Mechanisms for assessing the sustainability of swimming-with-whales tourism in the Great Barrier Reef

Curnock, Matthew I. (2010) Mechanisms for assessing the sustainability of swimming-with-whales tourism in the Great Barrier Reef. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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An Australian Government sanctioned swimming-with-whales (SWW) tourism industry has developed in the northern Great Barrier Reef based on the austral winter migration of dwarf minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata subsp.). Nine Reef tour operators were granted special SWW endorsements/permits in 2003 by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and the industry has remained capped at this level. Permit conditions require these operators to (i) comply with a Code of Practice when encountering the whales, and (ii) report details of all encounters using Whale Sighting Sheets. The cumulative impacts of this tourism activity are uncertain and there are widespread concerns about the sustainability of swim-with-cetaceans programs. The geographic remoteness of these interactions in the Great Barrier Reef poses additional challenges for monitoring the activity.

Adopting a 'sustainability science' approach, this study utilised a mixed methodology to investigate mechanisms for assessing the sustainability of this SWW tourism activity. Four studies were conducted over three minke whale seasons (2006-2008), which investigated: (1) The spatial and temporal distribution of dwarf minke whale encounters and SWW tourism operators' effort in the Great Barrier Reef, (2) The social values of dwarf minke whales and the SWW experience, (3) Management of the SWW activity, and (4) The development of sustainability objectives and indicators for future monitoring of the SWW activity.

Study One examined the distribution of minke whale encounters across the northern Great Barrier Reef (n=854) and compared these with industry searching effort and site use in this region. It was found that almost three quarters of encounters occurred when vessels were moored at popular Reef dive sites or when at anchor behind reefs (i.e. the whales approached and interacted with stationary vessels). Using vessel effort and the whale sightings data, whale encounter rates and proportions of total encounter time to total vessel effort were calculated for the 40 most frequently visited Reef sites, revealing a small number of encounter 'hot spots' with particularly high encounter rates. A trend over the six-year period 2003-2008 was observed, in which the number of minke whale encounters and the total whale encounter time for the industry increased by approximately 90%. This growth was shown to be a result of increasing industry effort at the identified minke whale encounter hot spots, involving the same handful of SWW operators. Despite such growth, considerable latent capacity for further increases in minke whale encounters was found to exist among the nine permitted operators.

Study Two investigated the elements that contribute to the swimming-with-dwarf minke whales experience using passenger questionnaires (n=2,171), and identified a range of social values of the whales and the SWW experience held by the tourists and key stakeholders. Passenger survey responses indicated exceptionally high ratings of satisfaction with the SWW experience. Defining elements of the SWW experience that emerged included: (i) closeness to whales, (ii) the in-water setting, (iii) seeing many/multiple whales, (iv) the long duration of interactions, (v) inquisitive behaviour displayed by the whales, (vi) interactions occurring "on the whales' terms", (vi) the whales' aesthetic appeal and physical attributes, and (viii) a perception that the SWW encounters were well managed. Significant differences however in passengers' experiences were found on different vessels, with the greatest differences observed between live-aboard dive vessels and Reef day-trips. Passengers on live-aboard vessels were more likely to experience swimming-with-whales, saw more whales, got closer to them and gave higher ratings of satisfaction.

Social values associated with the whales and the SWW activity were identified using interviews with 16 stakeholder key informants, including industry personnel, Reef managers, NGO representatives and researchers. Industry respondents identified dwarf minke whales as one of the top wildlife experiences offered by their company. Management agency representatives perceived the SWW activity to be a good opportunity for engaging with the tourism industry and wider public, and for promoting the sustainable management of whale watching and the Great Barrier Reef. Other stakeholders identified the SWW activity as an opportunity to raise public awareness for whale conservation and expressed a keen interest in the ongoing evaluation and sustainable management of the SWW activity.

Study Three investigated the management of the SWW activity, including issues associated with on-the-water management of minke whale encounters by vessel crew, as well as the broader management processes and outcomes of stakeholder workshops held over 2006-2008. An analysis of the minutes of seven stakeholder workshops revealed that they were highly effective for addressing management issues and implementing changes to the Code of Practice. Interviews with key informants revealed a high level of satisfaction with current management of the SWW activity, however industry respondents were aware of vessels without SWW-endorsements conducting whale swims and were not satisfied that this issue was being adequately addressed. Concerns were also expressed about future management of the SWW activity, in particular if the number of permitted SWW operators were to increase. Interviews with vessel crew (n=15) revealed differing management challenges for live-aboard vessels and day-boats, however a problem common to the industry is a high turnover of crew. Results from the passenger questionnaires showed an overall perception among SWW participants that their encounters were well managed, however significant differences were found between vessels. Key elements attributed to good management of minke whale encounters were identified, underscoring the role of vessel crew and the importance of good briefings prior to swims with the whales.

Study Four employed principles of Participatory Action Research to engage key stakeholders in an iterative process to develop species, location and industry-specific sustainability objectives. First, a suite of Quadruple-Bottom-Line sustainability objectives was developed based on relevant literature and with input from cetacean scientists, encompassing ecological, social, economic and management goals. Feedback from stakeholders helped to refine these draft objectives and explore issues relating to their implementation. The objectives were subsequently reviewed and fine-tuned in a series of facilitated stakeholder workshops, with 39 objectives being formally adopted by workshop participants. A range of potential sustainability indicators that draw on available industry and researcher-generated data were evaluated concurrently with this process.

Based on the findings of these four studies, a range of issues affecting the implementation of sustainability indicators for the Great Barrier Reef SWW activity are discussed. A Swimming-with-Whales Adaptive Management Model is proposed and management recommendations are given that are intended to assist stakeholders in the ongoing assessment and management of this activity.

Item ID: 24896
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: Balaenoptera acutorostrata; baleen whales; cetaceans; common minke whales; dwarf minke whales; Far NQ; GBR; GBRMPA; GBRWHA; Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority; Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area; Great Barrier Reef; North Queensland; Northern Australia; northern minke whales; swimming-with-whales; swim-with-whales; tourism industry; whale sightings; whale watching cruises; whale watching tours
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Interpretive DVD titled "Meet the Minkes" (Appendix 3) is also available on YouTube at

Date Deposited: 10 Apr 2013 03:56
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050211 Wildlife and Habitat Management @ 33%
15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150601 Impacts of Tourism @ 33%
15 COMMERCE, MANAGEMENT, TOURISM AND SERVICES > 1506 Tourism > 150603 Tourism Management @ 34%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9606 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation > 960609 Sustainability Indicators @ 40%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9608 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity > 960808 Marine Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity @ 30%
90 COMMERCIAL SERVICES AND TOURISM > 9098 Environmentally Sustainable Commercial Services and Tourism > 909899 Environmentally Sustainable Commercial Services and Tourism not elsewhere classified @ 30%
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