Authorities in northern Western Australia are warning amateur boaties they are risking their lives by attempting to swim with humpback whales off the Ningaloo Coast.
The coastal town of Exmouth is in its second year of commercial humpback whale swimming trials, but the trials seem to have prompted some people to try to approach humpback whales in dinghies and on jet skis instead of with accredited operators.
That is not really news, or surprising to me. But what caught my eye is the attempt (increasingly common) by the commercial side to claim a clear line between safe, non-invasive, commercial whale-bothering and public whale-bothering. There is no question that commercial outfits on the whole are probably safer, more knowledgeable and less invasive (though their livelihood depends on getting everyone in close) than your average yahoo on a jetski. But the idea that whales are disturbed and disrupted by the public, and not by the commercial operations, is ludicrous.
It’s great that humanity is shifting its entertainment dollars away from captive display. But I am fearful that we are at the beginning of a profit-driven, mass human invasion of the wild. These humpbacks are there to breed, not to have to deal with snorkelers, just as spinner dolphins in Hawaii are inshore to rest (and need to be left alone).
It’s time to start setting some clear guidelines and codes of practice that are much more animal-friendly than those we have now. I’d start with no combustion engines, no large groups, no trace left. The core ethic would emphasize getting out into the wild for the sake of getting out into the wild, with no demands and expectations of what you might see or experience.
Most people view encounters in the wild as a benign way for humans to see interesting species outside of zoos and aquariums. I think that is generally true when encounters in the wild occur by chance. Spend time in the wild, and you will see interesting things. You don’t know what, you just know the wild will show you what it wants to show you.
But whenever wild encounters get turned into a profit-making business, there is the chance that humans–even with the best of intentions–will have a negative impact on the species they are out there to admire. It’s a constant tension in the whale watching business, and as Juliet Eilperin reports, it’s a definite problem in the stingray business:
Being fed by tourists has transformed the behavior of a group of Southern stingrays in the Caribbean over the past three decades, according to a study in the journal PLOS One.
What happens to the stingrays if the tour operators close up shop suddenly? Can they adapt back to their old ways? What other impacts, in terms of predation, vulnerability, socialization, and breeding, does daytime feeding have? We don’t know.
This illustrates an important point: we don’t have a “right” to indulge our curiosity to see wild species. Turning wild animals into entertainment and diversion for our pleasure (and for someone’s profit), is not that different than what happens at a marine park or at a circus. It just happens to take place in a natural setting.
Instead we have a duty to make sure that whatever we do in the wild, we try to leave no impact and no trace. Thats how you try to live in balance with nature, and it is certainly possible for whale watching and other wildlife encounter operations to find that balance. But wild animals are not there for your entertainment. Our primary role is to respect, conserve, and nurture the natural world. Whatever pleasure or wonder you get from being in nature or seeing nature should occur without extreme artifice or distortion, and within the constraints of those values.
If that means you can’t see (or feed, or swim with) some animal you want to get close to, well, too bad.
But human love for a species is often dangerous, because when humans love something they want to see it, be with it, and experience it. They put the human experience, and human desires, over the animals’ experience and the animals’ needs. Sometimes that means putting animals in zoos and marine parks. Sometimes it means invading wild habitats and disturbing natural life rhythms. And it seems that is what could be happening with blue whales, particularly in the waters off Sri Lanka (ironically because the end of a civil war is making tourism safer).
Throw in commercial shipping, which is not as deadly as actual whaling, but deadly nevertheless, and you have humans–despite their recent love for blue whales–once again putting pressure on a dwindling population.
The problem is particularly troublesome here in Sri Lanka, where a largely unstudied population of blue whales, possibly numbering in the thousands, has come under increasing pressure from commercial shipping and from a boom in unregulated whale-watching boats.
Because these waters are poorly monitored, scientists do not know for sure whether ship strikes are on the rise. But the whale’s death in April was already the sixth of the year, according to news reports. In one grisly encounter in March, a blue whale was found draped over the bow of a container vessel in the harbor in the capital, Colombo, 90 miles north of this beach resort. Last year, some 20 whale carcasses (not all of them blue whales) were seen around the island, according to Arjan Rajasuriya, a research officer with the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency in Colombo. It is not known how many of the deaths resulted from ship strikes.
“These strikes likely represent only a portion of the likely true mortality,” said John Calambokidis, a whale researcher in Olympia, Wash., who documents ship strikes off the West Coast of the United States. Because blue whales often sink soon after they are struck, most such deaths go unrecorded, and Dr. Calambokidis says the true number “could be 10 or 20 times” the number seen.
Fifteen miles off the southern coast of Sri Lanka is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, and whales are known to swim regularly inside them. But some scientists believe that the increase in whale watching could be forcing whales to seek food farther out, pushing them into the big ships’ path.
“I’m afraid the whales are being harassed by the whale-watching boats and that this could affect their movement,” said Asha de Vos, a whale researcher here.
The result, in the photo taken by Madzak Radjainia and published as part of the NY Times story, is dead whales floating near Sri Lanka, with ship strike injuries (they published a great video report as well).
It doesn’t have to be this way. Some day humans may gain the wisdom to realize we need to give much greater weight to the needs of other species, even if that means compromising on human desires and needs. An example would be accepting that even when we love a species we don’t have the right to disturb it in its natural habitat, and that doing so can do real harm.