RECREATION

The thrill of watching whales at sea

KERRY BANKS August 12 1985
RECREATION

The thrill of watching whales at sea

KERRY BANKS August 12 1985

The thrill of watching whales at sea

RECREATION

Half an hour out of Tofino Inlet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, skipper Jamie Bray sounds the traditional call: “Thar she blows!” Twenty yards to starboard the barnacleencrusted head of a gray whale breaks the surface and snorts a plume of mist into the air through its twin blowholes. The giant mammal’s sudden appearance acts like a jolt of electricity, sending the 20 passengers on the deck of Bray’s Safari Lady scrambling to focus their binoculars and zoom lenses. The whale allows them only a brief glimpse of back muscle before slipping beneath the waves. Over the course of the morning, the whale—“probably bottom feeding,” according to Bray—makes several more appearances, all equally brief. But for the passengers aboard the Safari Lady the thrill of merely glimpsing a whale is easily worth the $19.95 cost of the three-hour outing.

As recently as 20 years ago, almost anyone getting close to a gray whale would be brandishing harpoons, not cameras. But now the animal that early whalers called “the devilfish”—because of its habit of destroying boats to protect its young—has become one of the star attractions of a rapidly growing tourist industry. Whether they watch

Pacific grays off Vancouver Island, killer whales in British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait, blue whales or belugas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence or humpbacks off the shores of Newfoundland, increasing numbers of Canadians are discovering the pleasures of observing these complex creatures of the deep. And few scientists who work with whales are surprised by that interest. Said John Lien, an animal behaviorist and head of the Whale Research Group at Memorial University in St. John’s: “ It is a mammal like us, altruistic, social, communicative. Yet it is also mysterious, an animal rarely seen, like a creature from outer space.”

The single most popular centre for whale watching in Canada is located at the mouth of the Saguenay River, 175 km northeast of Quebec City, where a favorable combination of currents and feeding opportunities draws a variety of rarely sighted species to within a few hundred yards of shore. Last year alone, a dozen local operators ferried 26,000 tourists on whale-watching expeditions. The prime attraction: the only population of beluga whales found south of the Arctic which live year-round in the St. Lawrence. Although their numbers gradually declined in the mid-20th cen-

tury from an estimated 5,000 to their current level of less than 500, the St. Lawrence beluga population has benefited recently from loosely enforced protective measures. Now, the presence of whales helps support a tourist industry that contributes $1 million a year to the local economy.

In the Atlantic waters, naturalists and tourists mingle, often on the same boats. Richard Sears of Sept-Iles began offering tour packages to underwrite his pioneering studies of the fabled and mysterious blue whale, Earth’s largest living creature (adults have been reported at as much as 100 feet long and 150 tons). An amateur who holds no university degree, Sears has developed a method of identifying individual blues which has helped to establish accurate population counts and migratory patterns. To date, he has identified 130 blues in the gulf, of which at least 30 are regular visitors.

Sears’s efforts are paralleled on Grand Manan Island, N.B., where the study group Ocean Search offers tourists the chance to see several different species, including the rare right whale—so named because early whalers considered it the “right” whale to harpoon. About 60 of them live in the Bay of Fundy. And in Newfoundland, Christine

and Peter Beamish of Ceta-Research Inc. (from the Latin cetus, for whale), offer a hard core of enthusiasts the chance to observe humpbacks and 19 other species out of Trinity Bay. Said Peter Beamish: “There is something about these animals that is fascinating. Anybody watching them for more than a few years becomes totally addicted.” Beamish also performs a service for local fishermen, who can suffer heavy losses when whales become entangled in their nets. To avoid the destruction of their equipment, the fishermen once routinely shot entangled whales.

But Beamish and others in the province have proved that their rescue techniques not only save the whales but are more likely to save gear too.

As scientific understanding and public enthusiasm for whales increase, previous predictions of mass extinctions are gradually giving way to cautious optimism among scientists about the survival of most species found in Canadian waters. Still, a new debate has arisen over whether all the attention may be adversely affecting whale life. In Baja, Calif., where whale watching is now a multimillion-dollar enterprise,

about 250 boatloads of naturalists, tourists and students converge on the Pacific gray whales each winter as they complete their annual migration from the Bering Sea. Seven gray whales were killed in 14 collisions with boats between 1975 and 1980, according to the American Cetacean Society.

Concern over the potential for similar occurrences in Canada prompted the department of fisheries and oceans to issue guidelines for observing whales. They warn boaters to stay more than 100 yards away from whales and not to chase or disturb resting whales or split

up groups, known as “pods”. But without criminal penalties to back up the guidelines, regulation is difficult. The appearance of a so-called “friendly” gray whale in Grice Bay near Tofino last summer resulted in a number of disturbing incidents. The whale, which charmed tourists by rubbing the sides of boats and offering its head for stroking, was soon inundated with admirers. Several small boats ran over it, their outboard motors slicing into its back and fins.

For his part, James Darling, a marine zoologist who has been studying gray and humpback whales in the North Pacific for 12 years, is less concerned about harassment. Said Darling: “It is the destruction of the whales’ habitat and food 9 supply that we should be z most concerned about.” Í Like many others, he £ feels that increased publie appreciation can only o help the whales’ fight for 5 survival. And judging by the growing interest in whale watching on both coasts each summer, there can be no doubt that the benefits are mutual.

PETER GARD

-KERRY BANKS with PETER GARD in St. John's