On Whales, divers, encounters and recreational boats impact on marine wildlife

23 JULY 2013 – 9:07PM BY ZEL.MACWILLIAMS

When I started my internship with WDC in Plymouth, Massachusetts, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the issues that whales of all shapes and sizes face. I’ve read the articles, seen clips on the news, and shared in the horror of the grisly pictures of mangled or deceased whales that are posted online.
As the summer has gone on and I spent more time on whale watching boats, collecting data for the organization, I felt more and more comfortable in my knowledge of the issues the great whales that I watched must face everyday.
We practiced Whale SENSE, a program with special attention to the guidelines on how to safely whale watch, and spread the word about the issues of vessel strikes, entanglements, and loss of habitat. We educated the throngs of whale watchers, taking advantage of their excitement and awe of the giant creatures they were seeing to enlist their support in the whales’ continued protection. But reading words and looking at pictures does not give you the full picture of these issues, or prepare you for the anger and frustration felt while watching it happen.
During a sunny day in early July, three whale watching boats followed a single humpback whale, Nile, using guidelines learned in the Whale SENSE program. You could hear the cries of excitement from all the boats each time Nile surfaced, rolled, and dove, eventually situated in the middle of the boats. The mass of passengers and myself all watched then as a recreational boater, wanting to get a better view, drove through the middle of the whale watching boats and where Nile had just dove moments before. Elizabeth, a fellow intern, and I held our breaths, tracking the boat with our eyes and hoping Nile would surface far away. Even the passengers behind us could feel the tension and were as helpful as they could be, eagerly sharing with us the name of boat. As Nile resurfaced a few hundred yards away from all the boats, we relaxed briefly, until the irresponsible boater spotted her as well. He revved two propeller engines and raced towards her, only slowing when he was within one hundred yards, approaching her closely from behind.
Among issues such as whaling and pollution, vessel strikes are one of the major threats to large whales and other cetaceans, even threatening the survival of entire species. A lack of awareness of these issues and the proper training on how to approach large whales, or to avoid them all together, perpetuates the problem. All cetaceans are vulnerable to boat collisions, which can include injuries such as broken bones, blunt trauma, and severe lacerations from propellers. These cuts can later can become infected and kill the animal if it hadn’t died from the force of the strike already (Richard Caddell).
Luckily, Nile was not harmed by this boat and made the wise choice to keep doing what whales do and swim gracefully onwards. While as interns we have been warned of irresponsible boaters, seeing it for yourself is a hard thing to handle. I was surprised by the amount of anxiety and anger that over came me at the ignorance and carelessness of some boaters, and the overwhelming feeling of helplessness. All that I, and the hundreds of whale watch passengers, could do was watch. We took our pictures and wrote down the boat’s identification numbers and would submit a report in the coming days, but whether that boat or any other dangerous boaters would ever hear from the authorities is beyond our control.
In the case of maritime laws and their enforcement, their existence is helpful but it is difficult to track violations. While it may seem that little action can be taken during the moment, the real action must be taken on shore, with education, awareness, and the occasional monetary fine for bad behavior. What makes people behave better than the knowledge that their bad actions come with dollar signs attached?
I don’t see recreational boaters as people intentionally seeking out whales to do harm. I only see people who are there to do the same thing we are, admire the magnificence of these creatures. Unfortunately their lack of knowledge of the appropriate and safe way to do that put these creatures, and the boaters themselves, in danger. We need everyone’s cooperation to protect these whales, so spread the word – we all share the responsibility of protecting our oceans.
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