Humpback whale near misses highlight need for education: researcher

Humpback whale near misses highlight need for education: researcher

Two close encounters with humpback whales near Vancouver Island are getting a lot of attention.

One happened nearly a month ago, and the other at the bathtub races in Nanaimo this past weekend. One whale researcher says both incidents have some teachable moments.

The Nanaimo incident was captured on video, showing local Tara McDonald competing for the first time in the world-famous Nanaimo Bathtub Race as a whale surfaced on her left.

“I see him and he came up and he went down, and I knew he was going to come up right in front of me, and he came up 50 feet from me,” said McDonald shortly after finishing the race in first place in the women’s category.

“And then I just screamed and just kept driving and prayed he didn’t put his tail up in the air.”

Race organizers say they’ve checked their archives.

“We have no records anywhere of anything like this ever happening before, so it’s a first time for us,” said Greg Peacock, commodore of the Royal Nanaimo Bathtub Society.

Peacock says the Nanaimo Amateur Radio Network quickly sent out the information about the whale sighting to warn other racers.

“They all broadcast over our safety network that there’s whales on the course and that all escort boats need to be aware of that and to follow protocol and stay out of the way,” he said.

It isn’t the only close call with a humpback in our waters recently.

A series of pictures taken by the whale-watching company Wild Waterways Adventures on June 29 show a boater speeding towards a young humpback calf near Quadra Island.

“We began flagging them down. They were looking up at us but ignoring us, so then we hailed them on the radio and that didn’t work on channel 16,” said Jenefer Smalley, co-owner of Wild Waterways Adventures.

Smalley says the young whale named Tutu surfaced but dove again in the nick of time and just missed being struck.

“It was very stressful for me and the guests and it was very scary. I really did think, I’ve been guiding these waters for eight years, and yeah, I really thought I was going to see a big collision and a big accident,” she said.

The boater has since been identified and that information passed along to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

A whale researcher says both encounters are reminders that humpback whales are highly unpredictable, and their population boom means boaters need to be highly aware.

“You need people on the alert with whale warning flags,” said Jackie Hildering, a whale researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society.

“You need to educate the bathtubbers before they go out. All these efforts are needed to reduce the risk of collision again, highly motivating not just for the sake of whale safety but for boater safety. There’s already someone paralyzed on our coast as a result of hitting a humpback whale.”

The scary reality of a brush with nature highlights the need to take precautions to avoid such incidents.

The bathtub society says moving forward, it will remind racers about whale protocols before heading out on the water.

Kendall HansonKendall Hanson

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