« Spermaceti | Main | Meet the striped dolphins »

Are They Really  Free?

The point is, I love whales and dolphins and this piece of writing may or may not make sense to some of you...hopefully it does, and hopefully it may even get some of you thinking.

So the topic I’m discussing here is related to the large resident population of short-finned pilot whales located in the South of Tenerife. I’m currently a volunteer with Frontier researching the whales and dolphin populations here.  This blog is written as a voiced opinion from my own personal observations I’ve made since being here for 4 weeks now. As the reader, you may hold a different opinion over the matter, and that’s absolutely fine! However I do try and write this blog as an aim to get people thinking, you may even scratch your heads a little!

So, the waters between Tenerife and its neighbouring island La Gomera (part of the Atlantic Ocean) are very productive and an ideal habitat for not only the resident Pilot Whales but 27 other species of cetacean also. For those of you who have never been to Tenerife, it is the most heavily populated of the Canary Islands. The main attraction of this island comes from its year-round warm climate. This indeed makes it a very popular tourist destination with around five million tourists visiting per year.

So, what do these tourists want to do whilst on vacation? See whales and dolphins of course!

Whale and dolphin watching is one of the main attractions on the island which means there are a LOT of whale watching boats with the locals of course making a hefty living from these animals’ chosen residence.

The question repeating in my head is based on the relationship and ethnicity between the tourist boats and the pilot whales.

Now, we see these animals as free, right? They are not in a tank, not doing ‘tricks’ and they catch their own food.

As far as we are aware – they are happy right?

So here comes my question: What if they aren’t?

As stated in the previous paragraph, Tenerife is a huge tourist hot-spot all year round with people flooding in from all over the world. The tourist industry is forever growing which is bringing in more opportunities for money making... a.k.a more boats and more whale and dolphin watching tours.

The short – finned Pilot whale species essentially are nocturnal. They are most active at night as their primary food source is the ‘mythical’ giant squid. For those that don’t know much about these giant squid, they can grow up to 20m in length and live at depths up to 1200m. They do not swim up to the shallower waters as their bodies are not equipped to handle such drastic pressure changes. The pilot whales therefore have to hold their breath for up to 20+ minutes at a time to swim down to around 1000m to find their food – which indeed uses up a lot of their energy. So during the daytime these guys rest – they go to sleep... well sort of.

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) use a process called ‘Uni-Hemispheric-Slow-Wave-Sleep’ which means they have evolved the ability to shut down half their brain at a time. While one half rests, the other is alert and ensuring the animal is taking regular breaths of air (as they are air-breathing mammals like us) as well as being aware of potential dangers in the surrounding waters. Impressive huh? So when in this ‘sleep-like state’ they remain at the surface not moving much and so they are very easy to spot with their beautiful, glistening dark skin reflecting the sunlight. They are very easy for whale watchers to spot.

So one boat turns up, followed by another shortly after, then another, and another and... You get where i’m going with this right? In the end there are up to 10+ water craft vessels of all shapes and sizes coming from different locations surrounding these animals, each with their own genre of music playing growing louder and louder as they approach.

Picture this... you’ve had a long day at work, your mentally and physically exhausted! You finally get yourself into bed with soft pillows, a warm blanket, nearly asleep when suddenly BAM!   There’s suddenly loud music blasting through your house and a crowd of people standing around your bed gawping at you and not understanding the concept of personal space. Imagine this was an occurring situation happening every night?!  How would you end up feeling?

How many new parents feel massively sleep-deprived after having their baby crying for the majority of the night and you think ‘just PLEASE be quiet so I can sleep for a while!’

Am I close here? Can any of you relate?

Well this is kind of how i’m seeing the current relationship between the whales and the increasing tourist boats. They are being somewhat harassed and unable to freely express their absolute natural behaviours as well as we’d like to think.

*One thing I must note that I have had discussions with persons prior to writing this blog – YES these animals are in the wild and they ARE free and they CAN at any point dive below the surface and escape the boats... BUT they shouldn’t have to! They should not feel that they need to do this. So this IS forcing un-natural behaviours upon wild animals.

Such instances of illegal boat activity:

Whilst on one trip, I observed a small pod of only 4 individuals, one calf and three juveniles which were swimming a fair distance away, but in-line with us. Another boat saw these whales and soon moved in perpendicular to us and they ended up being sandwiched between the two boats and so they swam under the one opposite us to escape. Instead of keeping still and letting the animals (who were obviously not interested in the boats that day) swim away, the boat turned and drove wide of the animals and once again sandwiched them between our boat and theirs. This then pushed the whales in our direction. (Don’t get me wrong they indeed came very very close to the boat and it was a great encounter for everyone on board) However their personal space was definitely invaded and they appeared to be showing avoidance behaviour (which is when they try and avoid the boats) they were basically harassed. This then forced the animals to ‘dive’ unnecessarily expending energy.

Another incident I observed was a small pod of again around 4 individuals (age and gender unknown) who were swimming close to a boat, they dived down for a few minutes and then re-appeared in front of that boat. Instead of staying put and watching the whales the boat started to speed up and chase these whales and at one point it appeared the boat was going to run them over! It could be the captain perhaps assumed the pilot whales would bow-ride like dolphins do? Or just sheer stupidity.

Whale and dolphin watching in Tenerife is ‘supposed’ to be heavily regulated where legal boats are fly a blue flag and have to comply with recommended codes of practice regarding their interactions with the animals to avoid causing significant distress. Such regulations include:

•    Keeping a distance of at least 60 meters
•    A maximum observation time of 30 minutes
•    Avoid concentrations of boats
•    Sail at slow speeds
•    Leave the area if the animals are being disturbed

There is so much controversy over the topic of marine mammals in captivity. (I’m not going to voice my opinion nor preach in any way about this debate, period). What I will say is that there is a large portion of the human population who assume that keeping these animals in zoos and aquariums causes them distress and harm, forces un-natural behaviours and that they are overall unhappy.                                                             

My point here is: What if all these tourist boats surrounding these whales, invading their personal space, disturbing their much-needed (half) sleep are causing just as much distress as these human care facilities ‘apparently’ do.?

People at the present time appear so wrapped up in wanting to shut down Sea World, release all the dolphins in human care into the ocean... focusing solely on zoos and aquariums as the villains (again, refuse to voice my opinion) what if the increasing number of whale watching boats are just as bad for the animal’s health?  Can they really display their natural behaviours with numerous boats surrounding them throughout the day? Are they sleep-deprived/stressed with all the noise above and below the water?

Are these whales really free?!

I believe it’s time to take action before these generations of whales feel too uncomfortable in this area of water they have chosen to call home. It will be interesting to see 10 years from now whether there are more or less numbers of Pilot Whales here off the coast of Tenerife.

How can we help as conservationists, tourists?


As stated before, whale watching in Tenerife is supposed to be highly regulated... however as we are more commonly observing, not many of these boats are following these regulations. SO, if you see a boat you feel is acting illegally (not complying with the marine code of conduct) around any whale, dolphin or porpoise...video it! photograph it! We all have smart phones, video cameras, GoPros nowadays! Gain as much footage as you can and send it to the right people (marine conservation organisations) to take action and get something done!

Enough compiled evidence sent to the police could get fines put in place for boat companies and as money is the main thing on many a person’s mind here on Tenerife... I bet they will start to listen. Please do not book a whale and dolphin watching trip with an illegal boat.

We can make a difference and help to get ‘responsible whale watching’ if we work together to protect these amazing creatures.

Now that SeaWorld have ended their breeding program of orcas, the wild will be the only place to see these animals. Will this cause another increase in the number of whale watching boats? Will the same occurrence that is happening with the pilot whales here in Tenerife happen to Orca populations?

We need stricter regulations put in place to protect these beautiful animals.

30 minutes in their presence is too long for how many tourist boats are within the perimeter of the whales – many overstay this limit. There should be a limit as to how many boats can be around a pod of whales or dolphins at one time. There should be a rule as to when the whales and dolphins come within 100m of the boat should stop moving and not follow the animals.

They need your help!

By Sarah Wyer - Tenerife Whale and Dolphin Conservation Volunteer

Frontier runs conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

Get more from us on social media with FacebookTwitter , Instagram and YouTube.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>