Environmental group wants whale watchers to keep their distance

After a summer of very close encounters at sea, the Whale Release and Strandings Group says its time for more people to learn the rules around approaching marine mammals.

Group wants better enforcement of DFO guidelines

The Whale Release and Strandings Group is concerned about the uptick in close encounters between boaters and whales this summer. (Submitted by Judy Osmond)

It's been a summer filled with up close and personal encounters with whales along the coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador — some thrilling, some terrifying.

Like a tour operator forming a bond with a giant humpback, or a couple struggling to survive at sea after a surfacing whale capsized their boat.

On the heels of those stories, recent reports of a group on Sea-Doos, circling a whale near Bell Island have prompted the Whale Release and Strandings Group to call for more publicity and enforcement of the guidelines on approaching marine mammals.

"I think that people just don't realize that they're causing this harassment that can interfere with the animal's way of living," said Julie Huntington, the group's co-director of education research.

This chart from DFO gives the federal government's guidelines for what to do when boaters spot a marine mammal. (Department of Fisheries and Oceans)

"People want to know these things, so let them know."

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans does have Marine Wildlife Guidelines available on its website, stating boaters should slow down to seven knots when within 400 metres of a marine mammal and never venture within less than 100 metres of an animal. DFO also advises people to limit their viewing time to 30 minutes or less.

Huntington said those guidelines are well publicized and enforced in B.C., but not in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"They just don't know the rules and it should be more widely broadcast," she said, adding the rules should be posted in places like wharves, along with more educational campaigns.

Whale interference

In the incident of the Sea-Doos near Bell Island, Huntington said the people were following the whale around and circling it as it surfaced. After it dove away, they allegedly chased it to its next surfacing spot.

"That causes them to change their natural behaviour, and anything that causes them to change their natural behaviour can interfere with the way they breathe, the way that they feed, the way that they escape from something that's harassing them," she said.

In this audience-submitted photo taken off Trinity, a Zodiac with whale watchers aboard has cut the motor and is keeping its distance from a whale. (Submitted by Michael Best)

Huntington said those stressors can affect the whale, and while the group doesn't want to discourage people from getting out and enjoying nature, it's better to keep a wide berth when you do encounter a whale.

"Just observe at a distance. You'll see most of the same things. Let the animal be the one that tells you how it's going to interact."

With files from the St. John's Morning Show