Man's fascination with whales becomes moneymaker

''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.

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.

''Their gentleness and pacifism are very moving to people,'' says Ben Bennett , who wrote the ''Field Guide to the Gray Whale'' (Legacy Publishing, San Francisco). He adds that many people are fascinated with the high level of intelligence whales are believed to possess. ''There's some mystery in wondering what they're thinking about,'' he explains. ''Man's adaptation allows him to change his environment (using hands and tools to implement his intelligence), but whales can only observe their environment.'' So that the fruits of man's intelligence may be more obvious, but no less than the fruits of the whales' intelligence, he says.

By anthropomorphizing the whale in the context of man's near-devastation of whale populations, people get a more visceral feel for man's effect on the environment, Dr. Kaza says. And most whale experts explain the new interest in whales in the same way, pointing to the pacifist characteristics man attributes to the whales - like their grace and awesome size, their ability to communicate with each other from miles apart, and their instinct to nurse the young for as long as five years.

But naturalists who lead whale-watching trips warn that too much peacefulness can't be attributed to the whale. For example, the gray whale whose numbers dwindled to 3,000 in the Pacific during this century, was called the ''devilfish'' by New England whalers who came west after hunting their own sperm whale to near extinction. The term was used because of the ferocity of this baleen whale when attacked. (A baleen whale has fibrous comblike material - baleen - instead of teeth, for filtering food.)

Some environmental groups say whale-watching should be done from shore only, because the added sea-going activity may eventually change whale behavior as well as the ocean environment. And, they note, whales often come within several hundred yards of land.

But the whale-watching industry - biggest in California where it had a slow start in the mid-1970s - has largely been in the hands of those concerned with the well-being of the animals. So most boat operators abide by rules that suggest never getting closer than 100 yards to a whale, and always staying behind the whale so as not to change its course (important to the gray whales, which are usually seen during their migration which is a straight line).

Further, there is hope among the dozens of organizations that protect, research, and promote the whale that whale-watching will grow elsewhere.

''Whales are worth more alive than dead,'' bluntly states Maxine McCloskey, president and founder of the 3,000-member Whale Center in Oakland, Calif. A US delegate to the International Whaling Commission, she says Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Norway, South Africa, Sri Lanka, the Canary Islands, and Argentina all have whale populations that would support whale-watching. These countries, some with active whaling industries, have indicated an interest in developing whale-watching, she says. ''Even Japan would probably support it'' eventually, because it's profitable, she says. The Japanese are well known for their vehement opposition to and noncompliance with whaling moratoriums.

''Countries that have been whaling won't suddenly turn to whale-watching,'' Dr. Kaza admits. But the whale industry here is ''quite a model'' for other countries to follow, she says. In a survey she did of all the California ports in 1981, she found boat operators - most of whom had only been in business a year or two - were bringing in more than $2 million annually with 250,000 passengers. Though no newer data exist, she says she believes those figures to have increased substantially since then. Further, the spinoff sales of whale paraphernalia - T-shirts, posters, sculpture, whale recordings - are a big business that while leaving the whale unharmed, raise money for lobbying efforts to protect them and call attention to the mammal.

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