Whales & Coastal Dolphins

Whales and coastal dolphins are some of the earth’s most iconic species. For centuries, these charismatic marine mammals have captivated people. And through time, humans have nearly caused the extinction of many of them. Today, some species and populations are showing promising signs of recovery, while others remain depleted. Plus, a new set of 21st century challenges has arisen.


Though the commercial whaling moratorium is still in place, whales and coastal dolphins face many threats that challenge their recovery. Human-caused threats, such as bycatch (incidental entanglement in fishing gear); ship strikes; increasing levels of noise from shipping; military and oil and gas industrial activities; coastal development in essential habitats; and the impacts of oil spills and other ocean pollutants are increasingly a problem for many recovering and threatened populations. The impacts from a changing climate also loom, from potentially shifting the abundance and distribution of essential prey species to melting previously ice-locked polar waters that will expose whales to even more human activity.

2.9 million whales

An estimated 2.9 million whales were killed between 1900 and 1999.

300,000 dolphins and porpoises

About 300,000 dolphins and porpoises are killed each year as a result of bycatch.

Photo Credit: © Julie Larsen Maher

Our Goal

Solve or mitigate these conservation challenges. This requires time, resources, sophisticated technological advancements, and practical conservation solutions and it is being done in collaboration with governments, scientists, conservation organizations, international agencies, and coastal communities.

Specifically, we employ a few key strategies:

Why WCS?

15 of 18

Of the 18 threatened coastal dolphin species, 15 are found in waters where WCS works. Similarly, of the 19 great whale species, we work directly on programs to save 14.

13,988 miles

Whales generally migrate great distances, including the longest mammalian journey on record—13,988 miles by a gray whale that migrated from the Arctic to tropical breeding areas and back. WCS conservation scientists have used advanced technologies to track humpback whales and southern right whales through vast stretches of the world’s oceans, gathering key information to inform conservation strategies.

Photo Credit: © Julie Larsen Maher

On Our Strategies

Conduct Cutting-Edge Field Conservation and Science

With whales, WCS employs a range of techniques, including acoustic monitoring, satellite tracking, and conservation genetics to better understand populations, to define their most biologically important habitats. Using genetic analyses, WCS plays a leading role in outlining the population differences for many great whale species—including humpback whales, blue whales, and right whales.

Similarly advanced work is being done with dolphins. Through range-wide genetic sampling and analyses, WCS science provided clear evidence for the number of humpback dolphins, including the discovery and description of a new dolphin species. From acoustic monitoring of dolphin vocalizations to surveys along the entire coastline of Tanzania, WCS efforts generate essential baselines about dolphins in need of conservation attention.

Protect Key Habitats

WCS is working to ensure that biologically important habitats are legally designated as marine protected areas (MPAs). In 2014, Gabon declared 23% of its territorial waters as an MPA network that will help safeguard whales and other marine species. In Bangladesh, WCS helped the government establish three wildlife sanctuaries for freshwater dolphins and, in 2014, worked with the country on its first MPA, encompassing more than 1,700 square kilometers. It will safeguard dolphins, whales, and other marine life.

Photo Credit: ©Francois Baelen/Ocean Image Bank

Mitigate the Impacts From Threats

For whales, among others, increasing human-generated ocean noise is a key issue. WCS is 'listening' for whales in key areas of the world, including Arctic-Beringia, New York's waters, the Congo Basin Coast, the Western Indian Ocean, and more. These efforts generate important baseline data and we use the information to recommend and guide the implementation of 'best practices' that mitigate impacts to whales and other species.

From the northern and western Indian Ocean to the Gulf of Guinea, WCS is also working to reduce and eliminate bycatch, an essential issue for dolphin populations. In Congo, WCS has worked with local fishing communities to eliminate catches of Atlantic humpback dolphins, a species potentially on the brink of extinction. While in Bangladesh, WCS teams have collaborated with fishers to form dolphin safety networks. Plus, in Madagascar and the western Indian Ocean, WCS is working to transform practices, turning dolphin hunters to dolphin watchers, generating more sustainable financing through ecotourism.

Implement Progressive Policy Changes and
Elevate Awareness About the Most Important Challenges

The challenges facing whales are of great interest to the public, yet it can be difficult for people to put them in context. Through our scientific and media efforts, WCS highlights the issues and challenges for whale recovery. Recent high-profile issues for whales have been highlighted in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, among others.

For dolphins, WCS does extensive outreach, connecting with everyone from rural villagers and fishers to park managers and senior wildlife officials. In our priority regions, festivals, targeted meetings, and even 'floating' educational experiences build a much-needed constituency for dolphin conservation. And advancing on the strong science and dolphin discoveries, policies and laws to better protect these populations and species are now being implemented or strengthened.


In Action

In the early 2000s, WCS discovered that Bangladesh's vast Sundarbans mangrove forest and adjacent marine coastal zone is a global stronghold for threatened dolphins, porpoises, and whales. With information and encouragement provided by WCS, the Government of Bangladesh established three sanctuaries to protect Asia's last two remaining freshwater dolphin species, creating the nation's first marine protected area. The animals who benefit from this protection include the world's largest population of Irrawaddy dolphin, as well as Indo-Pacific finless porpoises, humpback dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins, as well as a genetically distinct population of Bryde's whale.

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Whales of New York

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