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Responsible Whale Watching should never be hit or miss

Watching whales in the wild is a wonderful alternative to seeing whales and dolphins in captivity – nothing compares to seeing these majestic creatures in their natural habitat.  Captivity is not only extremely harmful and detrimental to whales and dolphins, but also does a disservice to the people who experience these wonderful beings in a captive setting.  Captivity gives you just the slightest impression of what a whale is; the barest idea who they are.  In the wild, the coolest and most impressive thing about whales and dolphins is how they interact with each other and their environment, all by their own free will and choice.  Their complex social lives, the way they forage and travel, the evidence of culture and their incredible use of sound is something that oceanariums will never be able to replicate for either their captive charges or the public.

 However, whale watching can also have negative effects on wild whales and dolphins unless it is carried out responsibly.   Some whale and dolphin communities that regularly return to specific areas are targeted by watchers repeatedly for long, up-close encounters.  Boat noise can drown out sound in the ocean environment, which is the most important sense for a whale living in the dark underwater world, and lots of vessels around whales can interrupt or alter their natural behavior, making some activities such as foraging and socializing more difficult. Non-motorized vessels such as sailing boats, paddleboards, and kayaks provide no warning to their presence other than their shadow, which may only be detected in close proximity, putting both the whales and passengers at risk of a collision. In the US, banging on a hull of a vessel or engaging in a behavior to intentionally alert a whale of a vessel’s presence can change the whale’s behavior, and is illegal as it is considered harassment – a violation of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  Areas that are popular whale watching locations, including both the east and west coasts of the US, usually set guidelines limiting how closely boats can approach whales to avoid harassment and violating the MMPA.  However, ultimately these guidelines and regulations are put in place for the protection of both the whales and the people.  These rules and recommendations are not always followed, though, and “close approaches” can be harmful for all parties involved.

Recently, there has been a rash of viral videos, usually shot on cell phone or GoPro cameras that document up-close encounters with whales, dolphins, and other marine creatures by – for the most part – well-meaning people on recreational watercraft.  The majority of these were truly once-in-a-lifetime experiences for the people involved, and they were very lucky to have made it through these events safe and unharmed.  (It may be a different story for the whales and dolphins involved; unfortunately we have no way to tell what they thought of the close meeting).  Sometimes though, a face-to-face with the largest mammals on earth can be dangerous, or even fatal.

A recent incident in Monterey Bay, California grabbed headlines not just for the remarkable recent activity of whales in the area, but for the people who narrowly escaped with their lives.  A narrow band of upwelling along the coast in an otherwise warmer-than-normal North Pacific is bringing whales and dolphins – including blue whales and especially humpbacksvery close to shore to take advantage of rich food sources in the California current: a proximity that has resulted in a warning going out to local boaters to take care and go slow.  As a result, the whales are “easy access” to scores of whale watchers on motorized and human-powered vessels.  Two kayakers were caught on camera underneath a breaching humpback whale – and they disappeared with the whale beneath the waves.  It all turned out OK in the end, and the kayakers escaped shaken but unhurt, but this type of incident could have taken a very different turn.  Whales are huge. Remember – the blue whale is the largest animal ever to have lived on earth – and two kayakers vs. a 40-ton humpback is no match at all.  As Tom Mustill, a wildlife filmmaker and one of the kayakers involved, states in a very interesting first-person account of the encounter, “The only thing my brain registered was quite calmly that when it came down I was going to die.”

While the whale appears to have breached unexpectedly, and the kayakers were said to have been following the guidelines of maintaining a 100-yard distance, with so many whales present in California waters right now, keeping track of the ones around you is a difficult thing to do.  Whales can also move quickly, and 100 yards to an 18m (60ft) humpback is just a pump of the tail.  Interestingly, according to Mustill’s retelling, the humpback seemed just as surprised as the kayakers, and even appears to have changed position midair so as to avoid a head-on collision.  “It didn’t crush us as it fell, or injure us in the water, and it moved away very slowly.”

Mustill and his kayaking partner were very lucky indeed, and perhaps that perceived last-second adjustment by the whale saved their lives, but other incidents have not ended so well for the humans involved.  Putting vessels and people in close proximity to whales can be extremely dangerous, particularly if the whales are involved in vital daily activities like foraging, calving, or caring for their young. Negative behavioral responses by whales when their essential daily life processes are interrupted by vessels have been well-documented.  However, what are still unknown are the long-term effects of these disturbances on whale and dolphin populations.  Obviously these incidents are very risky for the people involved, and Mustill continues to have dreams about the massive body of the humpback looming over him.

WDC is working to develop criteria for responsible and sustainable whale watching, in order that this activity will have a minimal impact on the whales and dolphins involved and be truly beneficial to passengers, boat operators, and local communities (both human and whale!).  Our current US programs for commercial whale and dolphin watching, Whale SENSE and Dolphin SMART, combine the extraordinary experience of watching these amazing creatures in the wild with important data collection, community involvement, and top-notch public education.  We promote industry responsibility for setting and maintaining guidelines and work with conservation authorities and the scientific community to continually assess the effects of whale watching on our marine friends.  In addition, we work to educate recreational boaters about the guidelines for approaching marine life and how to be a respectful around whales and dolphins.

 Whale SENSE

In the case of the humpback and the kayakers in Monterey, the kayak company involved has shut down all whale-watch kayak tours until further notice – definitely a wise move, given the huge amount of whales in the area.  As most of them are within a few miles offshore, viewing from the safety of land is a fantastic alternative, and no one will get seasick!  With this unusual activity so close to the coast, we hope locals and visitors alike enjoy the company of the whales while also respecting their space, for the safety of everyone, humans and whales alike.