Whale encounters: How close is too close?

The controversy and science behind this amazing video

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.

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  • Radford Bean

    I would have to say that as a wildlife biologist, conservationist, and paddler I agree with the experts you spoke to. Whales are intelligent, magnificent animals that are to be enjoyed from a safe distance. That said, a cetacean can swim a lot faster than a paddler can paddle, so close encounters with whales may not always be avoidable. After all, whales are naturally curious creatures, but let the whale initiate the contact, not vice versa.

    The fact that those kayakers approached whales that were mating was troublesome. Imagine how you would feel if you were having sex with your partner and a total stranger off the street corner walked in on you. You wouldn’t like it very much. Paddlers need to exercise courtesy around not just whales but any wildlife they encounter.
    .

  • Joe Willis

    First of all, in this video it is obvious that the two people in the kayak were not aggressively pursing these whales – they were simply drifting in the water nearby. At the time when the kayak and whale made contact, they were not paddling at all. It could be argued that they were much too close to the whales, but there is no way to know whether they paddled in to meet the whales or if the whales wandered closer to them. This part of the video was not shown. Obviously they paddled out to view the whales, but to assume that they paddled in too close is pure speculation.

    When the whale surfaced beneath their kayak, it approached them, not the other way around. For those of you who do not understand Spanish, this was not intentional – they did not paddle on top of the whale. They were surprised and thrilled and a little frightened when it happened. They should be commended on having done the right thing at this point – they did not panic or attempt to push the kayak off of the whale or scream and flail about with their paddles which could have frightened the whale. They waited until the whale submerged and then paddled away to put distance between them.

    I spent several years a sea kayak guide in Southeast Alaska, part of which involved leading guests to locations where humpback whales regularly congregated. In addition, I have come across whales of various species in many locations while kayaking in other parts of the world. It is always a magical occasion and certainly one which without fail gives everyone involved a new or renewed appreciation for the magnificence and beauty of these gentle giants. I have had whales approach me many, many times – including bumping into my kayak and being surrounded by a family of humpbacks who where bubble net feeding. Anyone who suggests that a 100 foot distance must always be maintained has no idea of the realities of sea kayaking around whales.

    Kayaks are perhaps the least invasive watercraft for whale watching. A whale encounter in a sea kayak could be compared to an unarmed person on foot meeting a elephant in the wild – The whale is in its element and fully in control. As long as the paddlers keep a reasonable and respectful distance (do not attempt approach whales closer than 100 feet) or pursue whales which are swimming away, and are aware of what activity the whales are engaged in (birthing, nursing, mating, feeding, etc.), and educates themselves about the species and what precautions should be taken to minimize interference, no harm is done.

    I disagree that this was a bad example of human/whale contact. Anyone suggesting that it is needs to get out on the sea in a kayak to see what it is all about. If someone wants to see some bad examples of whale/human interactions, they only need to look at the videos posted of whaling ships. Kayaks are not the problem. As more people take to the water to view whales in kayaks, this type of thing (physical contact) is going to happen. This video is an excellent teaching tool for other paddlers to see so that they can understand the possible consequences of close whale encounters – and how to react if it does.

  • Katmanduman

    Inspite of all the judgements flying about it is unclear to me how the kayaker got to where they were( Did they see the whales and paddle that direction?) Were they on a whale watching paddle and the whales did their thing and came up near the kayaker. With all the charges flying around it seems no one cares about the actual facts!!!!

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