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Watching Whales Sensibly for Ten Years

June 26, 2019

This year is the 10th anniversary of Whale SENSE, our responsible whale watching program.


As humpback whales make their way back to New England and Mid-Atlantic waters from their winter breeding grounds, whale watch companies’ seasons are swinging into high gear along the Atlantic coast. Marine wildlife viewing tours are one of the highest revenue-producing tourism industries in the northeast, with more than one million whale watchers in New England alone.

This year we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of Whale SENSE, a program that promotes responsible whale watching practices and ocean conservation. The goal of Whale SENSE is to allow people to experience these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, while respecting their space and not interfering with their natural behaviors.

A Humble Beginning

Whale SENSE began in 2009 with three Cape Cod, Massachusetts companies. NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary developed the program, in which whale watch companies agree to annual training of all naturalists and captains, an annual evaluation of the company’s behavior around whales, and completion of an annual stewardship project.

Participants in the program use a Whale SENSE logo on their promotional materials, and are listed on the Whale SENSE website. By choosing a Whale SENSE company, passengers know that they are making a responsible choice that benefits the whales and the marine environment as a whole. 

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Though the program began with just a few companies, it didn’t take long for other companies to see the value in the program. Since 2009, the program in the Atlantic has expanded to five states (Massachusetts, Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Virginia) and now includes 16 companies—roughly 40 percent of the entire East Coast whale watching fleet.

In 2015, four Alaska whale watch companies adopted the program, largely based on the recommendation of one of the founding Whale SENSE participating companies.

A naturalist teaches a passenger about humpback whales.

A Promising Future

"We are very excited to be entering Whale SENSE's 10th year. The continued growth and popularity of the program shows the value in engaging whale watching captains and naturalists in whale conservation efforts. The program has been a success because of the efforts they make and the input they provide," said Allison Rosner, Whale SENSE Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries for the Greater Atlantic Region.

In addition to promoting responsible whale watching practices that allow whales to engage in natural behavior without interference, Whale SENSE vessels have increased reports of whale sightings and entanglements, including those of endangered right whales. On several occasions, vessels have stayed with whales in distress until help could arrive, providing a critical service, since finding whales in the ocean can be a challenge.

Whale SENSE has also fostered partnerships that have made contributions to a Mid-Atlantic humpback whale catalogue, educated thousands of people about whales and ocean conservation both onboard and through social media, and overall, has increased awareness within and outside of the whale watching fleet of the importance of following whale watching guidelines and viewing whales responsibly.

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Follow the Whale SENSE Facebook page or visit the Whale SENSE website to:

  • Learn more about responsible whale watching.
  • Find out more about whales in the Atlantic and Alaska.
  • Find out if the whale watch you’re considering is a Whale SENSE participant.
  • Find out how to join the program.



Viewing Marine Life

Watching marine animals in their natural habitat can be a positive way to promote conservation and respect for animals and their environment.