Boat-based whale watching permits: securing a future

A quick intervention last week by Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom literally saved boat-based whale watching in South Africa. But why was this necessary? And what’s boat-based whale watching to any of us, anyway?


Permits extended

In its way, it was an extraordinary move: National Department of Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom contacted the Department of Environment Affairs and persuaded its officials to extend the permit period of all the country’s boat-based whale watching operations, as well as those of the shark-cage diving companies. And it happened overnight: he read an article about the problem in the evening (‘Administrative delays threaten shark-cage diving, whale watching’), and the operators received notice of the extension the next morning.

And, having addressed the issue during the Attractions Africa conference in Cape Town last week, the Minister has also committed to assisting SABBWA – the South African Boat-based Whale Watching Association – to finding solutions. (‘Minister’s quick action on shark-cage diving, whale watching’ in Tourism Update, 10 June 2016.)

There’s a back-story to all of this, of course.

According to SABBWWA chairperson Evelyn Pepler, whale-watching permits are issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs for a period of five years at a time, but the operators are required to renew their licenses annually.

Research being one of the permit conditions, though, the operators must also submit monthly reports of their observations – what species they’ve seen, how many individuals, how many juveniles, locations of sightings, behaviour, etc.

“Once the 5 year term comes to an end, there is a re-application process which requires the submission of financials, business plans, marketing plans, etc.,” said Evelyn.

“SABBWWA has been putting pressure on Environmental Affairs over the last eighteen months and more. We’ve met regularly and discussed our concerns and needs – and each time we were assured that they were on top of it.”

By the beginning of June this year (2016), though, the Department hadn’t issued the necessary documentation – so the operators had no idea of how to proceed with their applications. And, because of their complexity, there wouldn’t have been enough time to complete them, anyway.

“If the Minister hadn’t stepped in, our existing permits would have lapsed at the end of the month – just as our whale-watching season gets into its stride – and we wouldn’t have been able to operate legally.”

But thanks to that intervention, they can. The Department of Environmental Affairs posted an announcement on its web site on Sunday 12 June (‘Postponement of allocation process for boat-based whale watching and white shark cage diving operating permits’) – which means that the immediate crisis is over. But only for now.

Socio-economic impact study

Boat-based whale watching is huge – as a recent socio-economic study commissioned by the Association has shown. (View the executive summary on

According to the study, 26 regions of the coast were identified for permits in the period 2002 to 2008, and this was reduced to 23 for 2008 to 2016 – although, in the event, only 18 operators (with a total of 385 seats) took up permits in the first period, and 17 (with 475 seats) took them up in the second.

Nevertheless, total passenger numbers grew from 26,045 in 2004 to 42,040 in 2015, and revenue grew from R 19.8 million in the period 2002 to 2008, to R 40.5 million in 2008 to 2016 – which meant that estimated tourism expenditure grew from R 45 million to R 120 million.

Interestingly, 22,2% of all visitors surveyed came into the towns in which they took boat-based whale watching tours as day trippers, while 55,6% of them spent between two- and three days in these destinations, 11.1% spent three- to four days there, and a further 11.1% stayed for more than 5 days.

“All but three of the boat-based whale watching operators in South Africa are based in small towns, and, since our main season for whale watching occurs in the winter, both our marketing and our turnover make significant contributions to the local economies at a time of the year when business is generally slow,” said Evelyn.  (See the video interview on YouTube.)

But, she said, “Our businesses are non-consumptive – that is, they don’t remove any of the marine resources on which they depend – which is one of the reasons why SABBWWA feels that the permit system should be administered by the Department of Agriculture Forestry & Fisheries, rather than by Environmental Affairs.”

She said, too, that the current system of issuing permits for five years is prejudicial to the sector, and that SABBWWA is lobbying for a ten-year tenure.

“You can’t build a sustainable business on a 5-year permit – which means that the transformation that the government so desperately wants us to achieve in terms of Operation Phakisa can’t happen efficiently, either.” (“Operation Phakisa is a results-driven approach involving setting clear plans and targets, on-going monitoring of progress and making these results public.” –

But Evelyn said that Operation Phakisa is one of the reasons given for keeping the operators waiting both for their permits and for clarity on the way forward.

“Government has been putting much focus and many of its resources into Operation Phakisa.

“It’s a very ambitious project which, if not properly managed, could be detrimental to our coastline because it encourages inappropriate activities like phosphate mining, and oil and gas exploration – which requires seismic testing that’s devastating to ocean life, and especially to whales and dolphins.”

So – just as it’s getting ready to take its guests out to sea for another whale-watching season, SABBWWA is also getting ready to take on the government in an effort to streamline the process of licensing its operators.

And this – partly (and ironically) – in order to ensure that the government’s own plans for Operation Phakisa pan out.

  • Now: what do YOU think should happen here? Who should be issuing boat-based whale watching permits? How should boat-based whale watching licenses be administered? And are we doing enough as a country – and as small, individual destinations – to promote what Evelyn Pepler believes is, “One of South Africa’s greatest attractions”? Comment on this issue at – and share your ideas with the world!

Disclosure: the writer, Martin Hatchuel, has a fee-paying blogging contract with Ocean Odyssey and Springtide Sailing Charters, both of which belong to Evelyn Pepler, who is quoted in this article, and who is also the current chairperson of SABBWA – the South African Boat-based Whale Watching Association. 

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Martin Hatchuel
Chartered Public Relations Professional

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