SA’s first boat-based whale-watching impact study 

The whale watching industry in Plettenberg Bay is worth R371.2 million per year. It also creates 92 jobs, which equates to an approximate total of 250 people who benefit from the employment.
Published: February 1st, 2021
by Heather Dugmore

The total value of boat-based whale-watching (BBWW) tourism (experiencing whales, dolphins and seals) in Plettenberg Bay is R371.2 million per year. It also creates 92 jobs, which equates to an approximate total of 250 people who benefit from the employment.

This is according to research conducted for South Africa’s first-ever assessment of the socio-economic and conservation impacts of South Africa’s BBWW industry. It is part of a Sustainable Marine Tourism project conducted from January 2018 – December 2020 by the Nature’s Valley Trust and Nelson Mandela University, and funded by the WWF SA Nedbank Green Trust.

Over the past two decades, BBWW in SA has developed into an important, growing tourist industry, with 31 BBWW permits awarded  (but not all used) along the coastline in marine tourism hotspots, such as False Bay, Hermanus, Gansbaai, Knysna, Plettenberg Bay and Port Elizabeth.

‘People come from all over the world to experience South Africa’s bottlenose, common and humpback dolphin, and the southern right, humpback and Bryde’s whales, to name a few,’ explains the project leader, marine scientist Dr Gwenith Penry who is doing postdoctoral research on the Bryde’s whale through Nelson Mandela University’s Institute for Coastal and Marine Research.

‘Using Plettenberg Bay for our case study, we looked at the key areas that the cetaceans (dolphins and whales) use in the bay; where they rest, feed and socialise and where the whale-watching boats overlap in these areas. If there are too many operators in one area or if they are not complying with the encounter guidelines, the animals get stressed and may even leave the bay.’

This would adversely affect not only the cetaceans but also the socio-economic health of the Plettenberg Bay community where small and medium-size businesses are the backbone of the economy. ‘We, therefore, set out to determine what type of approach and encounter least disturbs the animals and then to have these findings implemented as part of the permit restrictions, with which all operators must comply.’

The whale watching industry in Plettenberg Bay is worth R371.2 million per year. It also creates 92 jobs, which equates to an approximate total of 250 people who benefit from the employment.
The whale watching industry in Plettenberg Bay is worth R371.2 million per year.

Plettenberg Bay was chosen as the pilot study in South Africa because it’s a global marine biodiversity hotspot flanked by two Marine Protected Areas, it’s part of the Garden Route Biosphere Reserve and rich in whales and dolphins. On their annual southward migration to the southern ocean waters, humpback and southern right whales shelter, rest and nurse their young in Plettenberg Bay and along the south-east coast. ‘All research was conducted under a government-issued research permit and in accordance with human and animal ethics approval from Nelson Mandela University,’ says Penry.

Project team member Minke Witteveen who is looking at animal and boat interactions and the associated compliance requirements for her PhD through Nelson Mandela University says compliance is far below where it should be.

‘Out of the 123 whale and dolphin encounters we observed in Plettenberg Bay from 2018 to 2020, only 11 were 100% compliant with all the regulations governing animal encounters.’

Witteveen explains that ‘operators are required to keep a 50-metre distance from whales and humpback dolphins, and 25 metres from common and bottlenose dolphins, and remain with them for no longer than 20 minutes. For whale cow-calf pairs operators need to keep a distance of 300m’.

She adds that whales and dolphins are curious creatures and may initiate closer contact with vessels, which is a special and exhilarating experience – but it is important to ensure that the animals control these interactions and not the operator.

Viewing whales from boats in Plett is a business that boosts tourism in the area.
Viewing whales from boats in Plett is a business that boosts tourism in the area.

‘We’re often asked whether these restrictions are applied when swimming with whales and dolphins, but in South Africa, this is illegal, both for the safety of the humans and the animals,’ Penry explains. ‘People think dolphins are smiley, friendly animals because this is how they are portrayed in captivity, but they are powerful, wild, top marine predators. If dolphins or whales bump you, they can do a lot of damage.’

The team found that the approach speed is also very important as to how the animals react. ‘If operators speed towards the animals, they tend to take a long, deep dive or change direction or the pod might split off into smaller groups. This is highly disruptive as they could be socialising or heading towards a feeding ground or nursing their young.’

For our research, we did land-based observations using a theodolite to track the animals and we also did experimental encounters to ascertain the impact on the cetaceans,’ says Penry. ‘In one of our experimental encounters we spent 15 minutes at 300m from a mother-calf humpback whale pair, and they were very relaxed; the calf was playing around, breaching and tail slapping. But when we slowly moved in, the mother-calf pairs immediately reacted; they dived down and disappeared. This was not an isolated event and we saw this happening on slow and fast approaches alike. Humpback dolphin pods often reacted the same.’

On the socioeconomic side, the team looked at the direct and indirect benefits of BBWW for the communities and towns involved, notably how the activities contribute to employment and the local tourism economy. ‘Plettenberg Bay as a small coastal town is very well established for tourism and a recognised whale and dolphin tourism destination,’ says environmental scientist Jonathan Kingwill of Bluepebble Sustainability Solutions who led the economic assessment.

‘We used a similar methodology to a recent national economic study in Canada on its whale-watching sector. Ours included 359 questionnaires completed with tourists at random and the three operators included in the study who cover 85% of the marine tourism sector in Plettenberg Bay.

‘The results were collected pre-COVID and thus reflect a pre-COVID operating scenario, in contrast to the current scenario where the tourism market is vastly reduced,’ he qualifies. ‘In a normal situation, 85% of marine tourism in Plettenberg Bay comprises international visitors, mainly from Germany and the Netherlands, followed by the UK, Israel, Belgium, Switzerland, and the USA. The remaining 15% are South Africans. Particularly revealing is that 49% of everybody interviewed came to Plettenberg Bay specifically to experience the whales, dolphins, and seals.’  

Seals on Robberg viewed from whale watching boats
Seals on Robberg viewed from whale-watching boats.

Data collection for the socio-economic assessment was done over a 12-month period, from March 2019 to March 2020. Kingwill explains: ‘The direct expenditure from boat-based tourism alone for the year was R143.3m, a lot of it related to tour packages and therefore it is not all felt directly or spent in Plettenberg Bay. The indirect expenditure in the service industry (such as the cost of fuel, boat repairs and other costs to service this tourism market) is R156.2m; and the induced expenditure, felt directly in the pocket of the person working in or related to the BBWW tourism nationally is R71.7m. This equates to a total of R371.2m, which is approximately 6% of the total tourism spend in Plettenberg Bay.’

The operators also contribute R518 000 per year to projects in the town’s financially-stressed communities, including a daycare centre, a special needs centre, and a feeding project for young children.

The annual occupancy rates of the BBWW operators in a normal year is sitting on just over 50%. It’s a difficult business to be in, as they have high overheads. This indicates that there isn’t capacity for additional operators. Instead, when it is possible to do so, the existing operators need to work on increasing their occupancy and regulation compliance, supported and encouraged by the local Bitou municipality and other tourism and accommodation businesses in the area.

‘Compliance includes being honest and transparent in their website advertising,’ says project member Caitlin Judge who was the lead author of a recently published article in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, based on a study that assesses regulation transparency of website advertising in South Africa’s BBWW industry (details of this article in 1. at the end).

Central Beach in Plett, where most whale watching boats launch.
Central Beach in Plett, from which the town’s whale watching boats launch.

‘Captions on photographs of cetaceans close up, for example, need to explain honestly how far the operator is required by law to be from the animal,’ says Judge. ‘So many tourists are detached from the natural world; most of what they experience is on TV or the internet and they expect the wildlife documentary version experience. It’s a difficult balance between marketing your company with up close beautiful photos and being ethical, and we need to encourage industry-wide transparency, clarity and responsible tourism.’

She adds that with the marine environment facing increasing pressure from humans, there is a need to educate tourists with a unified message so that they become the champions of permit regulation adherence in the BBWW industry. ‘To promote this process our project is currently producing booklets, posters and infographics displaying permit regulations for the South African BBWW industry,’ Judge explains. These can be found on the Natures Valley Trust web page and downloaded for free.

Dolphins and whales are at the top of the marine food chain and are important indicators of ocean health. The research findings and outputs from this project will help to inform the decisions and actions required to sustainably conserve our oceans and the communities who rely on them.

  1. Clear waters: Assessing regulation transparency of website advertising in South Africa’s Boat-Based Whale Watching industry. Journal of Sustainable Tourism.