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A Short Guide To Whale Watching

Dr Yoshio Masui

Part of my work as a cetacean researcher involves the counting of the number of Antarctic Minke whales in the ocean.

How does one count the number of Antarctic Minke whales in the sea? My colleagues and I do this by counting and photographing the whales we see on our research vessel at fixed time intervals. We also try to photograph each whale we see. We can then roughly and very vaguely determine the number of whales in that area and hypothetically estimate a global population of Antarctic Minke whales with other ships doing this survey in other oceans.

In the past, a single whale we saw was counted as 1.35 whales because of the fear that we might miss some whales in our survey. In 1984, the International Whaling Committee, which firmly believed that our surveys were producing population estimates that were grossly exaggerated (they believed whales are on the brink of extinction), insisted that each whale we see be considered to be only 0.64 of a whale. After much debate, they decided that estimations and fears do not make good estimates. It was decided that each whale we saw will be considered as a single whale.

Then there was another method of ‘mark-recapture’ where whales are marked and caught randomly to determine population size. If we catch only one whale out of ten which were previously marked, the population is estimated to be 100 whales in that area.

I was once part of an organised whale watching tour. We saw two whales (orcas, to be precise) tossing a live baby seal pup for over an hour, much to the shock of the observers on the ship. There were children crying and people with hands over their mouths. I felt that their distress seemed to inspire the whales to continue the performance involving the helpless seal. Some of the observers later threatened to sue the company for the trauma that the spectacle caused but the operator told them that the tour had indicated in advance what participants could expect: ‘The journey shows you the strength and power of these magnificent creatures in the most natural way possible.’


It is a well-known fact among cetacean researchers that whale watching is dangerous, causes great stress and disturbance to whales and is in fact a highly unnatural act. Collision with whale-watching ships is one of the most serious threats to whales these days.


Translated from Dr Yoshio Masui’s Eating Effigies: On Being The Pawns Of A Better Age, revised and expanded edition (Kobe, Japan: ICZ Press, 2001), pp 167-172. Dr Yoshio Masui is a former cetacean researcher, cultural theorist and critic living in New York.





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