Man's fascination with whales becomes moneymaker
Half Moon Bay, Calif.
''Whale at 11 o'clock,'' yells the guide. And 70 people surge to the port side of the Oceanic Society's whale-watching boat. Bulging over the railings and squinting at the choppy mosaic of ocean blue, the hushed crowd gasps when a misty six-foot spout signals the location of a gray whale. And, as if to confirm that this disturbance really is a whale, 12 -foot-wide tail flukes clear the water momentarily, sending the crowd into louder delight and a shutter-clicking frenzy.Skip to next paragraph
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Captain Ahab would not approve.
And that, environmentalists say, is an encouraging comment on mankind, which, in industrious irony, has begun to find as much intrigue and profit in watching whales as in hunting them. Environmentalists looking beyond the commercialism of the newfound American whale craze see the idea as a model for countries as disparate as Argentina, Tonga, and Norway - those corners of the world with whale populations that have been hunted to near extinction or just ignored.
Whale appeal has grown to multimillion-dollar proportions in the United States, and as yet it has not compromised the dignity of the graceful mammals. Whale-watching along the West Coast is no amusement-park ride: The whales don't jump through hoops or offer flipper handshakes - the gray whales here simply surface for a breath of air, then disappear back into their own world.
So how do you account for the fact that more than 100 operators from San Diego to the Puget Sound are packing boats daily - at $20 a ticket and no guaranteed sitings - just to bob offshore waiting for slow-moving creatures to breathe? And what's behind the fact that sport-fishing captains cut their seasons short to cater to whale watchers? What does it mean when a book entitled ''The Oceanic Society Field Guide to the Gray Whale'' hits No. 3 on the best-seller list in the San Francisco area?
The whole nature of whale watching is based on that momentarily shared environment - the air - that both man and whale depend on. The whale - some species of which are larger than any dinosaur that walked on Earth - happens to spend more time under water. But those places where man and whale meet provide the best look at man's new fascination with the whale.
''I was amazed to see the hordes of people'' whale watching along the West Coast, says Natasha Atkins, director of the Center for Environmental Education's Whale Protection Fund in Washington, D.C. The whale has become a symbol of the ''eco-revolution,'' she says. ''The animal was basically unknown. They're not cute, not fuzzy, but are a different and good symbol of the deep, dark blue, which is also relatively unknown.''
''Whales stir people in a certain way,'' says Stephanie Kaza, a field naturalist and educator who studies whales and leads whale-watching trips. ''I've led trips in Baja (California) where people have first touched a whale, and they can't stop talking about it. It's got all the same qualities of being struck by a piece of art - everything is somehow put into perspective in the awesome universe, and the whale brought them that message.''
Dr. Kaza refers to the whale-watching expeditions in the warm, isolated lagoons off the coast of the Mexican desert. Here at the southernmost point of the gray whale's annual migration from Arctic feeding waters to the warm Mexican water, the once-endangered species of 30- to 50-foot gray whales have been friendly enough to let small boatloads of people actually pet them.
The sense of excitement even on less-active whale-watching trips off the US coast is similar. Grown men and women are reduced to childlike delight just to catch a glimpse of a whale many yards away. Even personality-plus antics of dolphins swimming nearby won't elicit the same response as a whale.