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Response of southern right whales to simulated swim-with-whale tourism at Península Valdés, Argentina




Guidelines for sustainable tourism involving swimming with large whales are not well-developed compared to those focused on programs of swimming with delphinids. From September to November 2005 and August to September 2006, we collected behavioral and movement data for southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) exposed to interactions with boats and swimmers at Península Valdés, Argentina. Whales were tracked from shore using a theodolite before, during, and after a series of directed interactions with swimmers and a boat. Resting, socializing, and surface active behavior decreased, traveling increased, and whales swam faster and reoriented more often during interactions. Responses were variable by age/sex class, with mother/calf pairs showing strongest responses. Increased levels of tourism activity are a concern, as reduction in resting time and disruption of socialization among adults, juveniles, and mother/calf pairs have unknown long-term consequences. Additional data should be collected for whale behavior in proposed tourism and nontourism areas to build a long-term database which can be used to determine if reactions of whales change over time. Our data suggest that swimming with whales in Chubut Province should not be legalized until further investigations are completed, especially in light of the recent southern right whale die-offs recorded in Península Valdés.