Ultra-close whale encounter is a blast, but also controversial; videos

Ultra-close whale encounter is a blast, but also controversial; videos

Outdoors

Ultra-close whale encounter is a blast, but also controversial; videos

Passenger pets a gray whale off Fort Bragg in video screen grab

Passengers aboard a Northern California whale-watching boat received a rare thrill Saturday when a gray whale appeared alongside the vessel and allowed itself to be stroked.

At one point, people at the bow became briefly engulfed with mist from the whale’s blowhole, an event that generated cheers and laughter (see videos).

The whale seemed to crave attention, a type of behavior that’s common in Baja California nursing lagoons, but rare during the mammals’ migration between Mexico and Arctic feeding grounds.

But this ultra-close encounter involving Anchor Charter Boats passengers off Fort Bragg – particularly the touching of the whale – has stirred controversy.

Expressions of awe and envy appear in comments on the Anchor Charter Boats Facebook page, but so do expressions of anger because gray whales are federally protected and any type of harassment is illegal.

“Leave the whales alone! Stay at least 300 feet away to enjoy them. Shame on you people!” one person wrote.

NOAA guidelines suggest that boaters stay at least 100 yards from whales, but they’re only guidelines. However, NOAA can impose heavy fines for harassment, which is defined as any action that alters the mammals’ behavior.

CBS News in San Francisco quoted a NOAA spokesman as saying the captain should not have allowed the petting of this whale, describing his conduct as “a prime example of what not to do when you see a whale.”

MORE: With 3,000-pound great white shark on the hook, captain radios for backup

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a gray whale researcher, told USA Today that whales are powerful and unpredictable, and that there could have been significant liability issues had this whale suddenly flung its tail fluke and injured or killed somebody.

But there does not appear to have been harassment in this case, and it’s not illegal to idle if a whale swims alongside a boat off California. This happens quite often with humpback whales, even killer whales.

Capt. Richard Thornton, who was at the helm during this rare encounter, told USA Today, “We had no bad responses from our passengers. All of them were in awe of how docile and friendly the whale was with our boat. Obviously, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the gray whale was enjoying our company as much as we were his.”

Thornton said he has spoken with NOAA and added, “You cannot harass them, but nothing we did was against the law.”

–Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Instagram

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