IAN MARSHALL: How to safely watch whales

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Each year as the weather warms up, whale watching becomes a popular activity for thousands of residents and visitors along the Atlantic coast.  It is an important economic activity for coastal communities and gives members of the public a chance to see these giant mammals of the sea that are often far from human contact. 

However, whale watching is an activity that must be undertaken responsibly to ensure the safety of both observers and whales.

There are laws in place to help protect marine mammals and keep them from being disturbed by humans. Unfortunately, fishery officers receive reports every year of people chasing and harassing whales.

Under the Fisheries Act and the Marine Mammal Regulations, it is illegal to disturb marine mammal; disturbance is considered interference with an animal’s critical life processes like feeding, resting, breeding and caring for young. Additional protection is also provided under the Species at Risk Act for species listed as threatened or endangered like the North Atlantic Right Whale, Northern Bottlenose Whale and the Blue Whale. 

To stay within the law and keep your impact to a minimum, there are a few important guidelines to keep in mind before heading out on a whale watching adventure. When sailing into whale territory, do so cautiously and at low speeds. If seen as charging, your vessel may unintentionally kick off a dangerous chase for a whale in unfamiliar waters.

Always approach and depart whales from the side, moving parallel to the direction of the whale. Whales may also feel threatened if approached from behind or head on, where their side-facing eyes do little good.

When alongside, make gradual changes in speed and direction to allow whales more time to react and become comfortable with you as an observer. By sailing slowly and cutting the engine when you are within 200 metres, you are more likely to see a relaxed whale open to your company. 

Once whales are spotted, it is extremely important to give them plenty of space.  Sailing too close could mean injuring a whale, or inadvertently herding it into the path of other vessels.  Experienced tour operators will also be able to tell you when certain whales should be left alone.  Whales are living creatures that come to the shores to feed, mate, raise their young and socialize with each other.  Those resting on the surface, younger calves and any whales showing signs of avoidance should be left alone to swim freely. There are plenty of others to see.

The Scotian Shelf of Eastern Nova Scotia boasts a multitude of marine visitors during the summer months. Watch for Fin whales, Humpback whales, Minke whales, endangered Blue whales, Sperm whales and Sei whales.

The Bay of Fundy boasts a multitude of marine visitors during the summer months. Watch for Fin whales, Humpback whales, Minke whales, Sei whales and the endangered North Atlantic Right whales. 

Now that you have the knowledge to ensure you remain an observer instead of an intruder, do not forget to keep yourself safe too. When heading out on a whale watching tour, be sure to wear layers of warm clothing, stay hydrated, bring binoculars and make sure you are wearing a personal flotation device in case of an emergency. 

(Ian Marshall is the DFO Area Director for Southwest Nova Scotia.)

Geographic location: Nova Scotia, Bay of Fundy

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