JOUNCING around on a whale-watch boat off the Massachusetts coast, tired passengers suddenly forget about the morning's bumpy ride. ``Over on the left side of the boat at 9 o'clock!'' shouts naturalist Sha Hsing Min, aboard the New England Aquarium's `Voyager.'
Passengers scramble to port. Two humpback whales, a mother and calf, are spied floating several feet from the boat. Eyes focus on the mother as she sprays a cloud of water from her spout. Suddenly, the whales dive, showing their huge black and white tails.
``Ooooooooh!'' exclaim passengers enthusiastically.
It is a typical New England whale watch - a popular tourist industry since it began in the early 1970s. With fairly steady growth over the years, the industry here and in coastal regions around the US has had mixed effects on whales, say some experts. While the cruises serve as an important education and research tool, conservationists worry that boats harass the animals, particularly off the Hawaiian coast. As a result, federal guidelines have been drawn up for several whale-watching areas around the country.
The issue of the industy's effects on the whale population, however, has been controversial. Experts say those effects are difficult to measure, because species react differently to boats. But some biologists say whales undergo behavioral changes such as faster swimming, deeper dives, and faster breathing with a high degree of boat traffic. In Hawaii, experts say whale-watch boats crowd areas during calving.
``There was a problem with overzealous whale watchers,'' says John Naughton, marine biologist of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu.
According to Doug Beach of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester, Mass., whale watching has not adversely affected whales in New England, where populations steadily increased. ``Some are acclimated to the boats,'' he says, but notes, ``It's still a violation to harass an animal.''
According to federal guidelines, harassing a whale is defined as any act that ``substantially disrupts the normal behavior of an animal.'' In order to curb boat harassment, Mr. Beach helped develop federal whale-watch guidelines for coastal areas off California and New England. He says Hawaii has the strictest whale-watching guidelines because whales are more easily disturbed during calving and mating season. There, boat operators can be cited for harassment if they approach whales closer than 100 yards.
In New England, however, where whales are engaged primarily in feeding, the zone is only 100 feet. Beach adds that New England's measures are simply guidelines for boat operators. Whale harassment, however, is a violation under the Marine Animal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act and can result in fines as high as $10,000. Federal guidelines for all three regions also urge boat captains to avoid excessive speed or changes in speed when approaching a whale, Beach says.
Fishing and recreational vessels are often more of a problem than whale-watch boats, say whale experts. Whales get easily entangled in fishing gear. In addition, noisy recreational boaters speed up too close to the animals. Some will follow behind or radio whale watch boats to find the whales.
``A private boater doesn't have the experience of a [whale watch boater],''says Nina Young, marine mammal specialist of the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C. ``On any given weekend afternoon, you can end up with six, ... 20 boats around whales,'' she says.
Marine specialists are also concerned about harassment of right whales, an endangered species. About 30 percent of right whale mortality is due to collisions with boats and entanglements with fishing gear, according to Scott Kraus, New England Aquarium researcher. He says there are only about 3,000 to 4,000 of them left in the world, and 350 in the North Atlantic.
Mr. Kraus helped draft a Massachusetts bill that would protect the the habitat of right whales (believed to have been so named because early whalers considered the species the ``right one'' to catch.) The bill would restrict speed in shipping lanes and limit how close whale-watching boats could come to the whales.
Despite concerns about harassment, critics don't dispute the educational benefits of whale watching. In fact, most research is collected from commercial whale-watch boats, says Mr. Sha. In addition, the industry has educated the public about whales, which in turn has helped generate more funding for whale conservation programs, he says.