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Posts from the ‘Whale Watching Guidelines’ category

Not a Show. Not a Breach. Not a Surprise.

There’s another viral video showing a Humpback Whale very close to a boat.

Here it is, posted on YouTube on June 23rd, 2017.

Media coverage includes statements like the following:

– “Humpback breaches next to boat”. This whale is not breaching. This whale is feeding; using a strategy called “lunge feeding”.

– “Boaters in the right place at the right time”. No they are not.

– “Whale puts on a show for boaters”. Whales do not put on shows for humans in the wild. They are carrying out their lives. In this case, a whale is trying to engulf as many small schooling fish as possible. At this time of the year, the whales are particularly hungry. Likely this Humpack is recently back from the breeding grounds where there is little to no food for them.

– “Whale surprises boaters”. This cannot have been a complete surprise. As you can see, their cameras were at the ready. This suggests they knew there was at least one whale in the area and likely the whale had already been feeding at the surface. Maybe there were also a lot of active sea birds as a clue that there was a density of fish in the area.

[Update: Via various media sources, it is confirmed that the boaters knew the whale was in the area and that they chose to move closer e.g. “Paul Ziolkowski told WABC his family and friends had been fishing for a couple of hours . . . . and saw the whale a couple of times. The whale was about 60 yards away when they decided to move a little closer to get a better view . . . ” Longer versions of the video also show they had a fishing line in the water when doing so.]

It can only be hoped that the result of this video going viral leads to increased awareness of how unpredictably Humpbacks can surface; that they can be astoundingly oblivious of boats; and that they really need their space. Toothed whales like Orca have biosonar. So many boaters are not aware that baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have this biosonar. So many are not even aware that Humpback Whales are now very commonly encountered close to our coasts, having made a remarkable and very recent return from the brink of extinction.

For the sake of whale AND boater safety,  please click here for the Marine Education and Research Society’s “See a Blow? Go Slow!” campaign to reduce the risk of collision with whales.

See to reduce risk of collision with whales.


Key points include:

Oh sigh! “The Dodo” put this into the world on June 26th, 2017 with the text “Whales Surprise Guy on Kayak | This guy had the cutest reaction when whales surprised him up close.” No. Just no. This too could not have been a surprise. The birds are an indicator and the whales would have surfaced previously, feeding int he area. This is a boater getting in the way of feeding whales and putting himself at risk. This is another case of the media rewarding boater bad behaviour. 

Enough is enough! Your help needed to stop disturbance of marine mammals in Canada

Update July 11, 2018: Amended Marine Mammal Regulations posted at FINALLY, FINALLY they include the following:

    • Disturbance is defined.
      “ Disturb includes to approach the marine mammal to, or to attempt to:
      (a) feed it;
      (b) swim with it or interact with it;
      (c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found . . .
      (e) trap it or its group between a vessel and the shore or between a vessel and one or more other vessels . . .”
    •  In addition to a minimum approach distance of 200m for all Killer Whales in BC and the Pacific Ocean, there is a 100m general distance for all marine mammals. However, the distance must be 200m if a whale, dolphin or porpoise is resting or with its calf.
    • Mandatory reporting of collisions and accidental contact between marine mammals and vessels or fishing gear.

Original post form May 2017:
You’ve seen it haven’t you, the video of the little girl getting pulled into the water by a sea lion habituated to people feeding him?


And  . . . you’re likely baffled and outraged that there has been no penalization for those humans misguided enough to cause this habituation?

Please then, while there is so much public attention on this “incident” and the limits of the current Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations, let’s make it count.

Let’s ensure that the amendments that would much improve these regulations are FINALLY passed into law. It will take less than 5 minutes of your time to help, I promise. But I need to provide a bit of background to maximize our chances of succeeding. If you are already aware of the limitations, click here to go directly to “This Is How We Create Change”.

The Problem:
Currently, the Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act (Section 7) state “No person shall disturb a marine mammal  . . .” but there is no definition of disturbance. Thereby, there are significant limitations to prosecuting people whose behaviour puts marine mammals at risk e.g. an expert witness is needed to testify that a marine mammal was indeed “disturbed”.  

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Vessel under power and almost on top of a member of the A30 matriline of Northern Residents (Threatened population). Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

The Solution:
The solution has been available since 2004 but has yet to be entered into law by the Federal Government.  That’s right, 13 years ago, the “Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations” were drafted. I was part of the process. They have twice gone through a public review process and still  . . . no action.

They are incredibly solid and will allow for b
etter prevention, enforcement and understanding of threats to Canada’s marine mammals because they: 

  • Define “disturbance” as “approaching the marine mammal to (a) feed it; (b) swim with it or otherwise interact with it; (c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found; or (d) tag or mark it.”
  • Specify minimum approach distances to marine mammals for boats and aircraft e.g. that boats must stay at minimum of 100m away.
  • Require reporting to DFO of any accidental contact with a marine mammal (e.g. entanglement or collision).

These regulations would of course also reduce risk to humans e.g. the girl being pulled into the water by a habituated sea lion and injury to boaters as a result of colliding with a whale.

Vessel at high speed near Northern Resident Orca (Threatened population). Did not slow down while clearly aware of the whale’s presence, and presumably, the potential of other whales being in the area. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Here’s How We Make Change

Please, contact your Member of Parliament and insist upon these regulations being passed into law. 

You can find their contact information by clicking this link.

In case it is of help, here is sample text that could be used:

“I am aware of the limitations of the current Marine Mammal Regulations and that, for more than a decade, amendments have existed that would much improve the protection of Canada’s marine mammals (many of which are at risk). It is unacceptable that the Federal Government has yet to pass these into law. Thereby, I ask you, as my Member of Parliament, to urgently undertake action to enable the “Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations” to come into force. If further background is needed to understand why there is such urgency, see this link”

Please also share this information so that more will contact their MPs.

How’s this for astoundingly misguided behaviour? Boats are to remain at least 100m away from seal and sea lion haulouts and rookeries. Steller Sea Lions are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Male California Sea Lion being hand fed. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

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Boat at high speed in proximity of Humpback Whales “Slash” (BCY0177) and her 2016 calf (on left). Collision is a serious risk for whales AND boaters. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

A video went into the world on May 20th, 2017 entitled “Killer Sea lion drags girl into Steveston waters” (Steveston, British Columbia). When it was brought to my attention, I posted the following on social media:

“NOT a “Killer Sea Lion”. Rather – misguided humans. Please help educate around why a mature male California Sea Lion grabbed a child that was allowed within a metre of him. This is absolutely not natural behaviour. THIS is indisputably a sea lion that has been fed and habituated to humans. This is predictable. By humans not respecting the wild, the wild loses wariness, associates humans with food (or some other “reward”), and most often . . . loses entirely. THIS is yet another reason why the amendments to the marine mammal regulations should finally be passed by our government. They define “disturbance” and enter into law . . . no feeding, no swimming with, no touching, stay 100m away, etc (they have been drafted since 2004!).  Please, if you witness marine mammal distress or disturbance (includes feeding) call the Incident Reporting Line 1-800-465-4336.” 

The resounding response of outrage to the incident is what has led to my believing that we can make this count; that we can ride this wave of awareness to have the amended regulations passed.

Thank you so much for caring as you do and helping to ensure the protection of Canada’s marine mammals.

For best practices to avoid disturbance of marine mammals see

Close passes like this contribute to habitation; animals losing their wariness; and the disruption of life processes like feeding, nursing and resting. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

This blog is catalyzed by several recent advertisements for whale watching that I perceive to be extremely exploitive of whales, suggesting high adrenaline “up-close-and-personal” encounters.

The problem with such marketing, where boats are in very close proximity with whales, is threefold:

  1. It feeds consumer demand for a whale watching experience that is not good for the whales. Close boats (including kayaks) have greater potential for stressing whales; disturbing whales’ natural behaviour; and increasing habituation to vessels whereby risks such as vessel strike are increased. These potential effects have been proven through scientific peer-reviewed research (see references below).

    Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with new born calves. ©Jackie Hildering

    Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with newborn calves. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

  2. It creates false expectations and mis-educates people. There are Marine Mammal Regulations and guidelines for respectful, legal and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits (200m for Orca and 100m for other cetaceans). However, if people see advertising promoting close interactions between boats and whales, they may believe this is what is to be expected on their tour. Thereby, companies who choose to use this marketing approach are creating increased pressure on whale watching boat operators to fulfill these expectations. There will be those who succumb to such pressure, and who will conduct their vessel in a way that violates the guidelines and thus creates greater disturbance for the animals. I solidly believe that the average consumer wishes to marvel at whales in the wild in a way that is as benign and natural as possible. Were they to know the potential impacts of close encounters or that the company they had chosen was “blurring” the guidelines, it would very much taint the experience for them.

    Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering

    Pacific Harbour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

  3. It creates a “marketplace” where other companies with more solid ethics face the dilemma of how to counteract such advertising and aid consumers in making a better choice. Sometimes, unexpectedly whales do surface within the viewing distance limits but to promote this feeds the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. There are areas on our Coast where whale watching operators have agreed not to show their boats in close proximity to whales in order to solve this dilemma and counteract the above two points as well.

    Resting line of the A12 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering

    Resting line of the A12 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Granted, we’ve come a long, long way baby.  Public attitude towards whales has changed drastically. We’re not shooting whales anymore and we’re not putting them in captivity. Whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967 and the live capture of orca only ended in 1973/74 (thank you Dr. Michael Bigg).

Now, thankfully, our values and knowledge have largely evolved to where we respect whales as sentient, social, intelligent animals with culture.

So how to make a good choice? How to choose a whale watching experience that has the least impact on the environment with the greatest potential for learning and conservation?   How to navigate the sea of choice when confronted with the vast array of variables such as location, vessel type, crew, and advertising strategies?

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

The ideal would be to watch cetaceans from land with interpretation from a knowledgeable guide but there are very few places where whales pass by with predictability.

Going out in a private motorized vessel is also an option but most often means a larger noise and fossil fuel footprint per person and not having the many benefits of knowledgeable crew who can educate and operate the vessel in a way that is more benign. Data collected by the Cetus Research and Conservation Society supports that it is by far more often the case that recreational boaters violate the guidelines than do commercial whale watch operators.

See the little fin at the far left? That is "Cutter" (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother "Clio" (A50). Sibling "Bend" (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering.

See the little fin at the far left? That is “Cutter” (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother “Blinkhorn” (A54). Sibling “Bend” (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Of course, it would help consumers and marine wildlife greatly if there were a effective system in place that guarded high standards of operation and that sufficient resources were made available for effective monitoring, education and enforcement of boaters around marine wildlife. See here for Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations and best practices.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

So, here we go, my points for consideration in making a whale watching choice that is better for the whales and environmental sustainability in general.

1. Location:

How close is the vessel departure point from the area where whales are likely to be i.e. how long and how fast will you need to travel? This affects how large your fossil fuel and noise footprint will be.

2. Crew:

How much successful experience and training and what qualifications does the crew have in:

  • Operating vessels around whales?
  • Providing science-based information that would make whale-watching count for the sake of inspiring greater conservation efforts rather than just be about opportunities for photography?
Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water before her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering

Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water, learning to hunt alongside her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

3. Vessel Related:

Does the vessel type allow for effective delivery of educational information?

How large is the vessel?  This is highly relevant in determining the noise and fossil fuel footprint per person as is the fuel efficiency of the vessel and the engine type.

4. Ethics and Approach:

Does the company:

  • Contribute to marine conservation and research efforts e.g. sightings data being relayed to research initiatives, financial or in-kind support, etc.
  • Have a holistic and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability e.g. reduction of waste, use of organic, energy-efficient, and biodegradable products, etc?
  • Use language and images that are respectful of the marine wildlife and the guidelines for viewing them?

My life radically changed after going on just one whale-watching trip many years ago. I certainly know how profoundly transformative and powerful an experience it can be.

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

When done right, ensuring guidelines are adhered to and solid conservation messaging is shared, whale-watching guests are able to have the best possible experience. An experience that is benign and respectful can lead to greater caring; a sense of connection to the animals and the life-sustaining ocean for which they are ambassadors; and the inspiration to undertake action that is better for the environment (and therefore, ourselves).

Consumers have very significant power to shape how whale watching is conducted. By supporting companies striving to operate in a way that is best for the whales and the environment at large, you are not feeding the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. The resulting reward is to know that your experience will be as wild as can be – best for you, best for the whales and best in not rewarding those who compromise their ethics and the privilege of being a conduit for people to experience the raw beauty of seeing whales in the wild, where they belong.

So please, consider the above points and take particular notice of whale watching companies’ advertisements.  Choosing a company whose marketing reflects respectful whale watching is the first step to ensuring your experience will be as good as you want it to be.

Resting line of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

[If you witness an incident of concern regarding marine life, please call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.]