Is Whale Watching Becoming A Full Contact Sport?
August 22, 2012

Is Whale Watching Becoming A Full Contact Sport?

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Tourists have been coming from around the world to the coast of California to catch a glimpse of whales this year. From Avila Beach on the San Luis Obispo Bay to Monterrey and Santa Cruz on the Monterrey Bay to the great shipping channels of San Francisco Bay, humpback and blue whales have been out in record numbers.

Blue and humpback whales are both endangered species that use the California coastline as a spring and summer feeding ground before heading off to Mexico and Central America for their winter breeding grounds.

The whales are coming closer to shore this year because of a bumper harvest of their favorite food: tiny, shrimplike sea life known as krill. Strong northwest winds have been pushing up cold, nutrient laden waters from the ocean bottom in a phenomenon known as upwelling. This upwelling creates blooms of phytoplankton, which leads to an explosion of krill, the whales' main food source.

The Avila Beach Sea Life Center says humpbacks are known for feeding in a vertical motion, which has visitor and sightseers breaking out their cameras and binoculars in record numbers.

The abundance of whales has been a boon to the tour boat operators in the area. Some operations estimate that they have doubled last year's profits and the season isn't over yet.

So why is there a problem? Human interactions with the whales are dangerous for both the humans and the whales.

In San Luis Obispo Bay, the humans aren't all waiting for tour boat rides, some of them are kayaking, swimming and jet skiing near the whales, and not always with good results. The whales are some of the largest mammals on Earth, and they aren't slowing their feeding frenzy to notice small kayaks or swimmers. People have been thrown from their kayaks and other boats, prompting the Port San Luis Harbor Patrol to greater vigilance.

"We have a couple different boats that get out on the water and we make sure people aren't pursuing the animal. Within the past week, we've actually had a couple of incidents where people have been knocked off of their kayaks, so we're just out there trying to keep people safe," said Harbor Patrol Officer Chris Weddle.

Weddle said they urge kayakers, swimmers, and boaters to stay at least 100-yards away from the whales, if possible. He said they try to inform everyone about the safety of being out on the water with marine life, but if people persist on getting close on purpose, they could face a hefty citation.

In San Francisco Bay, the whales are losing out when they meet humans. San Francisco Bay is one of the world's busiest ports and the increased number of whales is leading to an increased number of ship/whale collisions.

“When a ship strikes a whale, it´s usually not a good outcome. Often times the vertebrae are broken and the whale dies,” said Maria Brown, superintendent of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Federal officials are working with conservation groups and the shipping industry in an effort to minimize these collisions. They want to reroute ship traffic and improve whale tracking so that the whale populations are not decimated by these problems.

Meanwhile, across the nation...

Understanding whale feeding patterns and improving tracking is exactly what scientists at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) in Massachusetts are trying to do.

The SBNMS director, Dr. Dave Wiley, says that most human caused deaths of humpbacks occur when whales are struck by ships, or caught up in fishing gear. Policy makers can't reduce these risks, because we don't know enough about how whales move underwater.

“Our whole goal is to collect data to influence policy,” Dr. Wiley said. “Every time we go out and put another tag on, we learn something else." Humpbacks are not easy to classify, however. Dr. Wiley says that though each individual whale has habitual feeding behaviors, across the species, habits vary wildly.

“We´ve got examples sometimes of hundreds of feeding events that are almost all identical for that particular whale but are different than the hundred feeding events that we have for a different whale,” he said. “It´s frustrating and complicated and fascinating all at the same time.”

New technology is providing some breakthrough, however. Engineered at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a new tagging system called DTAG is providing a 36 hour window into the movement and life of a whale.

Unlike satellite tags, which transmit location, typically over a long period of time, DTAGs record information like speed, depth and audio. They also carry a three-axis accelerometer that measures the front-to-back, side-to-side orientation of the whale.

So far, Wiley and crew have tagged humpbacks 90 times in the last ten years, in some cases the same animal multiple times. Overlaid with acoustical studies of prey biomass, and combined with two years worth of National Geographic crittercam video to show whale body movements during feeding, the data gathered is critical and has revolutionized humpback research and conservation.

“The DTAG is sort of a revelation and a revolution,” said Ari Friedlaender, a marine ecologist at Duke University who has taken part in the Stellwagen project since 2006. Conventional satellite tags, while deployed for longer periods, “only give you a position when the animal comes to the surface,” he said. “The DTAG measures the orientation of the whale 50 times a second as well as the audio – everything the animal hears and every sound the animal is making.”

The tag, about the size of a pack of Twinkies, has four suction cups and is attached to a whale by extending a pole. It is programmed to pop off after a predetermined amount of time, although some are bumped off or shaken off early. Then the tag floats to the surface, where the researchers retrieve it and download its data.

In the 1970's, researchers realized that the pattern of pigmentation on the underside of a humpback whales tail is unique, much like the stripes on a zebra or a tiger. The College of the Atlantic maintains a catalog of whale tail photographs taken all over the North Atlantic called the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog. So far, they have identified about 7,000 individual whales. The global humpback population is estimated to be around 20,000.

Being able to identify and study individual whales helps in the search to understand whale movements and feeding habits. Slowly but steadily, there has been a payoff in all this data collection.

In 2007, shipping lanes between Boston and New York were shifted to avoid whale-packed areas in the SBMNS, partially because of the DTAG data. In 2009, NOAA began requiring fisheries to use ropes that sink rather than traditional floating ones to connect lobster pots and crab traps because the floating ropes posed potential risks to the whales as they dive.

The biggest problem is that each state, and each sanctuary, and even each harbor has it's own set of rules and regulations. In the SBMNS, for example, people are banned from releasing hazardous materials and any activity that would alter the seafloor. Yet, there are no fishing or boating regulations specific to the sanctuary. Some federal and state statutes do overlap the area, but there is nothing strictly for the sanctuary.

Dr. Wiley suggests strict speed limits and approach distance regulations to protect both the whales and the humans.

Considering the high human interaction in the area, Dr. Wiley is frequently asked why he doesn't head to calmer waters to study the enormous mammals.

“You can go anywhere and study animals and figure out what they do,” Dr. Wiley said. “But if you want to return something to them, you need to be working in places where they´re at risk, and they´re at risk right here.”

More study and better legislation is needed to make human-whale interactions safer for both species.