The greatest symbol of humans’ relationship with the mysteries of the ocean is our relationship with the whale. Our very nature causes us to stop, point and shout, when a whale’s enormous, streamlined body breaks the surface of the water. We are only seeing but a fraction of the creature’s body, a few seconds of its daily activities, but the thrill is immeasurable. Few things make me happier in life than to stand on a boat and shout, “Whale!”
Our relationship with whales and other marine mammals has become complicated in our modern, motorized society. We have more opportunity than ever before to encounter them, whether it is through a dedicated company or our own access to watercraft. And yet so many marine mammals are at risk due to intense pressures form human activities – pollution (oil, organic chemicals, plastics and more), unsustainable fishing practices, disturbance and noise, to name a few. It is sad to think that our love for these animals can actually contribute to the pressures of ocean noise and disturbance. I love whales and I want to get close to them for the experience of a lifetime. But the more I follow them, the closer I get, the more difficult their life becomes, and the less likely I, or my little niece and nephew, will be to see them in the decades to come.
I am constantly shocked by how noisy the ocean can be in popular areas. And I’m usually only hearing the surface. I can only imagine how noisy it is underwater, where sound carries even further. My opportunities to listen with a hydrophone have been dominated by the constant whirring of boat engines.
It takes a lot of restraint and forethought to respect the Be Whale Wise guidelines. But it becomes easier when I think of life from the whales’ perspective, and when I realize what opportunities do exist for me to get close, but not too close, and actually contribute to the whales’ well-being.
In the summer of 2010, I travelled from Vancouver to Alert Bay as a volunteer to monitor whale and vessel activity at Robson Bight with Cetus Research and Conservation Society. It was there that I learned about the Straitwatch program, and that a branch of it existed closer to home, in Victoria. I learned that I could volunteer on the Straitwatch boat, which was like a dream come true. It was my duty to be on the water all day, to be where the whales were but to help educate boaters about the Be Whale Wise guidelines and prevent disturbances to whales.
I encourage anyone who loves to be on the water and near the whales to sign up to be a Straitwatch volunteer. I learned that it is possible to both Be Whale Wise and be thrilled. I also learned that if you want to know where the whales are, just look for the whale watching boats. Observing this early means you can take advance measures such as slowing down, avoiding their path and maintaining a respectful distance.
There are so many opportunities for us to do the right thing and help. Straitwatch provided me with one such opportunity, and I look forward to going back on the water with them next season!
By Anuradha Rao, a wonderful Straitwatch volunteer