Whale encounters: How close is too close?

By Katie McKy

This video of a Southern Right Whale surfacing beneath a tandem kayak created quite a stir when we posted it to canoekayak.com last week. Reader responses were passionate, and decidedly mixed.

C&K‘s own take was borderline preachy, complete with a link to guidelines for ethical whale watching. Editor Jeff Moag posted it on Facebook shortly before midnight July 22 with the tagline “Here’s a real video we wish was fake.”

By morning, the story had been shared around the world and generated nearly 100 comments. This was a typical remark on the C&K Facebook page:

“What were they thinking? Total lack of respect. Idiots!”

So was this:

“This is a beautiful experience and I’m envious. When a whale comes over to you and gives like that it is something that should be relished. Those people were given a privilege they will never forget and will hopefully pass on.”

There was no middle ground. The close encounter was either a transcendental example of interspecies communion, or an unconscionable crime. Take your pick–one, not the other.

So how should kayakers behave when whale watching? We put that question to a pair of cetacean scientists and a veteran kayak tour operator. All three watched the video and weighed in on this leviathan piggybacking.

The gamut of their responses was thin as a supermodel, running from whale riding being a bad thing to the worst thing.

“There are several issues here that would strongly suggest to paddlers that this is not a good thing to do,” says Aaron N. Rice, Ph.D., Director of the Bioacoustics Research Program at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University.

“From a legal issue (assuming this were to happen in the US), under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is illegal to harm or harass a marine mammal, and doing so carries a fairly stiff fine (upwards of $15,000-$30,000), plus other penalties. Coming this close or in contact with a whale with a kayak would definitely constitute harassment,” Rice says.

“The second issue is that whales are enormous, unpredictable wild animals. It’s often difficult to predict how any wild animal will respond to humans, and given how powerful whales are, it’s easy to envision a scenario where a whale gets spooked and it doesn’t end so well for the kayaker.

“The last issue is that coming this close to them with kayaks could certainly cause a physiological stress reaction for the whales. Bottom line is if you are so fortunate as to see marine mammals while paddling, the best thing to do is to give them some space,” Rice concludes.

Lauren Campbell, Conservation Manager at the Pacific Whale Foundation, is less circumspect. “This is probably one of the most disturbing videos of whale/human interaction that I have ever seen,” she says.

“The Southern Right Whale population is still trying to recover from intensive whaling. The area of Argentina where this video was filmed is an important nursery and calving area. Imagine if you were trying to nurse your baby, or in the middle of trying to make babies, and someone kayaked on top of you? With a population that is already depressed, actions that interrupt (or disrupt) important behaviors such as nursing and calving can be detrimental to the overall recovery of the population.”

Cambell says the Pacific Whale Foundation believes that allowing individuals the opportunity to view animals such as whales helps instill a greater appreciation for the ocean environment. “The freedom to enjoy nature, however, comes with a need to respect it. This video shows a blatant disregard for the whales and their habitat, and instead epitomizes the wrong way to enjoy the ocean–selfishly and without respect.”

Okay, point taken. But anyone who has paddled around whales knows that it’s sometimes impossible to maintain the 100-yard berth that those ethical viewing guidelines (and the law in many jurisdictions) say boaters should give to whales. Those laws and guidelines are written for powerboat operators; if a 90,000-pound leviathan wants to pay a visit, how are we kayakers supposed to avoid them?

I put that question to Mark Lewis, a kayak guide, author/educator, and resident biologist for Sea Quest Expeditions. He’s been guiding paddlers on whale-watching trips for decades, observing everything from Orcas to Blue Whales on their turf, by kayak.

“Clearly, it was inappropriate for the kayakers to approach the mating right whales so closely. Firstly, it was disrespectful to the whales because as conscious beings they deserve a comfortable boundary around their body space at all times, just as humans do. Secondly, all animals, including humans, are more likely to reactive negatively when disturbed from mating, birthing, fighting, feeding, etc.

“Right whales are huge animals that can accidentally kill a person with a single tail swipe. They have been known to lash out when startled, or when feeling threatened. This can have lethal consequences even if the whale did not intend that result.

This wasn’t the first close encounter between kayakers and whales. In 2011, a lunging humpbacknearly swallowed a tandem kayak, and kayaker Rick Coleman captured this amazing video footage of feeding blue whales off Redondo Beach, California.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments section below.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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