The main disturbance to cetaceans comes from unregulated observation expeditions at sea (whale watching), as well as from scientific observations that require specific techniques to approach and establish contact with the animals. Disturbances can also occur when sailing routes and so-called ‘sensitive’ areas (breeding sites, feeding sites etc.) overlap or when cetaceans are surrounded by significant numbers of boats (pleasure boats, competitive racing etc.).

Disturbances associates with whale watching
and management options

When unregulated, the ecotourism activity of whale watching can be harmful to the species under observation. Short-term effects (behavioral changes, fleeing, breaking up of the pod, disruption to the diving-breathing cycle and rest phases etc.) can pose a very real threat to cetacean populations in the long term, especially populations that are low in number and/or isolated geographically.

On the other hand, in recent years there have been accounts of accidents as a result of people swimming in the water near cetaceans. The most famous of these accidents occurred in Hawaii in 1992 and involved a photographer’s assistant. A male pilot whale from the pod being filmed, seized the young lady’s leg and descended to a depth of 12 m with her before returning to the surface. In the Mediterranean, at least three similar cases involving long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) have been recorded.

An impact study on whale watching and on the presence of pleasure boats in the Sanctuary area showed that:

  • Sperm whales and fin whales tend to react with indifference (particularly when hunting and migrating), unlike common dolphins, which tend to approach,
  • Common bottlenose dolphins frequently react by fleeing,
  • any intrusive or aggressive approach by boats interrupts the cetacean’s activity,
  • when a pod of cetaceans and their young are approached aggressively, their response is to flee, if not panic,
  • cetaceans are less tolerant of interactions with boats when resting and more indifferent when hunting or travelling,
  • cetaceans do not cope well with the simultaneous approach of several boats.

It is thus vital for this activity to be regulated, or at the very least supervised, for the sake of both marine mammals themselves and whale watchers, who are unaware of how dangerous wild animals can be.

One of the management options is to implement a quality label for responsible whale watching in the Mediterranean.

In order to remedy poorly managed whale watching activities, the Pelagos Sanctuary and its partners have introduced a pdf code of good conduct that must be respected by all tour operators offering such activities. After the introduction of this code, the Pelagos Sanctuary and ACCOBAMS, in cooperation with scientists and operators and advisors involved in whale watching in France, Italy and Monaco, created a list of specifications for implementing an ecological label. This label will be an international management tool (initially used within the Pelagos site, then extending across the ACCOBAMS area). It will:

  • enable the public to identify operators who have committed to apply an ecologically responsible approach,
  • and to contribute to promoting a more reasoned business approach, thus limiting its impact on cetaceans while maximizing their benefits (raising awareness on environmental protection, education).

The specifications for the label were discussed at various meetings attended by those involved in whale watching activities (managers, scientists, operators) and approved after being submitted for consultation to the Third Meeting of the Parties to ACCOBAMS in October 2007. Broadly, the specifications require operators to:

  • undergo training,
  • respect the pdf code of good conduct ,
  • take part in research programs, completing observation forms ( pdf French version  or pdf Italian version ) that provide more information for the database (and contributing to discussions aiming at defining options for taking scientists on board),
  • participate, on a voluntary basis, to different working groups (particularly as regards limiting acoustic impact and dependency on fossil fuels),
  • offer general nature tours rather than excursions focused solely on cetaceans,
  • provide useful and accurate information during any trips (environmental context, biological details, threats etc.).

The decision to introduce the label as a voluntary step rather than one that is formally required was upheld for the time being as a means of favoring a participatory approach that facilitates discussions with whale-watching managers and operators.


Disturbances associated with marine traffic
and management options

A research program entitled "IMPACT-CET®" was launched to explore disturbances associated with marine traffic in so-called sensitive areas (breeding sites, feeding sites etc.) with a view to better understanding and managing the interactions that may exist between human activities and cetaceans. This study seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the situation, identifying the spatial-temporal characteristics of the different forms of traffic and determining the intensity of the traffic in terms of pressure (frequency and density). Comparing maps of the impact of different forms of traffic with maps of the preferred habitats of the animals will highlight the areas and periods that are most exposed to the negative impacts of human activities. Specially adapted solutions can then be proposed as a means of improving risk management within the Sanctuary.


Disturbances associated with competitive racing
and management options

High-speed vehicles can disturb cetaceans in coastal zones, especially if they regroup in areas where marine mammals are concentrated. Cetaceans nearby can be caught off guard by the speed of the boats and are sometimes unable to break free from the boats when they are ‘chased’ by them.

Clause 9 of the Pelagos Agreement states that ‘the Parties are united in seeking to regulate and, if necessary, ban high-speed vehicle competitions within the Sanctuary’.

In Italy, clause 5 of law n°391 of 11th October 2001 prohibits all high-speed vehicle competitions within the Italian territorial waters of the Pelagos Sanctuary.

In the other countries that are parties to the Sanctuary, negative views on the hosting of such races in the Sanctuary area have been voiced on a number of occasions. Scientific research into the distribution of cetaceans and their areas of concentration needs to continue in order to better manage and regulate these races. A decision support grid establishing the technical normatives on the definition and categories of this kind of activities and dedicated to decision makers, is being developed.

In addition, representatives from the Fédération Française Motonautique - FFM (French Powerboat Federation) are examining how they could modify the organization of their races such that they conform to the Sanctuary’s protection requirements. In the future, races will take place, where possible, outside the boundaries of the Sanctuary. On a very short-term basis, this trade-off will enable the FFM to demonstrate its acknowledgment of the pressing need to protect marine mammals in the Sanctuary.


Disturbances associated with boating
and management options

According to the Life LINDA program, data on the behavior of pleasure boaters in Corsica who encounter dolphins highlight the need to better communicate the rules of good conduct for this activity. In the majority of cases, interactions occur outside the framework set out in the code of good conduct (97% of observational activities are conducted less than 50 meters away, last over 20 minutes etc.). However, efforts to raise awareness following the recorded interactions were relatively well received by pleasure boaters. Efforts to raise awareness among pleasure boaters must be maintained to guarantee the best possible conditions for the activity.

An awareness-raising instrument designed for pleasure boaters has been put in place, encouraging their involvement in the Sanctuary’s activities by becoming ‘Ambassadors'.