Watching whales is far more profitable than eating them, concludes a report published last week by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). It found that revenues from whale watching in 2008 reached $2.1 billion - double the amount earned a decade ago.

"It's clearly the most sustainable use of whales," says Patrick Ramage of the IFAW. "You can watch the same whales dozens of times, but you can only kill a whale once."

Globally, whale watching has grown by 3.7 per cent each year in the last decade. Last year, 13 million people observed whales in 119 countries, supporting 13,000 jobs.

The report was launched at the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission in Madeira, Portugal. The IWC edged closer to a conservation role by backing a pioneering US$1.2 million Australian programme to study live whales in the Southern Ocean. But it postponed a decision on whether to allow Japan to resume commercial whaling in its coastal waters.