When we travel for pleasure, we do it for ourselves. We choose to head out for a little fun and relaxation, a time when we can finally indulge.
But what if you could enjoy yourself in travel while helping the environment, too?
With Earth Day on April 22, it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to give a second thought to ecotourism, or engaging in travel that also helps to conserve the environment and sustain the well-being of locals.
There are countless ways that you can help your favorite getaways while also using your vacation days, such as eating at locally owned restaurants or visiting a local institution that supports a cause.
Right at home in New Jersey, one way that you can spot whales and dolphins while also helping to save them is to hop on a whale watch tour at the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center.
Founded in 1987, the Center brings passengers to the sea to spot well-hidden creatures as well as research them and promote awareness of their protection as well as their environment’s.
The Clean Ocean Initiative was started by the Center, which establishes that any time a person on the vessel spots marine debris, staff get their nets out and try to retrieve it. Balloons, such as from birthday parties, are a major marine debris culprit.
“By the end of the season, we have five or six industrial-sized trash bags full of balloons that we pulled from the water. We really try to get our passengers to take this message home with them — balloons and beach trash often end up in the sea and can harm marine life,” said Matt Remuzzi, captain and research coordinator at the Center.
To help whales and other marine life at home, people can pick up trash that they see at the beach, especially discarded fishing gear in which a whale can get entangled.
A typical trip includes a captain, several naturalists or marine biologists, who lead discussion, as well as several undergraduate students who are keeping watch with binoculars alongside the guests to spot whales as well as marine debris.
“We tell our passengers to look for anything out of the ordinary and point it out to a crew member since we are looking for whales, sharks, dolphins and oceanic sunfish,” said Remuzzi.
The whales that Center passengers most often spot are humpback whales since they are the most active breachers and create a large splash when they do so. Passengers also look for a whale’s 15- to 20-foot blow spout, which Remuzzi said is how the Center spots whales 99 percent of the time.
Remuzzi said that visitors rougly have a 68 percent chance of seeing a whale during their time onboard the American Star, a 90-foot-long boat that can hold 150 passengers and is set up for nonobtrusive yet up-close viewing of whales and dolphins. Visitors have a 99 percent chance of seeing any sort of marine mammal.
The Center’s season runs from April, when whales begin to migrate north, to November, when whales return south. The best time to see a whale varies on the season, depending on factors such as the amount of food present at a certain time.
Last year, which was one the best seasons, the Center visitors spotted 93 whales, which is about a sighting every day.
Since the Center also looks for dolphins and porpoises, they have a “marine mammal guarantee” which gives visitors that don’t get to see any marine mammals a free ticket that never expires for another whale watch tour.
Four trips are held per day: a dolphin watch cruise at 10 a.m. for $20 to $30 a person; a whale and dolphin watch cruise at 10 a.m. for $20 to $35 a person; a whales, birds and dolphins cruise at 1 p.m. for $25 to $40 a person; and a sunset dolphin watch at 6 p.m. for $20 to $30 a person. Guests are recommended to make their reservations as soon as possible.
Since the Center is viewing marine mammals, they also take part in opportunistic research on their feeding, migration and breeding habits. Plus, after having been provided with equipment to photograph whales’ flukes, which all have distinctive patterns, they have been helping the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society to catalogue local whales with photos, data and GPS coordinates. They have also created their own catalogue for local bottlenose dolphins.
“The catalogue provides a framework to better study these mammals,” said Remuzzi.
The Center also voluntarily participates in the Whale SENSE program, which trains and tests the Center’s captains and naturalists on current marine mammal laws and how to view the animals responsibly. By explaining the regulations to passengers and posting them on their vessel, they help to pass the word on how we can all view marine mammals responsibly, whether touring with the Center or on a private boat.
By constantly monitoring the waters, the Center also helps to protect whales from recreational boaters who may not be familiar with whale viewing regulations. Once while viewing a whale, Remuzzi said that the Center saw a personal vessel strike a whale. Since they take photographs on all of their trips, they were able to provide photos and report the vessel and the incident to Whale SENSE.
Vessels must stay at least 500 yards from a Baleen whale and 100 yards away from a right whale, an endangered specie.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time, if there’s a whale, we are going to be right next to it, so we can help protect them in this way,” said Remuzzi. “Many recreational boaters don’t even know the guidelines, so we kind of spread the word. Our passengers take that home with them to know what the guidelines are.”
CAPE MAY WHALE WATCH & RESEARCH CENTER
Contact: 888-531-0055 or capemaywhalewatch.com
Address: 1121 Route 109 (Utsch’s Marina), Cape May
Season: April through November
Cost: Kids 12 and under from $20 to $25, adults from $30 to $40
Tours: Range from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from two- to three-hour trips