financial constraints prevented us from taking this too seriously at the time, but now things are a
little more favorable and the desire to see whales has been haunting me again. I have had the
privilege of swimming with manatees in Crystal River and have seen dolphins swimming in the
wild near my small boat on several occasions in Florida. While scuba diving I have seen sharks,
spotted eagle rays, moray eels, and many gorgeous fish, but never a whale.
Mark told me that if we scheduled a whale watching trip, he wanted it to be in Alaska
(personal communication, February 10, 2008). He has wanted to return to Alaska for as long as
I’ve known him having experienced a fantastic vacation there was his parents and brother many
years before. He started looking into a trip to Alaska about a year ago, but about the same time I
decided, with his blessing, to enroll in graduate school. Meanwhile, I wondered if we could take
a quick trip up to Boston where my friends had been and then schedule a more elaborate trip to
Alaska at a later time. Mark wasn’t thrilled with this idea, so when this research project
presented itself, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to look into whale watching
more thoroughly to see if Alaska was really the best place to go. This led to my essential
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question: Which whale watching scenario would most satisfy my husband and me, taking
into account all of our criteria for a positive experience?
The Story of My Search
I began my research with general background reading on whale watching. I tried
GALILEO unsuccessfully and then used Google to locate three online articles. From my
background reading I learned two keywords to watch for, Eco-tourism and Eco-friendly travel,
as well as whale behaviors to look for such as breaching (jumping), tail-sailing (using their tails
to catch a breeze), and spouting (exhaling moisture rich air). My background reading also
informed me that most reputable cruises (short and longer ones) have a whale expert that will
narrate the encounter to provide a more fulfilling experience. One point I hadn’t thought of
before reading an online article by Trevor Day was that we should consider selecting a tour
operator who is recommended by a wildlife conservation group so the whales will be safe and as
undisturbed as possible (2008). I had wondered if whale watching was dangerous, but I was
thinking in terms of my personal safety. I really want to see whales in the wild, but I don’t want
to contribute to an industry that is causing their decline. This led me to add the sub-questions
“Are whale watching tours harmful to the whales and/or other wildlife?” and “How do I make
sure the tour boat operator is eco-friendly, keeping the whales safe and undisturbed?”
Additional sub-questions that came from my background reading included “What types of boats
provide the best experiences?” and “What time of day is best for seeing whales?”
Most of the websites I located through a Google search were very specific in nature, but I
needed more background information to help me decide which whales would be most interesting
to watch. Once I determined which whales I wanted to see, I could determine where I should go
to see that particular type of whale, preferably in the waters off of the United States due to
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logistical reasons but definitely in North America. With the need for more general information, I
looked at two online book sellers, Amazon and Barnes and Noble, to see if there were any
current books on whale watching. I decided on three titles that looked the most promising. I then
checked the University of Georgia Library, the Athens-Clarke County Public Library, as well as
the local Borders and Barnes and Noble stores. None of these establishments had the books I was
looking for, so I ordered two of the books from Amazon and had them shipped second-day
delivery. (Coincidentally, one of the books I purchased was the one referenced in the article for
my pre-notetaking, background reading- Whale Watcher by Trevor Day ).
I read the most relevant portions of the books by Day (2006) and Wilson and Wilson
(2006) noting information that would help me answer my sub-questions and ultimately my
essential question. These books were fascinating and very informative, but neither provided
answers to all of my questions. After reading both books, I was able to narrow my location to
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Monterey Bay,
California, and Southeast Alaska and the Inside Passage. I was glad I had decided to purchase
both of the books for they each had strengths and weaknesses and will provide many hours of
enjoyment in the future. Both books also have excellent lists of useful addresses which include
whale watching organizations, wildlife conservation groups, and other relevant websites.
After looking at the “additional resources” in the books above, I decided to visit the
websites for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, American Cetacean Society, The
Whale Center for New England, and the Alaska Travel Industry Association. These sites also had
many interesting links, so it was hard to stay focused on my specific questions. I did use the links
to locate several operators in each of the three areas to give me an idea of how much a whale
watching trip would cost. When we are ready to book a trip, Mark and I will need to go back and
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compare more of the operators and perhaps consult a travel agent to be sure we find the package
that best meets our needs at a good price.
Up to this point, I had intentionally not interviewed Mark. Although I knew he preferred
to go to Alaska, I wanted to have an open mind while I researched this topic. Finally I sat down
with him and asked him what his expectations were and what he felt would define a “good whale
watching experience.” I asked him which whales he most wanted to see… after all he might
really want to see a whale species that wasn’t frequently seen in Alaska. After sharing his
thoughts, I briefly discussed the three areas that I had narrowed my list to, and he reaffirmed his
desire to go to Alaska.
My final step was to seek interviews from friends who had been whale watching to learn
from their experiences. Due to time constraints, I was only able to interview one, the counselor at
my elementary school who went on vacation to Alaska this past summer. While vacationing in
Alaska, she went on a whale watching day trip.
What I Found
To help me answer my essential question and focus my research, I asked several sub-
questions which are listed below along with a summary of the information I found for each one.
Which whale species are popular among whale watchers? Why?
My preconceived notion was that Humpback Whales would be one of the best and most
popular whales to watch because you hear about them so much on television. My belief was
confirmed by Trevor Day when he said:
The humpback is arguably the most exciting whale to watch. It is slow-moving and often
cavorts around at the sea surface, breaching or lobtailing. Sometimes it will lie on its
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back and wave one or both flippers in the air. Occasionally it brings a flipper down with a
crash (2006, p43).
He went on to say, “Humpbacks employ some of the most extraordinary feeding techniques of
any cetacean” (2006, p44). The feeding techniques include stunning fish by slapping the water
with their tail or bubble netting in which a group of whales swim rapidly in a circle around and
under a school of fish or swarm of krill while blowing bubbles forcing the fish or krill to the
surface where the whales scoop them into their open mouths as they break the surface from
underneath. Additional behaviors that make Humpbacks popular include their singing which can
last from a few minutes to half an hour, day or night, and their inquisitive nature, which includes
swimming up to boats and spyhopping (Day, 2006, pp43-45). The behaviors exhibited by this
specie of whales makes it sound like an excellent subject to watch because of its above water
behavior and natural curiosity.
Two other species of whales are also popular among whale watchers: Killer Whales
(a.k.a. Orcas) and Gray Whales. Killer Whales are playful, social, and inquisitive; their surface
behaviors include breaching, lobtailing, flipper-slapping, and spyhopping (Day, 2006, p89). Gray
Whales are slow swimming, curious, not afraid of boats and frequently spyhop. They also
breach, lobtail and flipper-slap (Day, 2006, p59).
Which locations off of North America provide good opportunities for watching the whale species
I decide I want to see?
After reading Day’s book Whale Watcher (2006), I decided the whale I most wanted to
see was the Humpback Whale followed by the Killer Whale. The book The Complete Whale-
Watching Handbook: A Guide to Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the World by Ben Wilson
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and Angus Wilson (2006) provided an excellent guide to locations and helped me narrow my
search to three popular whale watching locations where I could see Humpbacks as well as other
One of the oldest and most well established whale watching spots is Stellwagen Bank
north of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The World Wildlife Fund lists it as one of the top ten whale
watching sites in the world. The most common whale seen in this area is the Humpback but
whale watchers may also see Northern Right, Fin, Minke, Killer, Sei, Sperm, and Long-Finned
Pilot Whales in this area (Wilson & Wilson, 2006, pp185-186).
Humpback Whales spend the summer feeding in Southeast Alaska and Inside Passage
area. Gray Whales and Killer Whales (transient and resident) are also principal species here.
Frederick Sound and Chatham Straight are world famous for Humpbacks bubble netting. This is
a common area for cruise ships as they travel up and down the Inside Passage and Glacier Bay
(Wilson & Wilson, 2006, pp188-189).
Monterey Bay, California is considered one of the premier whale-watching spots in North
America and perhaps the world. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the largest
federally protected marine sanctuary in the United States. Whales that migrate through this area
include Humpback, Blue Whales, and Pacific Gray Whales. Additionally, Killer Whales can
sometimes be seen preying on Gray Whale calves or Northern Elephant Seals (Wilson & Wilson,
What time of year and time of day should we schedule a whale watching trip for the whale
species I want to see and the location I choose? Will this time be compatible with work, school,
and family obligations?
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Once again the book by Wilson and Wilson proved to be a great source for determining
time of year. The season for whale watching in Cape Cod, Massachusetts is June to October with
July and August especially productive (2006, pp185-186). In Southeast Alaska and the Inside
Passage, the season is June to September (2006, p189). From May to mid December Humpback
and Blue Whales migrate into Monterey Bay and from mid December to mid May most of the
Pacific Gray Whales pass through the Monterey Bay area (2006, p191). As a public school
educator June and July will be the best time of year for me to take an extended vacation. This
will work well with whale watching in the three locations I targeted! I should complete my Ed.S.
degree in May of 2009. At this time, I plan to wait until Summer 2009 or maybe even Summer
2010 to take this trip.
I have been unable to locate information on a specific time of day being better for whale
watching. If we take a day trip rather than an extended cruise, I will ask this question before
purchasing tickets, especially if the operator offers two or more trips a day.
What mode of transportation should we take to see the whales?
There are many different modes of transportation we can take to view whales, and in
some areas you can even see them from land. Neither Mark nor I want to see whales via a large
cruise ship. When deciding on a boat to go whale watching on, Wilson and Wilson said to
choose a boat based on comfort and view (2006, p 170) and suggest taking into consideration
shelter from the weather and sun, indoor and outdoor seating, toilet facilities, stability (larger
vessels offer more stability which will reduce seasickness for most people), refund policy, and
quality of viewing (2006, p165). The most likely mode of transportation for us would be a small
live aboard cruise ship experience lasting five to nine days. While in Alaska, my friend Chris
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went on two different day trips. One “was on a 2 level sight seeing boat that held around 60
passengers” and the other was “on a small fishing boat that had a cabin for 4 people” (C. Wren,
personal communication, February 13, 2008). When asked to elaborate about the advantages of
each she said:
The advantages of the larger boat were that you could be inside, eat, and use the
bathroom, etc. while it traveled a greater distance in a short period of time. Being a tour
boat, however, it could not linger long or veer from the set course. I preferred the smaller
boat because you could get as close to the whales as the law allowed. The captain was in
radio contact with other fishing boats so that we could go directly to places whales were
sighted (C. Wren, personal communication, February 13, 2008).
Mark wants to take a small live aboard cruise in the Southeast Alaska and/or Inside Passage area
with as few people as we can possibly afford (personal communication, February 10, 2008). We
need to make sure we select a boat that can go where the whales are and not just on a
predetermined course. We will also want to see the glaciers and other sites, but when we are
whale watching I want to be sure the boat has the freedom to give us the best experience
possible. At this time, I have not pinpointed the exact operator, but I have seen several
interesting prospects linked off of the Alaska Travel Industry website. As we get closer to
booking our trip, we will decide the best company to go with. It will be important, however, to
book early to get our first choice. It may also be desirable to take an additional day trip in a
slightly different area. I will keep Chris’ tip about the small fishing boat in mind!
Which supplies, clothing, and equipment are recommended for a positive whale watching
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Several of my sources provided lists of items to bring on a whale watch, but the book by
Wilson and Wilson (2006) and the article by Dayle Sullivan-Taylor (2006) on the Stellwagen
Bank National Marine Sanctuary website provided the most detailed information. Their
suggestions for clothing included wearing several layers of clothing, waterproof “over trousers,”
a rain jacket with hood, gloves, comfortable rubber soled shoes, and sunglasses with polarizing
lenses (especially brands made for sports fisherman or sailors). Sunscreen is a must. Wilson and
Wilson suggest Binoculars 7 – 8x as well as a soft cloth with fresh water to clear the view of
binoculars, glasses, and cameras. Interestingly, Sullivan-Taylor does not recommend binoculars
unless you also plan to bird watch. He says the whales are usually close enough to see without
binoculars. For photography, both sources recommend a zoom lens 70 or 80-300 and a polarizing
filter. Sullivan-Taylor adds that it is important to have plenty of batteries and film or storage
media and warns readers not to use it all up on far away shots- the whales may come closer. My
friend Chris recommended a video camera over a still camera. She said, “…it’s hard to capture
them (whales) on a still photo” (C. Wren, personal communication, February 13, 2008). Dan
Knaub, president and owner of The Whale Video Company wrote an article on videography for
the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary website. He offers several helpful tips but
reminds whale watchers to “put the camera down for a little while (or give it to another member
of your party) during each behavior and witness these amazing animals through your eyes and
heart, not a lens” (2006, ¶11). All sources suggest motion sickness medicine. Other
recommendations for curbing sea sickness include a good night sleep, fresh air, look at the
horizon, and a light meal avoiding fatty or fried foods (Sullivan-Taylor, 2006; Wilson & Wilson,
2006, pp152-155, pp160-162).
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How much will it cost?
Prices vary greatly according to the type of experience you want to have. The Alaska
Travel Industry Association has provided a very informative web site for visiting Alaska with
links to tour companies. AdventureSmith Explorations has a nine day trip out of Juneau, Alaska
that ranges from $4350 to $5350 per person June through August for the type of cabin I
anticipate we will want. This does not include airfare to Alaska. A five day trip with the same
company ranges from $2650 to $3050 per person for similar accommodations (n.d.). A Kenai
Fjords full-day National Park Cruise out of Seward, Alaska with Major Marine Tours costs $127
a piece not including dinner or taxes. The cruise lasts from 11:45 to 7:45 and accommodates 166
passengers. For an additional $15 you can get an Alaskan salmon and prime rib dinner on board
(2008). Closer to our vacation, we will need to carefully compare different packages available,
but this gives me an idea of what it will cost.
What are the physical demands of a whale watching trip? (Are my husband and I capable of
participating in an activity with these physical demands?)
When asked, my friend Chris said the physical demands for her day trip were “Being out
in the wind, rain, and cold” (C. Wren, personal communication, 2008). The AdventureSmith
website provides a level of difficulty for each of its trips to assist travelers in determining if they
are physically capable. Their whale watching trips are both rated Level 1 Easy (n.d.). I believe
Mark and I will be capable of participating in a trip of this nature. We may have to pass on more
rigorous side trips, and the cold and wet conditions may make us achy, but I believe our
enjoyment will outweigh any discomfort.
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Is whale watching dangerous?
In his book Whale Watcher: A Global Guide to Watching Whales, Dolphins and
Porpoises in the Wild, Trevor Day described various whale behaviors noting if they could be a
sign of aggression or stress (2006, pp18-21). This will be very helpful in determining if we are in
danger or causing the whales undue stress, but it doesn’t appear that this is a hazardous activity
for the most part. In The Complete Whale-Watching Handbook: A Guide to Whales, Dolphins,
and Porpoises of the World, Wilson and Wilson explain that collisions between boats and
surfacing cetaceans, engine noise, and other stressful activities caused by humans led to rules and
recommendations for whale watching including limiting distance between boat and whale,
feeding and petting, erratic boat behavior, number of boats at one location, and length of time a
boat can stay with the whales (2006, pp82-183). Following these regulations should minimize
the risk of harm from the animals. Of course there is always danger from boat malfunction and
getting seriously ill or injured when you are away from good medical care.
Are whale watching tours harmful to the whales and/or other wildlife?
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) says whale watching can both
harm and benefit whales. Harm is caused by overcrowding them with boats and irresponsible
behavior on the part of boat operators and whale watchers. However, they believe whales and
by “drumming up public support for their protection.” This is encouraged through “on-
board educational commentaries.”
because whale-watch operators assist with research on live cetaceans.
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because whale watching provides an alternative to whaling- the two activities are
incompatible. Whale watching provides income for coastal communities without killing
because watching whales in the wild behaving naturally is more rewarding than watching
a captive animal perform tricks.
“In summary, WDCS is supportive of responsible, educational, whale and dolphin watching, as it
can benefit both the animals and local communities” (2008b). Although whale watching
certainly can be harmful to the whales and other wildlife, if we pick an educated and responsible
tour boat operator who follows local and industry guidelines and regulations, we should
minimize the risk to them and perhaps even help the whales by supporting an industry that
depends on live, healthy animals being around for a long time.
How do I make sure the tour boat operator is eco-friendly, keeping the whales safe and
Day provides a nice two page spread on responsible whale watching including a section
on choosing an operator. He gives specific questions on page 23 of his book that you can ask to
be sure the boat operator puts the welfare of the animal first while providing whale watchers with
good and “relatively safe” whale watching experiences. He further suggests finding out which
local operators are recommended by wildlife or whale conservation organizations (2006, p23).
It is a good idea to be aware of the regulations of the area as well as recommended
guidelines by whale conservation groups, so you can do whatever you can to minimize the
impact on the whales. Asking questions of the boat operator lets them know you are concerned
about the whales’ welfare and are aware of the activities they should or should not be doing. Day
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explains some of the regulations in his book which include: don’t restrict free movement of the
animal; approach from behind and slightly to the side; get no closer than 330ft.; go slow; travel
parallel; never chase or separate one from the group; let the animal approach your boat then turn
off motor or idle; limit interaction; leave slowly (no wake); don’t touch or feed; stay quiet; don’t
startle; don’t litter; be aware of and follow local regulations; report violators (2006, pp22-23).
Many areas have enforceable regulations regarding such things as proximity and speed,
while some areas only have unenforceable guidelines. Unfortunately there are other areas that
don’t have any rules, guidelines, or enforcement. The WDCS recommends letting the operator
know you are aware of the regulations and letting them know if you are uncomfortable with their
activity (2008a, ¶5),
What factors define a “positive experience” for my husband and me?
Mark has strong feelings about what he expects from our whale watching vacation. He
prefers a live-aboard experience with no more than fifty people. He felt a day trip of four hours
would only provide a glimpse of the whales, and he wants to be able to observe whale behavior
for a longer period of time. He does not want to be on a large cruise ship with thousands of
tourists. He strongly prefers Alaska over Boston or other urban areas for our destination. He
believes Alaska has a large diversity of whales, including the ones he most wants to see, and he
wants the trip to be about more than whales since it will be expensive. He wants to take side trips
to see nature- especially Alaskan nature. He prefers to stay immersed in a more natural setting;
he does not want to have to return to an urban area after viewing wildlife in their natural
environment. The whales Mark most wants to see are Humpback Whales and Killer Whales. He
would also like to see Gray Whales, but he doesn’t believe we would have much success looking
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for Blue Whales since their numbers are limited (M. Delgado, personal communication,
February 10, 2008).
For me a positive experience will include watching whales up close for an extended
amount of time, without causing harm or stress to the animals. Since Humpback Whales have a
lot of surface behaviors, I have selected them as the specie of whale I most want to see. I want to
be around people who have positive and caring attitudes; this includes the crew, my husband,
and fellow travelers. I expect the crew to be knowledgeable about boating and about whales and
whale watching. I want us to be well prepared for the trip with plenty of the right types of clothes
and photography equipment needed to record lasting memories. While on our trip, I hope that
Mark and I can remain as healthy and pain free as possible. This may mean we bypass more
strenuous side trips. I want our expenses to be known in advance… no surprise additional
charges. Finding a good price without cheating ourselves out of a full experience is also
important to me.
How I Will Apply What I Found to My Question
My research will help Mark and me plan for a vacation in the near future that should
meet both of our expectations for a successful whale watching experience. My essential question
is: Which whale watching scenario would most satisfy my husband and me, taking into
account all of our criteria for a positive experience?
Through my research, I have determined that the whales I most want to see in the wild
are Humpback Whales and Killer Whales. Mark came to the same conclusion based on his own
knowledge. Both of these species of whales are found in the Southeast Alaska and Inside Passage
area, a popular location for watching whales. Since Mark feels strongly that our destination
should be Alaska and the whales we want to see are found there at a time that works well for my
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job, this is where we will plan to go for our whale watching vacation. Our favorite mode of
transportation is a small cruise ship with limited passengers. Six to eight months before we plan
to take our vacation, we will compare prices and travel packages for small cruise ships in the
Southeast Alaska and/or Inside Passage Area. Booking in advance will provide a discount. With
advance booking, I learned we may need to look into vacation insurance. In addition to price, we
will compare the comfort and viewing capability of the boat, number of people that will be on
the boat, type of experiences the cruise includes (such as side trips and flexibility to go where the
whales are), and eco-friendliness of the crew. We will review the specific regulations and laws
for whale watching in this area, so we will be knowledgeable and can express our discomfort if
we feel the whales are being harmed. We will find out which other whales are likely to be seen in
the area, and using the two books I purchased for this research, we will learn how to tell the
various species apart by looking at their behaviors as well as their physical appearance. Once we
know our exact destination, we will look into other places to visit in the southeastern Alaska
area. Lists of clothing, equipment, and supplies will be prepared and new purchases made to
accommodate our needs for this life-changing experience. During my research, I identified two
additional locations that are world renowned for whale watching within the continental United
States- Monterey Bay, California and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I hope to plan expeditions to
these whale watching destinations at a later date!
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AdventureSmith Explorations. (n.d.). Small ship- Alaska whales and wilderness. Retrieved
February 12, 2008, from http://www.adventuresmithexplorations.com/
Alaska Travel Industry Association. (2007). State of Alaska travel and vacation information.
Retrieved February 12, 2008, from http://www.travelalaska.com/
Day, T. (2006). Whale watcher: A global guide to watching whales, dolphins and porpoises in
the wild. Buffalo, NY: Firefly Books.
Day, T. (2008). Top tips for watching whales. Retrieved January 27, 2008, from
Knaub, D. (2006). Videotape whales like a professional. Retrieved February 10, 2008, from
Major Marine Tours. (2008). Kenai Fjords full-day national park cruises. Retrieved February 12,
2008, from http://www.majormarine.com/alaska-day-cruises/kenai-fjords-fullday-
Sullivan-Taylor, D. (2006). Make the most out of your whale watching experience. Retrieved
February 10, 2008, from http://stellwagen.noaa.gov/visit/whalewatching/tips.html
Villano, M. (2007). A whale of a trip. Retrieved January 27, 2008, from
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Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. (2008a). A good whale watch. Retrieved February 3,
2008, from http://www.wdcs.org/dan/publishing.nsf/allweb/
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. (2008b). WDCS and whale watching. Retrieved
February 10, 2008, from http://www.wdcs.org/dan/publishing.nsf/allweb/
Whale watching holidays- whale watching tours: What to expect on whale watching holidays.
(2007). Retrieved January 27, 2008, from http://www.whale-watching-tours-
Wilson, B., & Wilson, A. (2006). The complete whale-watching handbook: A guide to whales,
dolphins, and porpoises of the world. St. Paul, MN: Voyageur Press.