A whale-watching tour operator is recalling the moments a boater almost collided with a humpback whale in Wilby Shoals, near Quadra Island, and hopes the incident will educate others about the dangers of getting too close to marine wildlife.
It was on June 29 when Jennifer Smalley, owner of Campbell River-based Wild Waterways Adventures, was operating a boat with about a dozen passengers.
“We were whale watching,” said Smalley. “There was a person coming, and so what happens when that happens is we have a whale flag that we buy from Marine Education Research Society (MERS).”
The flags, with yellow and red and a black whale tail, are supposed to catch boaters’ attention and alert them that there’s a whale in the area. Only this time it didn’t work, according to Smalley, who says the boater failed to stop or slow down.
“So we were flagging them down. I thought this was going to be the first time I was going to witness a full-on collision. It was really scary for everyone on the boat,” she said. “We just flagged them down, hailed them on the radio.”
The incident lasted minutes and was caught on camera, and the photos were posted to the Wild Waterways Facebook page. They show the boater just feet away from the humpback in what witnesses are calling a “near miss,” says Smalley.
She says the humpback, Tutu, is three years old and could have suffered serious injuries or even death.
“The boater could have easily been critically injured or worse, and the whale could have died from the impact. Or it could have been maimed,” she said.
The Facebook post was met with a flood of reactions from the public, which Smalley is grateful for because the tips helped Wild Waterways identify the boater.
“I had three calls right away, and we instantly found the boat,” she said. “That was really incredible, the passion and love of whales out there.”
Boaters should keep at least 100 metres away from humpbacks, or 200 metres away from a mother and its calf, according to Smalley. She says boaters should slow down to seven knots or less when they spot a whale flag, then “slowly leave the area, or stop if they’re surprised by a whale right at the boat.”
She says the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is aware of the incident, and CHEK News has reached out to the department for more information.
“You should stop and turn off your engine and wait for the whale to maneuver,” said Smalley. “If you’re driving by whale watchers with whale flags, just know there are whales there and that’s why we’re there.”
Now, she’s just grateful no one was hurt following the “really intense” incident that comes amid a record number of humpbacks in the Salish Sea.
“We probably have anywhere from 20 to 40 whales from here to Comox. It’s definitely a hotspot here,” she said. “They’re here every year, and they’re here to stay.”
Marine experts are calling it the “humpback comeback,” with 396 humpbacks counted in the Georgia Strait last year alone.
“They feed on krill, those tiny little shrimp-like organisms,” Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, told CHEK News in June. “They feed on lots of different bait fish and so they seem to have enough food right now, and because of that, they’re thriving.”
But Port McNeill-based MERS says that means there’s also an increased risk of collision. “There have been many incidents of severe injury to whales and boaters due to lack of awareness about humpback behaviour,” it says.
It’s humpback awareness that Shalley’s stressing now more than ever.
“It was dangerous for everyone; the whale, the boater, us. It’s something that people really need to know about,” she added. “If you’re going to be boating in the area, people need to know that it’s not okay to not stop for whales.”
“They must stop.”
The DFO has whale-watching guidelines on its website.