Group Works to Regulate Whale Watching

Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Last winter, Judy Lakin went whale watching for seven hours at a stretch, every weekend for eight weeks--regardless of the weather. She was there not so much to watch the whales, but to watch the people who watch the whales.

As a volunteer observer, Lakin was gathering information for an informal study that would help the Orange County Marine Institute develop an educational program to teach boaters how to watch the giant marine mammals without harming them or interfering with their migration.

Each year from January through March, thousands of people venture out to sea in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the migrating California gray whales that travel 12,000 miles from the Bering Sea off Siberia and Alaska to Mexico and back.

During recent years, there has been speculation that some whale watching actually results in harassment of the marine mammals. As a result, the National Marine Fisheries Service is in the process of drawing up whale-watching regulations that should take effect sometime in 1991, according to Jim Lecky, a wildlife biologist with the service.

"We are drafting the regulations now," Lecky says, "but it is unlikely that they will take effect in 1990."

The new regulations will probably convert the existing whale-watching guidelines published by the National Marine Fisheries Service into enforceable laws, according to Lecky. Current guidelines instruct whale watchers to approach whales slowly from behind, maintain a slow, consistent speed, and stay at least 100 yards away from the whales.

"Our intention is to codify our guidelines so that they will be easier to enforce," Lecky says. "We held a big conference in Monterey last year and the consensus of that group was that there needs to be regulations. The major problem is not the commercial whale-watch operations. The biggest problem is the weekend boaters, out there in their own boats, who tend to be uninformed and do not understand that their action may be detrimental to the long-term survival of these populations" of gray whales, Lecky says.

In the informal study conducted last year by the Orange County Marine Institute, it was found that 69 of 264 vessels observed approached within the 100-yard limit recommended by the National Marine Fisheries Service, according to Harry Helling, director of education at the Marine Institute. And during 12 of the 23 whale watches conducted during the study, at least one boater was observed to approach a whale at excess speed. Other findings from the informal survey:

* The average number of boats converged upon one whale was 11.

* In 15 of 23 whale-watching trips, at least one boat crossed in front of a gray whale.

* Of 23 whales sighted, 17 showed a noticeable change in direction.

"That is a very large number," says Helling on the number of whales observed changing direction, "much higher than we anticipated."

Helling pointed out that the study was not a formal scientific project, but was merely what he calls a "pre-study." "We wanted to look at the interaction between boaters and whales while whale watching. So this involved an observer (Lakin) and myself going out on 23 whale-watching trips. What we were attempting to do was quantify boater behavior so that we as educators and leaders could address some of those behaviors with an educational campaign aimed at boaters."

Although Helling is hesitant to draw any hard conclusions from the survey, he says: "Informally, we can say during the weekend in our area there are many boats that will gather on whales and while they are gathering in these clusters, there are boater behaviors which don't conform to the National Marine Fisheries Service guidelines."

During the upcoming whale-watching season, Helling and at least four volunteers, including Lakin, a resident of Capistrano Beach and an avid whale watcher, will conduct additional formal research that will be shared with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We are in the process now of working with the service to modify our research design," Helling says. "By mid-January, we will begin the survey."

Although Helling says he is still in the process of deciding how the formal study will be done, he says this year's project will also involve seven- to eight-hour-a-day whale-watching trips.

Last year in another informal survey, Helling and volunteers questioned 94 recreational boaters and discovered that only 43% were aware that any sort of whale-watching guidelines existed. Of those who knew about the guidelines, only 28% knew the correct distance for whale watching.

"So given that information and other things we have observed," Helling says, "the problem is first an educational problem and then an enforcement problem. The ideal would be to update and upgrade both the enforcement and education."

It is illegal to harass whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Law and each year several cases of harassment are handled by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Lecky says. "Most of those involve private vessels and pretty outrageous things like separating migrating pairs of whales and running up to within several feet or circling around whales."

Helling points out that the once nearly extinct gray whale has made a remarkable comeback, recovering from a population of under 1,000 to an estimated population of more than 20,000. "So we have this tremendous success story that plays itself out every winter off our coast," he says. "And here we are confronted by another type of threat to the whale population. For example, not just whale watching, but pollution, (increased) vessel traffic, oil drilling--even acoustic pollution. Cetaceans are so dependent upon sound. We need to look at how we impact them with noise, too."

During whale-watching season, which begins in January, the Orange County Marine Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, offers educational lectures about whales and conducts whale-watching tours. For information, call (714) 831-3850.

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