Tales of the Whales

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I am amazed with the recent numerous sightings off our coast of Orcinus orca, better known as Shamu, especially by the youngsters.

The sheer number in the pods of the killer whales that have ventured this far south is astounding for those who have never seen orcas play and feed in the wild.  Typically, these whales, while swimming down from British Columbia, do not swim south of the Northern Channel Islands, where the food is plentiful.

However, the leader of the pod must have envisaged the huge abundance of sharks and sea lions off our coast to signal an exploration to our local waters for food.  The killer whales better stay out of the newly no-take Marine Life Protected Areas along Southern California’s coast, and there is no chewing on the sea lions, which are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  However, sharks are not protected and the whales can munch freely on the great whites, threshers, and makos to name a few – just no finning allowed, which I despise.

A news headline that needs to be clarified is that the orcas are not charging or attacking the whale watching boats, or any other boat for that matter.  The whales are checking out the boats and playing by swimming underneath, which appears to be an attack.  If the whales were attacking the boats then the critters would be jumping up onto the boat trying to grab someone.  This is the whales’ normal behavior, similar to swimming up onto a beach and grabbing a sea lion or seal for lunch.

I constantly see many species of whales during my yacht deliveries, especially when I am cruising just south of San Francisco, in the Pacific Northwest or near the Hawaiian Islands.  Whales are curious creatures, and from time to time, they will check out my boat.  Whales have been known to take a detour to swim inside Newport Harbor and I wonder if an orca will venture inside the harbor.   I have had some of my best whale-watching expeditions without ever leaving the harbor, or bayside for that matter.

During the migration months, we can expect to see blues, humpbacks, fins, minkes, and now we can add orcas to the regular visitor list.  Let’s not forget the huge pods of dolphins, and I have been cruising on many occasions when the dolphins would surround my yacht to swim in the bow wake and to jump in the yacht’s trailing wakes.

Tip of the week is if you are planning to take your boat to see the whales then you must follow the regulations that protect the whales from over-excited or disrespectful boaters.  The National Marine Fisheries Service is the federal agency responsible for protecting marine mammals from harassment.  I hope every boater follows the general rules, and you can report someone you see blatantly disregarding the regulations.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act cites two levels of harassment and prohibits hunting, capturing or killing any marine mammal, so put your barbecue away.  The level A harassment is to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild, and level B harassment is to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by disrupting behavioral patterns.

All recreational and commercial boaters must follow the information on NOAA Fisheries’ “Responsible Marine Wildlife Viewing” website that is on the Internet at nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/education/viewing.htm.  This site has a great overview, ocean etiquette, and guidelines by regions.

Whether you are a recreational boater, a commercial whale-watching operator, or a kayaker, you must abide by the rules.  You must try to stay 100 yards away from any whale, and if a whale approaches closer, then you must stop or cruise slowly to maintain steerage.  While viewing a pod, boaters shouldn’t operate at speeds faster than a whale or group of whales, and boaters should maintain a constant speed while paralleling. You should avoid following or approaching directly in front of whales with your vessel.

Also, boaters should do nothing to cause a whale to change direction, separate from its group, or block a whale between your boat and shore, such as in a cove.  In addition, aircraft pilots cannot fly lower than 1,000 feet when within a 100-yard horizontal distance from a whale.

Swimmers and divers cannot approach whales either, and never try to feed a whale.  If you see a boater deliberately harassing a whale, report the incident to the National Marine Fisheries Service 24-hour hotline at 800-853-1964 or your local Coast Guard office. Every boater must be considerate to the mammals because, remember, we are playing in their home.

And don’t forget: Tune in to the No. 1 boating radio talk show in the nation, Capt. Mike Whitehead’s Boathouse Radio Show, broadcasting coast-to-coast on the CRN Digital Talk Radio syndicated network every Saturday at noon, Pacific Time and replayed on Sunday at 10 am Pacific.  Join Chandler Bell and me as we talk about “all things boating.”  You can find the station listings, cable TV channels, live streaming on the Internet, and now available are apps to listen to the show for your iPhone, Blackberry, iTouch, Android, Palm, and Windows Mobile at www.BoathouseTV.com or www.BoathouseRadio.com.

Until next week, Safe Voyages!

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