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Whale Watching Operators Around Alaska Commit to Having Whale SENSE

September 07, 2023

Whale SENSE is an education, stewardship, and recognition program that highlights commercial whale watching companies that commit to higher standards of operation.

A humpback whale lands in the water after breaching near Auke Bay, Alaska. A humpback whale lands in the water after breaching near Auke Bay, Alaska. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Aleria Jensen

Alaska is a Growing Whale Watching Destination

Whale watching is an important economic driver in many of Alaska’s coastal communities. Most operations are family-owned and generally range from single 6-passenger vessels to a fleet of 150-passenger vessels. Statewide, the industry is estimated to generate more than $86 million and hundreds of jobs. About two-thirds of whale watching in Alaska is based out of Juneau. The industry primarily caters to cruise ship passengers who take whale watching excursions during their ship’s port of call in Juneau.

In Juneau, there are about 72 whale watching vessels from more than 20 companies—some of which have been in operation for decades, and some new to the industry. They offer 2–3 hour tours. Managers from competing companies have banded together toward one common goal: Sustainability through best practices.

In 2013, the industry began to self-organize and worked with NOAA Fisheries to adapt an existing program, Whale SENSE, to serve the unique needs of Juneau’s industry. By 2015, the program debuted in Juneau with four companies that helped pioneer the program and have been annual members since: 

  • Allen Marine Tours Juneau
  • Gastineau Guiding Co.
  • Juneau Tours and Whale Watch
  • Rum Runner Charters

Since then, more and more companies have signed on to Whale SENSE, and now nearly all of Juneau’s whale watching companies participate.

NOAA Fisheries and Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA are the primary sponsors of the Whale SENSE Program. It offers an ecolabel-type recognition for operators who voluntarily adopt increased standards for education, marine stewardship, and responsible whale watching practices. The program originated on the East Coast in 2009.

“We love whales!” said Serene Hutchinson, Manager of Juneau Tours and Whale Watch in Juneau. “They are a natural treasure that need to be protected. Whales never fail to delight and excite everyone who gets to see them. Along with the honor of showing visitors these amazing creatures comes responsibility. Our commitment is to view whales in a way that is sustainable, safe and fun! Whale SENSE is really how we demonstrate our commitment to responsible whale watching. By following Whale SENSE guidelines we go above and beyond the federal requirements by adding more voluntary distance, holding ourselves accountable and working together as a fleet, putting all competition aside once we are on the water. Since joining Whale SENSE we have seen a higher level of training and professionalism on the water and member boats are respecting the distance guidelines, time spent on whales, and cooperation between companies.”

Whale SENSE Alaska logo with a breaching orca

Juneau Operators Sign Up for Stewardship

Most Juneau whale-watching operators have signed up for Whale SENSE! Participating companies agree to be good stewards to whales and follow these guidelines:

  • Stick to the regional whale-watching guidelines
  • Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers 
  • Notify appropriate networks of whales in trouble
  • Set an example for other boaters
  • Encourage ocean stewardship

Participating companies are required to train their staff annually on program requirements, common species observed and their behaviors, responsible whale-watching practices, general principles of marine conservation, and applicable laws and guidelines. 

Companies are also evaluated throughout the season to ensure compliance. 

“An important foundation of this program is the ability to follow up with operators on their commitments and ensure that they are walking the talk,” said Suzie Teerlink, one of NOAA Fisheries Whale SENSE Alaska coordinators. 

NOAA does this in several ways, including dockside visits and soliciting experiences from passengers and observations from the public. We also conduct onboard “secret shopper”-style evaluations—where trained experts book tickets with operators and evaluate the on-the-water behavior of boats while watching whales.

Each company commits to higher education by investing in training for their naturalists and captains. This training provides information on basic marine mammal biology, current research, and tools for inspiring marine conservation. All of this information is then included in their on-board narration. 

“Along with a thriving whale watching industry comes a large pool of passengers, a staggering 300,000 in Juneau alone,” explained Teerlink. “There is a hidden opportunity here to educate these passengers on marine conservation and inspire them to be advocates for whale conservation and recovery and to generally be good stewards of the earth and oceans. Whale SENSE helps provide tools for the crew so that they can make the most of their time with passengers to share these messages.”

Liz Barlow, the manager of Above and Beyond Alaska, says, "Our goal is to explore, educate, and promote environmental conservation in our own backyard. We believe that exploration accompanied with education leads to conservation and this aligns directly with Whale SENSE values."

Each company also crafts an annual stewardship project and gives back to the marine environment through beach clean up or in-kind donations. Whale SENSE and Tourism Best Management Practices company owners, managers, and captains meet several times a year to discuss ways that they can reduce their impacts by following the laws and regulations. In the instances where NOAA has identified issues, company owners have been responsive to correcting the problem.

Protection and Awareness

Juneau's whale-watching industry is large and made up of more than 70 boats. In fact, Juneau may be the largest whale-watching port in the world! To decrease the number of vessels watching an individual whale or group of whales, the fleet—particularly those that are part of Whale SENSE—have been proactive about finding ways to spread out whale-watching efforts. They have increased on-water communications between vessels and use the automatic identification system to track other whale-watching vessels and spread out where they can. Whale SENSE includes an agreement to limit viewing times which also helps to reduce congestion around whales. 

 A whale named "Razorback" (SEAK 1441) dives near Point Retreat Lighthouse with Herbert Glacier in the background.
A whale named "Razorback" (SEAK 1441) dives near Point Retreat Lighthouse with Herbert Glacier in the background. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Suzie Teerlink, permit #14296

There is no defined legal limit to the number of whale-watching vessels that can

view a whale or group of whales at the same time. Distance is extremely difficult to evaluate from shore or even other platforms as distance over water can be deceiving. The Whale SENSE Program fosters a sense of responsibility in vessel operators and tour participants. They limit their viewing time, remain morethan 100 yards from whales, and follow the additional guidelines to protect marine mammals. This program, and others like it, raise awareness about marine mammal species and their interactions with humans. Being a part of Whale SENSE empowers operators and educates patrons to have responsible encounters with whales in Alaska waters.

If you believe you are seeing a legal or Whale SENSE guideline violation during whale watching, please contact Whale SENSE ( suzie.teerlink@noaa.gov) and Tourism Best Management Practices  at (907) 586-6774.

Please support Whale SENSE companies when you or your visitors are booking whale-watching tours in Juneau:

Since 2015, the Whale SENSE program has expanded to several other Alaska ports. You can find Whale SENSE operators in Sitka, Seward, Ketchikan, and Valdez.

Full list of participating programs 

All marine mammals are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and many species are also protected by the Endangered Species Act. If you encounter a marine species in distress, call the Alaska Region’s Stranding Hotline at (877) 925-7773.

Last updated by Alaska Regional Office on December 18, 2023