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Good Intentions and Bad Decisions – whale encounters in the news

For the past couple of weeks, my inbox has been inundated with links to videos of close encounters between people and whales in the wild with titles including “Divers nearly swallowed by whales”; “Whale knocks surfer unconscious”; “Humpback whales startle kayakers”; and “Dramatic rescue of endangered whale”. Touted as either heroes, or lucky survivors of dramatic encounters, the people in the videos have been featured internationally by news outlets and the videos have gone viral. Sadly, even in cases where no one was in the water, the media has implied that those interactions occurred.

Such is the case with the recent video of a whale being rescued from shark nets off the coast of Australia. While multiple media outlets have reported that “divers were able to free the whale,” no one got in the water with the animal. The true heroes here are the professional, and permitted, disentanglement teams working from their vessels, using specially designed tools to cut gear from whales. With the utmost respect for the power of these whales, these teams risk their lives on a regular basis to save whales, all from above the surface.

So what is the problem? After all, whales were rescued, no one was killed, and whales are making the news. The problems are as follows:

1. Human lives are at risk. Getting into the water in close proximity with a large whale is risky and getting in the water with an entangled or feeding whale, even more so. As has been pointed out on our Facebook page by some knowledgeable fans, a baleen whale cannot swallow a human (“Divers nearly swallowed by whales” was the media outlets tagline, not ours). However, a large whale can kill a human. A whale under stress, such as one that is entangled or injured, may get agitated and react forcefully to an approach. Or, a feeding whale may be so focused that a distraction might elicit a surprised and aggressive reaction. Sadly, a well-meaning diver in New Zealand was killed in 2003 when he got in the water to disentangle a whale.
2. Well meaning, but untrained “rescuers” risk the lives of many whales and lose important data for managers. In a recent case where a couple of well-meaning fishermen dove into the water to remove gear from an entangled North Atlantic right whale, things could have gone very differently. The skin of a whale is very thin and sensitive, and arteries run close to the surface in the flukes and flippers. One slip of the knife and the diver could have made a fatal cut into the whale. Or, had the entangling rope been a knotted line, it may not have easily slipped through the baleen, leaving gear on the whale, but no trailing lines for a trained disentanglement team to help the animal in the future. Ultimately the whale would likely die from a resulting infection caused by the lines. Additionally, if one of these men were killed, the entire disentanglement program may have been jeopardized. When a diver in New Zealand was killed attempting to rescue an entangled humpback, the disentanglement program was suspended for years, leaving many entangled whales with no hope of rescue. It is only recently that the government of New Zealand has, once again, allowed trained disentanglement teams to intervene. Additionally, important data for management was lost. When authorized disentanglement teams remove gear from a whale, they will do everything possible to retrieve the gear, which would not only eliminate the risk of ghost gear entangling other marine animals, but it also allows the team to analyze the gear to determine its origin (mooring line, specific fishery, location of where the gear may have originated, etc). This type of information is provided to managers to better understand and mitigate the risk of entanglement.
3. In some cases, the media are promoting illegal activities. In the United States, approaching right whales within 500 yards and intentionally interacting with large whales is illegal. While we might expect the news to report on a bank robbery, I don’t think it would be acceptable to praise the robbers for how well they robbed the bank.

Large whales like humpback or right whales are amazing and magnificent creatures. They are also 40+ton wild animals. We seem to know better than to closely approach a four to seven ton wild elephant, but somehow forget that an entire elephant is equivalent only to the weight of a large whale’s tongue. We teach our kids not to run up to strange dogs, but seem to forget that wild whales are strangers to us and should be viewed with caution and respect.

No one questions the exhilaration of being in, or on, the water near a whale, or having the opportunity to, literally, save one. But recent news stories have neglected to focus on the risky situation these humans were in, the threats faced by whales in general, or the potential long term repercussions of a good intention gone wrong.