Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Tourist Meets Whale
Duke University Student Studies Impact of Antarctic Tourism on Cetaceans

We are in the midst of commencement season and Allison Fox just received her Master of Environmental Management degree from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment this month. For her studies focused on Coastal Environmental Management she completed a research project and despite her proximity to the Atlantic coast, she chose to research inhabitants of a place far more remote – whales in Antarctica. 

When I was choosing a Master’s Project topic, I knew that I wanted to study anthropogenic impacts on cetaceans, but I was having trouble narrowing the project down further. I talked to my adviser about potential ideas, and he mentioned that whales and Antarctic tourism would be a timely project,” the 24-year-old recent graduate explains. Her adviser Dr. Andy Read is among several professors at Duke studying Antarctic whales, their diving and foraging behaviors.
Fox was taking a class on ecotourism at the time and the interactions between the tourists and whales sparked her interest immediately. “The project was fascinating to me because I personally love travelling and whales—and because I hadn’t known there was an Antarctic tourism industry at all until that semester!” Although Fox did not travel to the icy continent herself, she enjoyed researching a topic that has not been investigated by many researchers before.
She collected data via a survey asking tourists, scientists, and a tour operator about their perception of the impact that tourism could have on whales.

Participants were asked, “The following list contains aspects of Antarctic tourism that potentially  
benefit Antarctic whales. Please choose up to 3 benefits that you feel are most valuable.”
Potential benefits chosen by the tour operator were tourists participating in research, resulting donations for conservation and that scientists can travel on tourist vessels. Scientists agreed with the latter and a high percentage of them also chose travelers advocating for conservation and having an increased appreciation for whales as benefits. Tourists felt that them advocating for conservation, making donations, appreciating whales more and learning about the animals were positive effects.

Participants were asked, “The following list contains aspects of Antarctic tourism that potentially
Antarctic whales. Please choose up to 3 threats that you feel are most detrimental.”
The tour operator only saw vessel collision as a potential threat to the whales. Scientists agreed with this answer but were also concerned about the stress induced in the whales. One scientist stated that the biggest impact on whales results from ship traffic and boats approaching whales too closely. Some tourists were also concerned about the stress to the animals, but most chose noise and other pollution including oil and carbon emissions.
Although Fox would like to stress that her research was limited and does not allow to extrapolate beyond the survey participants, she thinks that “the most interesting result is that […] none of the respondents ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly disagreed’ that the overall impact of tourism was negative, but 78.6% ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that the overall impact was positive.”
As is often the case after a research project, Fox already sees possibilities for improvement and future studies. She would have liked to be able to send out an improved survey to a larger sample size after learning much about survey design with this project. She also recognizes that her project is based on current levels of Antarctic tourism and that it is important to consider predictions about increases in tourists in the future. 

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