Whale watching and Sei Whales

From: Dagmar Fertl (dagmar_fertl@hotmail.com)
Date: Tue Nov 07 2000 - 10:40:47 EST


I have a few questions actually. I am doing research for a family
boating activity book that includes whale watching as one of the
activities. We are looking for the dive sequence of Sei Whales.We have
done a search of the internet as well as WhaleNet. One of the links had the
sequence described fairly well but we were hoping for a picture we could
compare to other whales. I know that's pretty specific. We have also tried
these books:

The Audubon Society. Field Guide to North American Fishes,
Whales, and Dolphins. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Carwardine, Mark; Hoyt, Eric; Fordyce, R. Ewan; and Gill,
Peter. Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises, The Nature Company
Guide Series. San Francisco: Time-Life Books, 1998.

Corrigan, Patricia. The Whale Watcher’s Guide. Minnetonka,
Minnesota: Northword Press, 1999.

Leatherwood, Stephen and Reeves, Randall R. The Sierra Club
Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.

Any help with that would be wonderful! On to another question. Because
my book will be for boating families, I want to include guidelines for
approaching whales that they see. Does the US have specific guidelines
for safe whale watching? We have found some information already but no
specifics to the US. I know there is a law passed to protect each
Northern Right Whale, I think it states that no vessel can approach a
Right Whale within 500 yards. Are there specifics for other whales?

One of the books we found said this basically:

Most countries now have whale-watching guidelines to help keep both
boaters as well as whales safe. Cetaceans may feel threatened by boats
that approach to closely. To watch a whale, position your boat no closer
than 330 yards ahead and to one side of the whale and allow it to approach
you if it chooses.

If you decide to approach closer, move slowly to the side of the whale
never closer than 110 yards and move away. If other boats are also in
the area, communicate with them via radio to establish a plan to take
turns approaching.

Never separate a group of whales.

Never pursue a whale.

Avoid being in front of a whale.

When a whale shows signs of being disturbed, leave the area.

Signs of a Whale being Disturbed
Increased breathing rate
Rapid changes in direction of movement
Loud blowing underwater
Tail slapping
Tail slashing
Threatening rushes at boat

Other books we have read seem to say that tail slapping and breaching
are spectacular things to watch and never mention that it is a sign of
them being disturbed. We have seen numerous whales aboard our own boat
when we were in Alaska and never thought that they were feeling
disturbed as they breached or carried on. I am hesitant to put the
threatened information in my book when I have only found it in one
resource. I can't imagine a boater leaving the area if they see a whale
breach. Obviously threatening rushes at a boat would mean a whale was
disturbed. How do you see this information? Thank-you in advance for any
information you may have to share!

Very Sincerely,

Theresa Fort

I'll see if I can remember to address everything in your email. If I forget
something or you have further questions, feel free to write back. I think
it's a great idea to talk about whalewatching, and in particular, that you
note the potential disturbance effects. For the latter reason, I don't
recommend that people do their own whalewatching experiments, but instead do
commercial trips that have naturalists on board that are familiar with whale
behavior (I find that the layperson is usually not able to pick up on subtle
cues by the animals that they are being harrassed, and by the time the signs
you note above are noticed, the 'harm' has been done). I know it probably
seems picky, but we have to remember that these individual whales are often
bothered by more than one boat during the course of a day, week, etc.

I also would be hesitant to tell people that they can identify whales by
dive sequences. That works nicely with humpbacks and sperm whales which
typically fluke up, but not for animals like fins, seis, Bryde's, etc. As
you know, it's a combination of identifying characteristics that help
someone identify a whale to species. Very often for whales, shape and height
of the blow is used, but as you also know, weather (wind) can greatly affect
the blow height and shape. Most importantly, many people have a difficult
time telling Bryde's, fin, and sei whales apart. The distinction is in the
number of head ridges and shaping of the head. I personally recommend the
following guides:

Jefferson, T.A., S. Leatherwood, and M.A. Weber. 1993. Marine mammals of the
world. FAO Species Identification Guide. FAO, Rome.

The above is also available in CD-ROM form.

For the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, I also recommend:

Wynne, K. and M. Schwartz. 1999. Marine mammals and sea turtles of the U.S.
Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Rhode Island Sea Grant, RI.

The Wynne and Schwartz guide can be purchased on-line. There is a link via
the Minerals Management Service website. Go to environmental
information/index, GulfCet (whales/dolphins) and then to 'additional
information'. website: http://www.gomr.mms.gov

Again, I'm so very glad to see that whalewatching guidelines will be
included. I recommend contacting the National Marine Fisheries Service,
Office of Protected Resources. Your contact will be Mr. Trevor Spradlin. He
can give you all the necessary information:


Tell him I sent you to him. Trevor was quite helpful with an article
published in July 2000 issue of Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine about
dolphin watching off the Texas coast...by providing the author with
guidelines as to appropriate behavior around dolphins.

My only other line of comment on the topic is to ask whether you've
contacted the IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare). They have
reports available on the effects of whalewatching on animals, as well as
reports by Erich Hoyt detailing where globally whale-watching takes place.

I would emphasize to people that marine mammals in U.S. waters are protected
from harassment activities whether by boating, feeding, touching, swimming
with, etc. and that violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is
punishable by law.

As for breaching activities, a lot of that depends on the context. You're
right, breaching, tail slapping, etc., are behaviors that occur in social
and even feeding contexts. That's really when it helps to have someone
experienced with whale behavior to interpret the situation, which is why I
recommend commercial whale-watching...with a reputable outfit.

Let me know if you have additional questions/comments.

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