A question of distance

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The weather was perfect that July day in the San Juan Islands of Washington - warm sunshine, blue skies, and water like glass. I was working as a naturalist on a whale-watch boat, describing behaviors of the orcas we were following.

The pod was resting - 19 black-and-white whales lined up side by side. I heard the muffled explosions of whale breath as the pod surfaced, breathing in sync. From this amazing resting behavior, this synchrony, I sensed an intimate and intelligent community. How wonderful it would be to follow the pod all day, just listening to them breathe; but a part of me understood we were intruding.

Ours was one of a hundred boats surrounding the pod, watching. Some were private vessels, others were filled with paying passengers - all hoping to have a magical, close encounter with a whale. Underwater, the whales' siesta was bombarded with engine noise. Suddenly, I realized their bedroom was a highway. And I asked myself if this was just another form of whaling - if to support whale watching is to perpetuate the notion that animals are only important for their commercial value and not in their own right.

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I support whale watching as a means of environmental education. I want people to fall in love with whales, to remember their connection to the natural world and think about the way we all are living - changing our behavior if we find it harmful to other species. I hope people will see the whales and want to save them from such threats as chemical and noise pollution of the ocean, declines in fish stocks, and the resumption of cultural and commercial whaling.

But whale watching is a major tourist industry, with wild whales often exploited for profit, and I worry about its effect on the whales. Advertisements frequently portray the most spectacular behaviors and guarantee whale sightings. Competition between operators for the closest encounter is intense and the whales' safety is often compromised.

That July day in the San Juan Islands, the excitement of the people around me was expressed in "oohs" and "aahs" as the whales dived near the boat. Though we were all filled with the wonder of these majestic creatures, I was torn by anger as I watched the boats around the whales. I wanted to scream "stop!" when I saw a careless boater speeding through the area.

From that day, I began to feel we've stolen something precious from the natural world - the peace and solitude these mammals once experienced. I feared that the irresponsible behavior of a few will forever change this extraordinary experience by breaking the fragile trust between humans and whales.

I began to look for a less intrusive, more respectful way to watch whales.

Later, on a January day, I was on Olowalu Hill on Maui, coordinating a research project on the effects of boat engine sounds on humpback whales. Perched atop that 300-foot hill, I sat watching whales, holding binoculars to my face. The view was stunning - 180 degrees of deep blue ocean, lush green islands, and whales. Small whale pods dotted the ocean, giving away their location by wispy blows. I was amazed at how much of the whales' behavior was visible and audible from where I sat.

"Breach!" I called to the data collector sitting to my left as a 45-ton whale leapt out of the water. A few seconds later we heard the impact of whale on water, like distant fireworks. Attracted by the breach, a loud motor boat sped toward the pod. Over the next hour, I followed the whales with my binoculars as they swam away from the sound of the boat.

While I've chosen to continue spending time on the water with whales, I notice that now, I'm most often content to watch from the shore. And this is becoming a new way of watching whales - from a more sensitive, respectful distance.

*Leigh Calvez is a scientist and naturalist who has worked with whales and dolphins for the past eight years.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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