Friday, August 15

Whale watch operators set the record straight

I came across this story by the Canadian Press today... Dan Kukat is a first rate operator that we work with. It is good to see him and his group step forward to provide a bit of context and to educate consumers about how the industry operates:

B.C. man who barreled through pod of killer whales fined $3,500

VANCOUVER — A British Columbia man who mowed over a pod of killer whales at full speed in his boat, either hitting or just missing one of the endangered animals, has been fined $3,500.

Xi Change Gao, of Sidney, B.C., was convicted in April after video showed the man's eight-metre crab-fishing vessel, the Vien Duong, tearing through the pod near South Pender Island.

"The video indicated that the Vien Duong appeared to collide, or very nearly collide, with a killer whale while continuing to manoeuvre around other members of the pod at full speed and in close proximity," said a Department of Fisheries news release.

The video was captured in an area where the southern resident killer whales are often spotted. There are only 87 animals left in that whale population, and they are listed as an endangered species by the federal government.

Xi was fined $3,000 in a provincial court for disturbing marine mammals and another $500 for a crab-fishing licence violation.

When fisheries officers looked through his logbook shortly after the August 2007 incident, they found he failed to keep it up to date.

Xi's actions are completely contrary to whale protection laws and whale-watching etiquette.

Dan Kukat, president of Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest, said that type of incident is unusual.

"I'm sure it was unintentional," he said of Xi's actions.

"I don't want to sound apologetic, but you know it could happen to anybody. However, once you find yourself amongst killer whales, the law clearly requires us to take evasive action where possible."

Most whale-watching groups in B.C. and Washington State have signed an agreement that limits boats from getting closer than about 400 metres to whales.

If boat operators finds themselves close to whales, they must immediately slow down to seven knots and turn off their engines if the whales get closer.

Kukat, who runs Springtide Victoria Whale Tours, said whales are extremely adept at getting out of the way of boats and are a lot smarter than many people believe.

"They spend as much time watching the whale watchers as whale watchers are watching whales," he said with a chuckle. "They are highly intelligent creatures. Some people think maybe even more intelligent than human beings."

David Roberts, sales and operations manager at the Victoria-based Prince of Whales whale-watching company, said most people are respectful of wildlife, but the few who aren't seem to stand out.

"You have people who do all sorts of strange things around, not just whales, but all wildlife," said Roberts.

"I've seen people try to get their kids up close to a rutting elk to get a nice picture. People who will feed wildlife on the corner of a road, people who drive through a pod of killer whales. Some people just don't have the understanding."

Lisa Spaven, marine mammal incident co-ordinator with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the recovery strategy for southern resident killers whales identifies boating activity as an issue.

"It's an issue in that these animals rely on their aquatic environment to perform their normal life process."

Spaven said the southern resident population has lost a few whales this year, but has also gained a few, including a new calf just spotted a two days ago.

Kukat said the protection of killer whales along the coasts of B.C. and Washington State has come a long way.

Decades ago, people would shoot at them to keep them away from fish nets and fishing lines - or worse.

"Go back to the war: they were used for bombing practice, as stories have it," said Kukat.