A recent trip around the Swansea and Gower coast in Wales in an RIB boat gave me the opportunity to see some of the most spectacular wildlife in the British Isles up close, and even for a short while enjoy a surprise visit from a pod of common dolphins, but it also showed me that there are some companies who are striving to get it right when it comes to responsible wildlife tourism practices, and how those practices are proving to be a huge benefit to them.
Assembling at the picturesque Swansea Marina, the crew of the ‘Sea Serpent’, a ten foot long RIB created a relaxed, easy atmosphere as we kitted up with our waterproofs and safety gear, and I listened carefully as they explained what the trip would entail.
Despite the fact that seals were a touted highlight of the tour, the trip itself wasn’t a specific wildlife spotting trip. In fact we were there simply to take a closer look at the spectacular scenery of the Gower coast and soak in some of the fascinating history and culture that the coastline was steeped in as I wrote about here, but the crew did mention that there was a chance that since the Gower coast was a haven for all sorts of wildlife, then we would probably see some.
Many of the group were excited about this, after all the chance to see some wildlife is always a popular tourist draw, but I noticed the crew member who turned out to be our primary guide and source of all local information was very non committal about this aspect of the boat trip and I asked why. The sailor’s answer was – and I am paraphrasing here – There’s a good chance we’ll see something, certain wildlife like seals are known to make the area their home and we will be passing through it, if they decide to show themselves then we’ll see them, if not, they don’t want to be seen.
I was seriously impressed.
That was exactly the answer I was hoping for. This was an operator who obviously cared for the wildlife in the area and had ethical guidelines on spotting them. They knew how much of a tourist draw wildlife spotting was, but they were also aware that they were a precious resource that could not be abused or exploited. Basically speaking if the seals weren’t there, they weren’t about to go searching for them and risk disturbing them regardless of the wishes or needs of any tourists on board.
Wildlife spotting isn’t a new thing, but it is a huge and growing part of the tourism industry. It is easy to see why, with public interest in majestic creatures like whales and dolphins at an all time high, and the popularity crash of seeing these animals in captivity starting to wane, people are looking for alternatives. Unfortunately as the industry grows, so to does the range of unethical and unsustainable practices in the pursuit of profit.
There are regrettably too many instances of bad practices around the world, of fleets of tourist boats chasing sightings of whales and dolphins, of baiting (a practice used to lure animals to a specific area for the tourist’s pleasure) and even touching and interacting with the animals. As well as growing publicity from mainstream media on the harm bad practices are causing and growing public anger on this issue, there is growing evidence that bad practices in this field can lead to both short term and long term harm to the animals themselves. The congregation of tourist boats chasing marine mammals can affect normal migratory patterns, reproductive patterns and successes, and have a huge impact on the resting and socialising behaviour of the animals. This is just not acceptable.
Wild animals are not toys for tourists to play with, nor are they attractions to be abused for that perfect selfie shot.
I was glad Gower Coast Adventures weren’t part of the ever present problem.
Setting off in the boat, the tour took in some of the most spectacular coastal scenery I had seen in a long time, and true to his word, the guide regaled us with stories of the famous pirates, smugglers and wreckers on the Welsh coast. Along the way we had the chance to spot a lot of the bird life that made the coast their home. I’m not a particular bird lover, but I can imagine this would be an ornithologists dream and it was a nice, interesting addition to an already fascinating tour.
It was an hour or so into the three hour journey that we experienced something that will stay with me forever.
Watching the deep blue water as we cruised along toward Worm’s Head, the sunlight glinted momentarily off something silver in the water. It was just a glimpse, just a minute flash, but something had broken the water near our boat. A few moments later it happened again, this time much closer, and a cry from the crew told everyone to look to the front of the boat as more and more silvery grey shapes broke the waters surface.
A pod of inquisitive common dolphins had decided to join our boat and swim alongside us!
One or two were spotted at first, happily breaking the water and matching the boats speed as they drew closer and closer to get a better view of who we were and match our course, but pretty soon more and more were spotted joining them, playfully diving under and around the boat as they swam alongside us.
It wasn’t just adults though, a number of younger calves joined their older counterparts, and pretty soon entire families were jumping out of the water and splashing alongside our boat.
There was no baiting of any kind, no expectation beyond a vague hope that they would show themselves and certainly no promise or guarantee that they would. What we had experienced was a genuinely positive wild encounter with a large pod of dolphins.
Eventually of course they decided that a bunch of grinning idiots in a boat wasn’t nearly as interesting as they first thought, and one by one they decided to veer off from our course, still breaking the water occasionally but getting further and further away. Of course I was sad to see them go, it’s only human to want such a truly magical experience to last longer, but it was good to see that there was absolutely no attempt to follow them, no attempt to chase them down. Instead the captain of the vessel staid his course and carried onto our next point along the coast.
It was an awesome experience, and one I feel both lucky and privileged to have been a part of.
What made the experience even more special, as if the fact that we had a chance encounter with a pod of dolphins wasn’t enough, was that it was as close to a responsible experience as one can get.
A big problem in the industry at the moment is that there are no real concrete universal guidelines for all tour operators or industry reps to follow. Unfortunately whilst there are some countries which are beginning to regulate against these bad practices, laws and guidelines are spotty at best and often contradictory. One stretch of water can have very different rules to another, even within the same country, and that can make it very difficult to have a uniform consensus on best practices. Instead operators have to choose to abide by a relatively loose set of guidelines set out by a wide variety of organisations such as the Dolphin Watch Alliance and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation society for example, or the Sea Watch Marine Code of Conduct.
Fortunately many of these loose guidelines do agree on fundamental principles, which include, but are not limited to:
- Choosing a good operator that promotes conservation and animal welfare and provides education to customers.
- Ensuring any encounter has a minimal impact on the wildlife or the environment as possible.
- No encounter should be forced, there should be no chasing, baiting or following involved.
- Any encounter should be viewed from as much distance as possible.
- Any encounter should be a passive interaction, letting the wildlife instigate any approach.
- There should be zero physical contact between human and animal.
- There should be no feeding or baiting of any wildlife.
And any boat encounter with dolphins (or any marine mammal for that matter) should follow stricter guidelines:
- Boats should never approach wildlife from the rear, always run parallel.
- Driving speed is slowed to the slowest animal and never exceeds 4 knots.
- Try to maintain a respectful distance unless the animal approaches the boat.
- Limit the amount of vessels viewing at any one time to two maximum, and never surround the animals.
- Any on board noise should be kept to a minimum.
Unfortunately not all operators around the world do this, but I was happy to see that Gower Coast Adventures seemed to work hard to incorporate as many best practices as possible despite their being no one specific set of guidelines, and believe me as a huge animal lover and responsible wildlife tourism advocate I was watching and testing them very carefully.
They didn’t once bait or chase the dolphins, we knew dolphins were in the area and there was a chance of seeing them, but it was completely up to chance – and the dolphins themselves – that they chose to appear and swim alongside us. The boat slowed it’s speed, kept as much distance as possible, allowed the dolphins to make all the decisions and essentially followed responsible guidelines as much as possible.
Even the boat itself – The Sea Serpent – was water propelled and not jet propelled, which is safer for all wildlife. The World Cetacean Alliance states that physical harm can be cause to dolphins and whales through boat propellers tearing chunks out of their skin when boats get too close, so it was nice to see positive steps being made to stop this.
But wildlife tourism can go far beyond simply adhering to responsible guidelines, Gower Coast Adventures showed that the tourism industry can have a positive effect on conservation issues too in so many different ways. Information about the dolphin sighting including GPS location, approximate numbers, type of dolphin and other information was fed back to the Sea Watch Foundation’s National Whale And Dolphin Watch Programme. This programme was set up as part of a scientific survey that gives a snapshot of the ammount and distribution of marine life across the entire UK in continued efforts toward wider understanding and protection of the many marine species.
This is crucial. This shows that the tourism industry does not have to simply abuse or exploit wildlife for profit or tourists pleasure. It shows that the tourism industry can work alongside conservation efforts to protect, conserve and look after the planets wildlife and their habitats, still feed tourist demand for wildlife experiences in a responsible and ethical way and still make a profit.
Still on a euphoric high after seeing the dolphins, we continued on toward Worms Head, and saw even more marine life. The eerily fascinating rhizostoma pulma jellyfish was a common sighting floating just below the waters’ surface, and although no seals were to be found resting on Worms Head itself – another incidence of the crew taking the fantastic position of if they are there we will see them, if not we won’t go looking – we did see a few lone inquisitive seals popping their heads above the surface to have a look at us as we slowly sailed past. Again the boat kept more than a respectful distance, slowed its speed and allowed the seals to make all the decisions. Once we passed and they went back to their business, the fleeting sighting was over, but I was infinitely more grateful for that fleeting visit than the irresponsible alternative.
And I am not the only one to have a strong appetite for responsible wildlife tourism. The tourism industry across the world is only just beginning to see the surging tidal wave of tourists and travellers who still have an appetite to see and interact with wildlife, but are also now demanding that be done in a responsible way. From the growing backlash against elephant trekking in Thailand, with major tourism industry companies taking elephant trekking tours off their books, to the growing backlash against captive dolphin and killer whale attractions and Sea World’s profits plunging after visitors abandon it in droves and many more examples besides, there really is a growing demand for responsible wildlife tourism.
When the tourism industry provides responsible and ethical wildlife tourism alternatives to feed that demand, everyone wins, especially the wildlife.
I loved my trip out the see the Gower coastline, it truly was an epic journey. Not just because of the stunning coastal scenery or the fascinating history, and not even because of the opportunity to see wild dolphins and grey seals happily going about their business i their natural habitat. What made it special was the fact that this was a part of the tourism industry that took its responsibilities to ethical and responsible wildlife tourism seriously, and showed that the tourism industry and conservation can work together.
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This article was written in partnership with Visit Swansea Bay and with the tour provided by Gower Coast Adventures. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.