Of whales and their watchers

Anne Roberts,Marsha Boulton April 16 1979

Of whales and their watchers

Anne Roberts,Marsha Boulton April 16 1979

Of whales and their watchers


"Now I can die easy,” sighed the grandmotherly American perched on the volcanic rock of Pacific Rim National Park’s Box Island. Seconds before, less than 225 feet away, a Grey whale had emerged to blow a spout of delicate white mist into the air and then paused, as if to admire the wisp dissolving above the blue sea. Then, with a showman’s sense of timing, the massive cetacean arched its knuckled back and dove, flourishing its flukes as high as a flagpole, long enough for even the most excited tourist to snap a picture. As if that hadn’t been enough for one morning, 50 other whales slowly paraded across the mouth of Wickaninnish Bay to pass near the island in a halting rhythm of three blows in quick succession before diving and moving on.

Though seeing a whale might not be the crowning moment of everyone’s life, there is a growing band of devoted whale watchers willing to make the five-hour ferry and car ride from Vancouver, and risk the incessant rain of Vancouver Island’s west coast during March and April, to mark the annual migration of the 13,000 Pacific Grey whales from their calving grounds off Baja, California, to

summer feeding grounds in the Arctic.

Park naturalist, Barry Campbell, attributes this explosion of interest in whale watching in the past two years to a combination of Greenpeace-generated concern over saving whales, and parkintensified publicity of the whales’ migration schedule.

“There is a constant flow of people coming to see the whales,” says Campbell, from his beach-side office, where tourists from Vancouver, Mission, B.C., Edmonton, Washington state and Michigan, stop to request the whalewatching kits advertised on park bulletin boards. Two thousand of the selfhelp kits detailing the life cycle of Grey whales, offering tips on spotting the whales and recommending sites for the best watching, were placed this year in motels, commercial campgrounds, local libraries and gift shops to ease the growing pressure on park naturalists. “We can’t handle all the people asking for information,” explains Campbell, who works most weekends during the whale-watching season, taking groups of students from the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia, Malaspina College in Nanaimo and Ucluelet and Tofino schools, Vancouver boy scout troops, and Powell River jun-

ior forest wardens out to Box Island to learn the art of whale watching.

It’s an art as gentle and elusive as the Grey whales themselves—a white spout quickly blown away, rarely a glimpse of more than a barnacled head just around the blow hole, only a suggestion of the enormity of a mammal 45 feet long and weighing up to 44 tons.

“Some people are slightly disappointed,” Campbell warns. “You can’t see whales like you see them in an aquarium—from above, from below,doing tricks. Real whale watching is a different experience.”

But that is precisely what attracts most addicted whale watchers. Dick Flanagan of Victoria spent three days with his wife, Mary, seeking out whales free to follow the 6,000-mile coastline with their newborn young. “I find it romantic, even mystical, to see that huge creature out there blowing,” he said. After this first exposure, they plan to persuade their friends to join them next year to begin an annual whale watching tradition.

The Grey whale is the most primitive surviving baleen (those with fibrous

plates that filter food) whale, and like the Right whale lacks a dorsal fin. They can be seen from shore as they dive to scoop up great mouthfuls of sand from which they filter burrowing tube worms. They feed on fish and invertebrates once they reach Arctic waters. Left to themselves, Greys have a life expectancy of up to 80 years.

The irony is that just as more people forge a personal allegiance to Grey whales for having seen them, others have declared war against them. Slaughtered wholesale and nearly decimated by whalers in the late 1800s, Grey whales were officially protected in 1937, and from a small herd of a few hundred, replenished their numbers to 13,000 today. But last year, the International Whaling Commission struck down the ban against commercial hunting. Though Canada’s representative on the commission, Mack Mercer, says Mexico, the United States and Canada have no intention of harvesting Greys, the Soviet Union already takes nearly 200 whales a year, and may be taking even more when the whales are in the Arctic. However, the Grey whales’ new allies are not apt to be passive supporters. The Pacific Rim National Park’s whale-watching kit proclaims that, “An aroused and concerned public will continue to be the whale’s greatest hope for the future.” Flanagan for one has already signed up: “The Grey whales are a lot more valuable to me along the shoreline, than to make things we don’t really need.”

Well-intentioned watchers may be both a blessing and a curse to the Greys

and other species of whale. The Mexican government established the first whale sanctuary (for Greys) at Scammon’s Lagoon, Baja, in 1972. But this breeding ground, and that at Magdalena Bay, Baja, have become popular tourist attractions. Zealous watchers take to boats to get closer looks and though regulations and restrictions on tour boats have been enacted, there are still problems.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act passea in 1972 in the U.S. imposes a $10,000 fine for whale harassment. “The restrictions don’t prevent whale watching,” says Dr. William Aron, director of Marine Mammals and Endangered Species branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington, D.C. “In a sense they are designed to protect people as well. I know of several incidents where people have been killed when they’ve gone too close to a whale or a group of whales. Their boat has been swamped by brushing up against a whale, or just by the backlash of a whale’s tail.

“It’s much like stepping out into a stream of traffic. Whales don’t exactly expect people to show up in their environment.”

Though the tourists don’t carry harpoons, not all just aim cameras. “We’ve found whales on shore that were wounded by rifle shots,” says Dr. Aron. “I think it’s probably frustrated fishermen, victims of boredom who’ll take a shot at just about anything

at all that moves out there.”

Barry Huber, a federal department of fisheries officer in Vancouver, concurs. “Periodically whales show up with gunshot wounds. Last year one of the local aquariums saved a young Killer whale that had been shot.”

B.C. Fishery (General) regulations call for summary convictions and fines up to $5,000 or imprisonment for up to 12 months, or both, for those found guilty of fishing for, catching, killing, disturbing or molesting any elephant seal, harbor seal, Killer whale, sea lion or-sea otter.

So far, whale watchers in B.C. haven’t flocked out in boats as they have in the U.S., according to Barry Campbell, and perhaps with good reason. “If anyone did fall out of a small boat, they’d only last about 30 minutes,” he says. “The water is still very cold.”

The Grey’s travelling show (their migration—11,000 miles each way—is the longest of any whale) is not the only cetacean attraction on the coast. Humpback whales congregate in fiords and inlets along the northern B.C. coast to feed during their journeys north from Hawaii. Large cruise ships transport watchers from Vancouver, Seattle and Alaska, and enter the inlets for close looks. The noise from the ships’ engines and the mere presence of the ships, scare off the fish and crustaceans on which the Humpbacks feed and disturb the whales. Ecologists, including Jacques Cousteau, add friends and watchers of whales to their concerns.

Anne Roberts/Marsha Boulton