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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thar She Blows

Just a few yards from the entrance of the New England Aquarium, Boston Harbor is lined with booths.  They offer a variety of cruises and tours of the harbor and the surrounding islands.  Among the boats are two belonging to the Aquarium itself.  These vessels serve to carrying visitors out to sea for a chance to view some of the ocean's largest creatures in their natural habitat.  It's an experience that could never be replicated in even the largest of aquariums.

It's about a two hour boat ride out from the harbor to the feeding grounds where the whales can be found.  The cold, nutrient-rich waters provide an abundance of food needed to sustain the massive creatures.  The ship is staffed by experienced naturalists who are skilled at spotting the slight rises of a whale's back as it breaks the surface.  The crew members have an encyclopedic knowledge, not only of whales in general, but of the individual whales themselves.  They can recognize many of the whales on sight and know their particular stories, which they are happy to share with the passengers.

It's a delicious irony that, centuries ago, the Massachusetts harbors were full of whalers that sought to kill whales.  Now, whale watching - the opportunity to see whales, preferably up close - is a major tourism business on the coast.  Wildlife viewing is an extraordinary experience, but it has the potential to have negative consequences for the wildlife being viewed.  Overzealous tour operators can get too close to animals, disturbing them and altering their natural behavior, perhaps even putting them at risk.

When I made the decision to go whale watching, I knew I wanted to do it responsibly.  To me, the best way to do that was to go under the guidance of leading wildlife biologists who could be trusted to lead tours that would not harm or bother the whales.  I would love to see additional wildlife tourism opportunities led by zoos and aquariums, working with conservation partners to help introduce visitors to the actual wild.  Doing so could better cement the relationships between zoos and in situ conservationists, while at the same time promoting responsible ecotourism.

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