Reckless boaters, swimmers getting too close to whales
Reckless boaters and swimmers have been trying to get close to whales putting themselves and the animals in danger, according to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Now the public is being urged to follow simple whale-watching guidelines to ensure their own and the whales safety.
“It is strongly recommended that members of the public do not swim with any whales, no matter how docile they may appear,” said a spokeswoman.
“With a casual slap of their tail, or even a fin, the whale could unintentionally strike a swimmer causing injury or even worse. Those tails and fins are big and heavy.
“Boaters and swimmers may not intend to be intrusive, but getting too close to the whales can actually disrupt feeding, nursing and migrating behaviours, and boats, in particular, can cause unintended injuries to the whale.
“It is absolutely thrilling to see these magnificent animals spouting, breaching, slapping their fins and tails on the water or swimming along slowly with a calf, but they need to be treated with consideration and respect.“
To minimize the disturbance caused by whale watchers and to ensure the safety of the boating public while they watch the whales, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has developed guidelines for whale watching which are available at https://environment.bm/whale-watching-guidelines.
The spokeswoman said: “The Department asks that members of the public familiarize themselves with these guidelines prior to going whale watching.
“In particular, DENR asks that the boating public does not approach closer than 100 meters (or 300 feet) to any whale.
“Whales will sometimes approach a boat of their own accord. If this occurs, put your engine in neutral and let the animal(s) come to you. If a whale tries to leave the area where you are in a boat, do not chase after it.”
Andrew Stevenson, a conservationist with a passion for humpback whales, said that many observers had been “really well-behaved” this year when compared to previous years.
But he added: “There are exceptions to the rule and those are people who feel that the rules don’t apply to them.”
Mr Stevenson that boaters in previous years did things such as chasing whales or crowding around pods, which caused the animals much distress.
He added that better knowledge and understanding of the rules encouraged boaters to be more respectful of the whales.
Despite the change, Mr Stevenson said there were occasional rule-breakers who chased after whales and got too close.
He added that these behaviours could make the whales, who use the island as a resting spot, feel threatened and that they could respond in dangerous ways.
Mr Stevenson said: “If they feel you’re a threat they could hit you with a fin or their fluke - and just being tapped by the tip of the fluke of a whale would kill you.
“They’re massive and the ends of their pectoral fins and their flukes are covered in razor-sharp barnacles, so it’s not a question of injury, a person will be killed.“
He added: “Just observe the Government of Bermuda’s guidelines - if you do that, there will be no damage to the whales, very little disturbance to the whales and everybody will be able to enjoy it equally.
“You actually have a far better experience with the whales when you do not chase them and when you do just sit there idle - they will very often come to the boat then.”
Behaviour that indicates a whale is agitated or no longer interested in staying near a vessel may include:
• Regular changes in travelling direction or speed of swimming
• Tail slapping or trumpet blows
• Repetitive diving
• Hasty dives
• Changes in breathing patterns
• Increased time spent diving compared to time spent at the surface
• Changes in vocalisation behaviour
The spokeswoman added: “Under the Protected Species Act 2003 it is an offense to injure, disturb or harass a humpback or sperm whale. A person who commits such an offence is liable on summary conviction to a fine of $25,000 or two years imprisonment.
“If you see a boat harassing a whale please contact the Fisheries Wardens at 535-4615 or the Operation Center of the Coast Guard at 294-0610. If you have a camera please take photographs or video recordings of the harassment, including the boat name and registration number. Send that evidence to email@example.com.”
The peak weeks for humpback whales to be spotted around Bermuda are mid-March through April. They swim through Bermuda’s waters on their journey from their breeding grounds in the Caribbean to their feeding grounds on the eastern seaboard of North America, and for some as far north as Greenland and Iceland.