Saturday, August 20, 2016

Intercourse with whales

No, silly! Not sexual intercourse. 

Intercourse: "Communication or dealings between individuals or groups."

We have had two profound interactions with whales since cruising; once in Hervey Bay, when two young humpbacks circled around Nimrod on a calm day, and more recently when we went snorkelling with humpbacks in Vava'u, Tonga.

Both events are on Vimeo.

We have received many messages of appreciation and admiration about these experiences, but also some commentary about the ethics of close encounters with whales, and, in particular, swimming with them.

I thought I would discuss the matter for anyone interested.

During my life, whaling has been an active political controversy. Those not familiar with the history might like to read about it, for example in this Wikipedia article.

In the 1970s, when I first became active in the environmental movement, there were still large numbers of whales being slaughtered by industrial scale whaling ships, especially by the Soviet Union and Japan. The Greenpeace pressure group was founded, in part, to combat whaling. The book 'Warriors of the Rainbow: A Chronicle of the Greenpeace Movement' is a fantastic read. Download the iBook here.

To a large extent, the battle to stop whaling has been a success, although not complete. Japan, in particular, continues to flaunt the legal restrictions on whaling. The Japanese whaling story is here. The success of the campaign has depended on engaging public opinion by demonstrations, consciousness-raising and education. The development of a whale-watching tourism industry around the world has played a valuable part in this. Thus it is not possible to address the negative possibilities of whale-watching tourism, without also considering the political benefits to the whales from an electorate mobilized to want to watch and protect them from the resumption of slaughter.

But there remains a significant concern that this industry risks harming the very animals that it is supposedly trying to celebrate. How should this be managed?

In most of the world, whale-watching is regulated by distance between the boats and the whales. The Australian regulations specify distance and relative position.

Many other countries have similar regulations.

The trouble with this approach is that it is 'gameable'. We have seen it happen repeatedly in Australia and also recently in Tonga. The whale-watch boats position themselves more than 100 metres from the whales in the direction that the whales are travelling, and then turn off their motors. The skippers twiddle their thumbs and look innocent, rehearsing the line for the wild-life protection officer: 'Honestly ossifer, the whales came to us! We wasn't doing nuffink!'

When there are several whale-boats all in the same area, the game takes the form of roulette. Each boat makes a bet on which direction the whales will move and stops there, just outside the 100 metre limit. The lucky boat gets the prize when the whales move towards them.The other boats break away and move off and take up position further away in the direction the whales are going.

My objection to this form of regulation is that it basically doesn't work. Secondly, it effectively leads to a situation which really is bad; that is of encirclement of whales who want to evade contact with boats. Adults can escape by diving deep. They can hold their breath for an hour. But young calves need to breathe every 15 minutes.

I think the regulations should shift from an emphasis on distance, to one which guarantees that encirclement and entrapment does not occur.

I have thought a bit about this. I think the best way would be to define an arc of 180˚ in which no boat may approach, and in fact are obliged to motor away from the whales. A zone which is 'off-side'. I suggest that it should be defined by the closest shore-line. Thus boats are allowed on the in-shore side of the whales, but not between them and the open sea, so that whales who did not want human proximity could easily avoid it.

Any boat that is off-side, but not actively motoring away from the whales, might be photographed and penalized. 

The next question is whether swimming with whales should occur. It does in a few countries; Tonga, the Dominican Republic, and recently, West Australia. But many countries do not permit it. There are two issues: safety for the whales and safety for the humans.

From the whales perspective, it is hard to see why a swimmer is more hazardous than a boat. As long as the limit discussed above applies, such that the whales have a clear option of disengagement, I see no problem.

Safety for humans is a different matter. In the second half of our 'Swimming with Whales' video above, there is the beginnings of a 'heat run'. This is a collection of frisky males jostling each other and jumping around to attract the favour of the single female who we had been following with her calf. Swimming with these males might indeed be hazardous.

In summary, IMHO, swimming with whales and the whale-watch industry should be permitted and encouraged, as long as there are clear rules to prevent entrapment and encirclement. Intercourse is OK, but only with consenting cetaceans, who have a clear and obvious escape route.

Footnote. When we were in Neiafu, Vava'u, we asked which was the best whale-swim tour to go with. We were told the name of the best one, but the boat was unavailable, because it had been booked out for the whole season by a professional Japanese underwater photographer who was flying in tours of Japanese photographers to film the whales.

About the best possible way to help the Japanese opposition to the whale slaughtering industry.

Here is a lovely poem, Whale Nation, by the late Heathcote Williams, performed by Roy Hutchins.

1 comment:

  1. Nice footnote George. And a great thought on more effective regulation. Have you run this by the whale watching tour association?