Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XV No. 2 - April 2006


In the Presence of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

By William Rossiter, CSI President


In the Presence of Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, the focus of much of this Whales Alive!, begins with our celebration of the opening of New England whale watching in mid-April. For decades CSI's core region members have shaken off winter by taking advantage of some of the world's greatest cetacean-viewing with some of the world's most experienced operators and naturalists. We have always and justifiably considered Cape Cod's Dolphin Fleet as the best, an example of how it should be done. As this newsletter goes to press some of us are planning to be aboard the first trip of the Dolphin Fleet's 31st season on April 15th; we can't wait any longer.

Humpback whale by boat There was another reason for being aboard the Dolphin Fleet's inaugural trip: we couldn't wait to check out the innovative new public education experience they have made available for everyone who ventures on board. We expect it to set the standard for operators everywhere. Developed by Dr. Carole Carlson and underwritten by Dolphin Fleet owner Captain Steve Milliken, the program goes beyond explaining what people can see, to stress the reasons they should care. It presents local cetacean species in the full context of their marine environment, and how we affect it all; a true floating classroom that reaches new levels of education, conservation and research collaboration. The program will engage first-timers, kids, and even the most experienced whale aficionados with interactive displays, activities for children, documentary videos, whale sound recordings, hydrophones, tows for plankton for magnified displays, expanded hands-on materials and some of the most experienced naturalists in the world.

Salt is one humpback everyone wants to see. First sighted 30 years ago, the first whale named by the Dolphin Fleet, she's had 9 calves and is a grandmother. All scientific data collected on the Dolphin boats will be shared with both research and educational institutions, weekly trips will feature bird experts from the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and a land based program is available for schools.

As a world authority on whales and whale watching Dr. Carlson brings a wealth of knowledge to the Dolphin Fleet, where she began as a naturalist over twenty years ago. She is currently compiling "A review of whale watch guidelines and regulations around the world" for the Scientific Committee of the IWC.

Seabird and Whale Tales 2006, a special all day offshore trip from Plymouth, Massachusetts, is scheduled for Sunday, June 11 from 8 AM to 6 PM. This trip is a fund-raiser for the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA), offering the opportunity to get farther offshore than regular whale watches. Cetacean scientists and Massachusetts Audubon sea bird experts will augment 85 pairs of eyes scouring the ocean. And it's always fun to compare "whale nuts" (as we all like to be known) with "real" birders. The latter usually have the most impressive equipment, casually displayed over designer clothes, while whale people wear layers of anything, enjoy everything, and seem to have more fun. We squeal on cue from humpbacks playing near the boat, while birders have an epiphany with a dot on the horizon that adds to their life list. It's good to get together once in a while, especially for charity.

While the registration form is available at http://www.nebshark.org/, please buy your ticket through CSI. If CSI sells ten tickets we will receive one free space, which we would donate to a deserving whale nut who cannot afford the ticket. All money raised by tickets purchased through CSI will go to NECWA, so this is a good deal all around. Don't wait! The number of passengers is limited to ensure a comfortable ride offshore.

2006's Three Day Canyons Whale Watch is the only way the public can glimpse what lives along the continental shelf, weather permitting, with many offshore species like beaked and sperm whales, and pelagic birds that don't get near any shore in this hemisphere. Departing Gloucester at 10 PM on 13 August and returning late on the 16th, the all-inclusive trip will benefit the Center for Oceanic Research and Education.

Whale watching is everywhere today, the good, the bad and the ugly. CSI won't attempt to include anything else from the enormous trough of information on whale watching, because it's all on the Internet. But if you have questions please ask. Besides working to make whale watching influence people to care more about the marine environment, CSI is directly involved with issues such as harassment.

Example of harassment Here's an example of harassment: There are two humpbacks in this picture, trying to rest while squeezed by a whale watch boat and two private boaters. Yes, the boats are doing something illegal, but enforcement is difficult far from shore, and the legal precedents so far do not favor the whales. In the ill-famed "LushLife case" of decades ago a judge dismissed a very well documented harassment of humpbacks by a private boat that refused to literally get off their backs, because there was no physical proof of injury. CSI hopes that the enforcement monitoring of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is more effective than ever this year.

At least five humpbacks had been found struck by boats by mid-March in Hawaii's current whale watch season. Two humpback calves were injured in one week in mid-March by boats. The latest was a hit-and-run collision off Maui. Only one quarter of the collisions may be reported. The calf, with deep propeller gashes, was seen resting at the surface a few days after the unreported collision, its mother in a protective position underneath, two male escorts nearby, shadowed by three tiger sharks. One known collision was caused by a Pacific Whale Foundation whale watch vessel, which struck a whale calf off South Maui in early March, injuring the calf's head and pectoral fin. Two other two collisions were caused by whale watch boats in January. Even a rigid inflatable-hull Coast Guard vessel struck a whale. No one tried to hit a whale, and collisions may be impossible to prevent, but many efforts are underway to stop the trend.

It shouldn't be up to the whales: Between December and April perhaps 5,000 humpbacks enter Hawaiian waters to calve, breed, give whale watchers a good time, and keep many scientists from having to work in colder climates. Whales may be just below the surface, impossible to see, unaware of approaching boat noises that may be masked near the surface or lost in the general din. Some whales are too preoccupied with each other, which of course is why they are there. NOAA's Hawaii enforcement office has seven officers, 10 million square miles of responsibility, and can't even investigate all events much less prevent them.

Luna died in a boat accident on 10 March. Playing in the turbulence of propeller wash, one of the solitary orca's favorite pastimes, Luna got too close to the idling props of the 104-foot General Jackson, an ocean-going tug that was waiting out foul offshore weather in Mooyah Bay, Canada. The vessel was larger and more powerful that Luna was accustomed to; he died almost instantly. In the wise words of Mike Parfit, one of Luna's most dedicated helpers, "we have to accept also that one of the costs of freedom is risk, and Luna was free and took risks."

Luna courtesy of Suzanne Chisholm

Luna, courtesy of Suzanne Chisholm

Also called L-98 by scientists, and later Tsu'xiit by the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nation, Luna had vanished from L pod and was thought dead. In July 2001 he was discovered isolated in Nootka Sound, Canada. His presence was kept secret until late January, 2002. The theory was that he had followed his uncle, who had died, leaving Luna separated from his L pod by several hundred miles.

The fascinating human version of Luna's story is at: http://www.orcanetwork.org/news/luna.html. There's too much to recount here, a saga that deserves to become a book, especially as it brought out the best and worst in people, with plenty of heroes, sacrifice, conflicts and drama. To those of us far way the story should be filled with the special people who put their lives on hold to help this whale, committing themselves to the stewardship of Luna in Gold River and Nootka Sound. From the public record it seems Luna thought of people and boats more as toys, but perhaps he formed more interactive relationships with a select few. As intimate as people were with Luna, no one knows what he thought about the experience. If only we knew how the whale would tell his story!

Most interactive cetaceans are self-selecting; they choose to do it. Luna did not. He made the best of his situation. No one knows if he would have wanted to rejoin L pod or would have been accepted. But he didn't come to people, they came to him. Luna's experience is an example of the intensity that builds around solos, as people invest their best intentions in hopes, assumptions, and plans that sometimes conflict with others. Sometimes the conflicts prevent solutions, or even cause harm. Each solo event is unique, but each helps us learn for the next. There will always be more interactions with cetaceans, and if the trend is true, they will become more mutual and beneficial for all of us.

Two dolphins Here's a test question: Do these dolphins want you to swim with them? The answer is that most people wouldn't think to ask. Instead more and more people are jumping in as close to wild whales and dolphins as they can, in what may be the fastest growing tourism industry worldwide. Interacting with cetaceans is the stuff of dreams, an intensely personal experience, and anyone can get carried away. Scientific analysis of the humans swimming "with" cetaceans showed that most people were clueless about much around them, adamant that they were doing no harm, and insulted if told they were harassing or should not be there. The results would be similar almost everywhere today; people are people. But humans can't make up for their inadequacies in the water by being arrogant and rude. Many fail to see they are intruding and breaking every rule. This is part of the reason why "swim with" tourism can easily do more harm than good. Almost every documentary glorifies divers that barely manage to stay with cetaceans for a few moments, ignoring the cetaceans' patient displays of "get away" signals. How many times have you see a tail or fin sweep close ... an unheeded warning. Why are we so clueless? The core problem is that even experienced people are unable or unwilling to discern the often subtle clues that they are harassing cetaceans. Even when the clues are crystal clear, maybe a whale lobtailing next to a boat, or dolphins constantly turning away or going deeper, some people rationalize the event as from some other cause. On the surface it's about cetaceans, but it's really about us, and increasingly about the money to be made.

Interacting with cetaceans, including whale watching, is the fundamental force that supports a multimillion dollar, multifaceted economy. The businesses range from cliff top watching to real "swim with" ecotours, from "therapy" with miserable dolphins in plastic lined holes in the ground to fabricated "encounters" with dolphins trained to interact in open water, from a giant cruise ship in Antarctica with full wine cellar to a native canoe following river dolphins to the base of the Andes. Of course it is all exploitation of a resource, but some of it is harmless, exquisite, and extremely valuable to us. An educated, caring consumer is the solution to most problems, because even the most callous operators will clean up their act if no one buys a ticket. We can't stop the business, so CSI works to make it more benign.

Amazon River dolphin courtesy of Fundación Omacha

Amazon River dolphin courtesy of Fundación Omacha

It should be amazing that people will pay so much and travel so far to leap in where their senses are compromised and they are absolutely vulnerable to some enormous predator, but it's not. People act on blind trust, miss almost everything that happens, yet quickly exhaust and totally exhilarate themselves in what can be a life changing event. To many it's more about being in the presence of cetaceans in the wild than interacting with them or learning from the experience. Contrast this with ecotours to witness large land creatures. No one would run towards an elephant or lion, or try to hug a wolf or polar bear. People who would run from a spider thrash towards dolphins twice their size. Why do we assume that cetaceans will not harm us, and that no matter how clumsy, rude, or inept we are the whales and dolphins will give us the contact we deserve?

Clumsy swimmer Very often the whales and dolphins do allow the approach, again and again tolerating humans almost within touching distance, and no one seems surprised. The very rare reports of human injuries almost automatically blame the people. Why do cetaceans try so hard to give us the benefit of the doubt? Well, after we admit we haven't many clues, why not guess that their curiosity and discipline may outmatch ours, they see us as toys, or they have a good sense of humor and might be a bit bored?

But to most of the wet and wild people the life-changing event is very one-sided. While no one knows what cetaceans truly make of the fuss, many people believe cetaceans are there to help them; facilitators for their self-learning, healing or therapy. CSI has no intention of criticizing anyone for their motives for trying to interact with wild whales and dolphins, only their method, because these interactions may not be as benign as everyone insists. Rarely controlled, they can and do cause significant impacts. CSI and several other organizations are working hard to keep some order and sense to the exploding business. It's hard to reach the tourists, whose motives are so powerful they rarely listen to any cautions. It's easier to seek out the better tour operators and spread the word about how they do it. In the end it is a matter of convincing an operator that doing the job better will bring more tourists and money, and keep the whales and dolphins around longer. Yes, to some it's really about the money, not the whales.

Swimmer with dolphin Of course interactions don't always harass cetaceans. The best interactions are the ones the dolphins and whales seek out, such as humpbacks playing around whale watch boats they seem to like, or spotted dolphins soliciting people to join the pod's activity for a moment. Invariably, the people leading these most successful operations know the creatures intimately and individually, and behave in ways that accommodate and respect them. Research shows over and again that only a few self-selecting individual cetaceans allow or solicit approaches, while most in a group stay clear. But these few can and do teach others in their groups how to interact, and maybe why. Truly fascinating research suggests cultural trends towards interacting in a very few places. Calves may also learn from their mothers the pleasures or the pains of interacting.

Gray whale near boat

Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey The gray whale Amazing Grace began to play with boats in Laguna San Ignacio in 1977 and several of her calves have continued as they became adults. The carefully moderated, intimate contact (see January's Whales Alive!) now fuels the dreams of whale watchers, supports the people of a remote region, and influences government policy. The calf on the right may be the fourth generation of gray whales to play with boats here.

Photo courtesy of Jim Dorsey

Spinner dolphins use Hawaiian bays to rest during the day, as they probably have for thousands of years. In the last few decades more and more people have come to swim with them. Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) cannot ban people from swimming or kayaking around dolphins, but can regulate commercial permits for boats that launch from harbors and ramps. Several scientific studies have shown that humans cause changes in the dolphins' behaviors, and some suggest dolphin groups may try to find more human-free rest areas. For most people, however, the thrill rationalizes disturbance, far beyond passive observation and learning. Blinded by self-serving motives almost everyone would swear that they have no impact. A very few, the most astute, grasp and respect the dolphins' rules, and reap the true rewards.

Hawaii's West Oahu Ocean Recreation Management Area in Waianae Bay failed to pass last year. Famed for its resting spinners, the bay's dolphin watching tours increased from six to eleven in four years. One tour allowed up to 15 kayaks in the water at one time, boats appeared to dump snorkelers in the path of dolphins, and at least once eight dolphins were surrounded by 75 swimmers. Kealakekua Bay, Honaunau Bay, Hookena Bay and many smaller locations have long supported dolphin groups resting before moving out to sea to feed, but in the past few decades have attracted increasing numbers of people eager to meet them. By the end of the nineties Kealakekua Bay had more people but 25 percent fewer dolphins.

Dolphins Spotted and bottlenose dolphins use Bahamian banks for the same purpose. Although the distance from shore limits the numbers of boats and people, humans have also used the opportunity to swim with these dolphins for over twenty years. Some of the truly superb research on these dolphins has allowed huge leaps in our understanding. Nevertheless the concerns for impacts are real, and the solution largely rests with voluntary compliance by all users.

Egypt's Sha'ab Samadai is a reef also used by resting spinner dolphins. The horseshoe shaped coral reef is about 6 kilometers from the nearest shore of the southern Egyptian Red Sea. The reef's accessible dolphins began to attract dolphin-swim tourism in 2000. By 2003 up to 30 dive boats were bringing between 500-800 snorkelers per day. Unlike Hawaii, and the Red Sea's Sinai side where dolphins have abandoned some reefs because of humans, Samadai Reef found a solution worthy of promotion: a zone system constrains the swim-with tour threat. Samadai's resting spinner dolphins are free from all humans in the large inner zone A. Marked by buoys, an intermediate zone B permits snorkelers to approach any dolphins there, and an outer zone C is for snorkelers and small inflatable boats. Only ten motor yachts can moor at Sha'ab Samadai daily, and only between 1000 and 1500 hours, with a maximum of twenty guests each. The success of the zones seems assured because enough dolphins do enter zone B and interact with swimmers.

Giuseppe Notarbartolo di Sciara of Italy is to be commended for conceiving the zones. His work will continue to oversee the monitoring, eventual workshop, and future scientific papers concerning Samadai Reef's dolphin-human interactions. CSI-supported research at Samadai Reef by Louisa Ponnampalam has fitted well into the overall project, amplifying the regular monitoring that the rangers have been carrying out since early 2004. CSI also compliments the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and Red Sea Protectorates for their timely and decisive action, and their monitoring to ensure compliance.

Mayotte Lagoon, in the Indian Ocean's Mozambique Channel, is a newer challenge: Jeremy Kisma is trying to help the region make the most of their opportunity, without all the mistakes that have caused so many problems worldwide. If you can, please send information on swim-with-whale tourism throughout the world, such as regulations, codes of conduct, and scientific reports/papers, to jeremy.kiszka@wanadoo.fr.

Interactive cetaceans are creating a fascinating history that deserves a better review than this newsletter can provide. Studying this history will help make the future even more fascinating, because the certainty is that they will keep turning up even if we are uncertain what to do about them. To be blunt, so far we have missed the potentials from almost every event. All over the world it's the same: only a few cetaceans in any population will solicit or even tolerate close humans, but because of their individual curiosity or whatever, they are the ones most likely to be responsible for most interactions. If these unique individuals can be identified and consistently respected the success of any swim-with opportunity is enhanced.

Wade Doak's Project Interlock of New Zealand is an encyclopedia of the past thirty years of human-cetacean interactions. No one has a more complete trove of scientific and anecdotal reports from around the world than Wade, who is also an accomplished author of many books. Please see http://www.wadedoak.com/projectinterlock.htm, particularly if you have an experience you want to share.

Interactive cetaceans include: gray whales like Amazing Grace; humpbacks like Salt and Colt; pilot whales like Chief; belugas like Casper, Lenni, Bubbles, and Poco; Risso's, common, spotted, and bottlenose dolphins like Pelorous Jack, Rampal, Blaze, Jo Jo, Dingle and Tiao; sperm whales like Physty; and several orcas like Springer, Digit and Elsa, all human names given to unique individuals with personalities. No one knows what they call themselves, or in most cases why they came and where they went. But many have suffered harm and death from people.

Sperm whales in Azores courtesy of Wade Hughes

Sperm whales in Azores courtesy of Wade Hughes

Let's assume cetaceans have interacted with people for thousands of years, because the situation prompted it and it's in their nature. It's in our nature to have thought of them as an easy meal, literally cutting off opportunities. Interactions seem to have increased in the last thirty years, probably because people are more aware and benign, help events develop and, we hope, think of the creature more as a mind than meat. But even now there may be a dolphin approaching a fisherman on a remote coast, about to come to a tragic end.

"Solo" cetaceans are the ones people notice the most, as they seem out of place so close to people, so apart from their own kind. Several research papers have been written to review the history of solos, try to explain why they happen, and counsel what should be done. Several quiet projects that may never be publicized are exploring thresholds, and many more opportunities can be expected. That's the take-away message here; there will be others.

Can you think of any other large, wild predator on the planet that interacts with people as cetaceans do? Maybe wolves? The few wolves that dared be curious about people didn't get very far. Domestic wolves, conventional history says, came from a few wolf pups that were captured, and thousands of years of human-serving dog breeding followed. To the Bichon on my lap that perspective is ridiculous. I serve him; his purpose is to be adored. The human perspective has another flaw: humans assume the domestication of wolves was our choice, for motives we can understand. It is as likely that a few wolves tolerated living with humans because of the advantages of food and shelter. Wouldn't they be amused to know their descendants became Bichons and ruled humans!

Cetaceans are not wolves, and domestication is not their future. But a few of them share with a few of us the essential curiosity that drives the more exploratory interactions. Perhaps it is an extension of the normal curiosity many animals share, where knowledge and experience with the habitat, environment, and other life forms is a survival necessity. But this is a unique curiosity, beyond food, turf, sex and status, an intellectual curiosity, curiosity for its own sake, the stuff that implores some people to be enthralled with the world around them rather than just explore ways to use it. It's an individual thing, for both whale and human, two very different creatures, but when they get together...

Curious orca courtesy of Ingrid Visser

Curious orca courtesy of Ingrid Visser

What's next in the overdue evolution of the human-cetacean relationship? It's already here: Neither mainstream science nor new-age fantasy, but very rare, evolved interactions begin with a human and a cetacean, two unique individuals, who make considerable effort to seek out the other. More curious, open and trusting than most of their kind, they create a game to explore each other. With rare luck they are free from distractions and isolated from their own kind for a brief time, and luckier still to be able to come together more than once. The cetacean likely will have the advantage of being in its world, where the human's senses and skills are compromised. But the human may have the advantage of shared experiences from like-minded people, even on the other side of the planet. Where will it go? Who knows? As real as it is, most people would shrug off the whole idea as fantasy. Just as well; we can't have everyone trying it. Let's call it the Threshold, and wish them well.


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