Tourist Meets Whale

by Paula Senff

We are in the midst of commencement season and Allison Fox, a Master’s candidate at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, will be receiving her Master of Environmental Management degree this month. As part of her studies focused on Coastal Environmental Management, she had to complete a research project on a topic of interest to her. Despite her proximity to the Atlantic coast, Allison chose a topic related to a place far more remote – Antarctica. She wanted to research the likely effect Antarctic tourism has on whales in the Southern Ocean.

“When I was choosing an MP 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 soon-to-be graduate explains. Her advisers Dr. Andy Read, Dr. Doug Nowacek and Dr. Dave Johnson are among several professors at Duke studying Antarctic whales, their diving and foraging behaviors.

Fox was taking a class on ecotourism at the time and was already researching Antarctic tourism, so 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! There is certainly an allure to the continent and its wildlife, which made it enjoyable to research,” she admits. She quickly discovered that this specific subject had not been studied much before.


The research did not provide Fox herself with an excuse to travel to the icy continent herself. She collected data via a survey asking tour operators, tourists and scientists about their perception of the impact that tourism could have on whales.

Although Fox would like to stress that her research was limited and does not allow to extrapolate beyond the survey participants, her study had several interesting outcomes. “I think the most interesting result is that when all three groups (Antarctic tourists, tour operators, and scientists) were combined, 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,” she explains.

Potential benefits to the whales that were mentioned included travelers advocating for conservation, tourism vessels carrying scientists and an increased appreciation for whales. The threat of collisions was a popular answer among tour operators and scientists while tourists were mostly concerned about noise and oil pollution from vessels. One scientist stated that the biggest impact on whales results from ship traffic and boats approaching whales too closely.

As 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 of tourists in the future.

Paula Senff

Research Assistant
Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition