Swimming with whales?

Swimming with whales?

PBS ran a Nature program on whales this week, Ocean Giants, two hours long, with some interesting footage and stories. It had however, a very troubling base concept and some inexcusable behavior on the part of the film crew. I expect the researchers who spoke to and helped these guys on camera may feel a bit uncomfortable about it now.

The base concept of the show seemed to be swimming with whales, the cameraman (and the guy filming him) get in the water with this huge camera and he films them up close and personal. This fad started years ago- people started swimming with wild dolphins, then with captive dolphins and now it has morphed into swimming with whales. It’s as old as humanity, we want to see and interact with wildlife, and filmmakers think danger and risk sells.

The most troubling scene was the film crew getting in the water with a baby sperm whale after the adults in the group went hunting. Sperm whales nurse and provide care for their young for up to seven years, and are very social. Females and young live in tight groups. A sperm whale dive can be up to an hour long, and they go as deep as 7,000 feet. Adult sperm whales are large enough that they are not generally preyed on by sharks or orcas, but their young are. When adults are foraging the young are unable to follow, so they are left at the surface, but still in acoustic contact with the mother.

The film crew scared the calf to the point it called for it’s mother, she had to abandon her feeding dive and quickly come and get the calf. This puts the mother at risk for decompression sickness, as they manage the transition from and to depth, and it interfered with her ability to feed herself and the calf. The camera crew was elated that they got footage of the baby, but they violated the first rule of responsible wildlife interaction- do not endanger or threaten the species you are observing. And for god’s sake don’t promote it!

Behavior like this, when done by people who should have known better, is inexcusable. It harms wildlife, and it forces rule making organizations to roll out more rules that harm all the parties involved.

Shame on PBS for promoting this program!

I used to lead kayaks on whale watching trips, and over the course of a couple of years close encounters made me realize it was both dangerous and reckless. These are huge wild animals, what they view as a brush off will crush a human being. Would you ride a mountain bike through a herd of African elephants at night? Most whales tip the scales at 3x the size of an African elephant. They are not looking for you, their senses are not tuned in to see us, and we have no idea where they will surface. My advice is don’t swim or paddle with whales, the life you save may be your own. The whales will generally come out just fine, a gray whale’s tongue weighs more than an SUV and nobody breaks the laws of physics.

One spot in the sea where close encounters with wild whales works for all parties is the Mexican gray whale birthing lagoons. If you go at the right time and have the right weather you will very likely get to pet whales. The Ocean Giants crew shot scenes at these lagoons, on a day that was a bit windy, but the whales came to the boats and the visitors who got to touch the whales left changed people. The bays are very large bodies of water, where the whales choose to interact, they are not in any way forced to do so. My favorite is Guerrero Negro, but it is hard to get to, below are a few images of friendly whales.

Mother presents calf at Guerrero Negro, Baja, Mexico, 2010

It works well- the locals get tourism income and the whales see that people will not harm them. I am sorry to say such interaction would never evolve in the states, the feds would smack it down in a millisecond, but in Mexico it works. It grew organically, from one whale coming up to a fisherman in 1972. And the Mexican government regulates it, giving each tour company a geographic area, so no one gangs up on the whales.

A two month old baby gray whale, Baja, 2010

A two month old baby gray whale, Baja, 2010

The truly amazing thing is this is the only case I am aware of in the animal kingdom where a species, with no visible material gain, offers it’s most precious and most vulnerable things- it’s children- to us for social interaction. And this is done in the same lagoons where we slaughtered their ancestors wholesale a scant fifty years ago. These same whales were known as Devilfish by whalers who would harpoon the babies to get to mothers, the mothers would attack the whaleboats with more ferocity than any other species they hunted.

Friendly humpback, Channel Islands, 2009

We have friendly whales here, mostly humpbacks, and a minke from time to time. When grays pass by our coast they are going to Mexico to party, or heading back to the feeding grounds. The same mother calf pairs that were friendly in the lagoons pass us by in stealth mode, avoiding orca packs. Whale watch boats with good environmental manners should not follow mother calf pairs, orcas will learn to find them by finding whale watch boats.

Gray off Pigeon Point, San Mateo County, 2008

This (late February off San Francisco) is the start of the northbound migration, the first whales were seen last week. It’s best to observe by boat, but on some projecting points you will be able to see them from shore.

Late April and May will bring the mother calf pairs to our waters, they are fewer in number but they stay at the surf line and are easily seen from shore.


About westcoastwilds

This site is meant to share the beauty of the Pacific Ocean and educate people about mankind's stewardship obligations now that we have complete control of the planet. To date we've made a mess of it, but there is still hope.
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