Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Question of Distance

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Question of Distance

Article excerpt

The weather was perfect that July day in the San Juan Islands of Washington - warm sunshine, blue skies, and water like glass. I was working as a naturalist on a whale-watch boat, describing behaviors of the orcas we were following.

The pod was resting - 19 black-and-white whales lined up side by side. I heard the muffled explosions of whale breath as the pod surfaced, breathing in sync. From this amazing resting behavior, this synchrony, I sensed an intimate and intelligent community. How wonderful it would be to follow the pod all day, just listening to them breathe; but a part of me understood we were intruding.

Ours was one of a hundred boats surrounding the pod, watching. Some were private vessels, others were filled with paying passengers - all hoping to have a magical, close encounter with a whale. Underwater, the whales' siesta was bombarded with engine noise. Suddenly, I realized their bedroom was a highway. And I asked myself if this was just another form of whaling - if to support whale watching is to perpetuate the notion that animals are only important for their commercial value and not in their own right.

I support whale watching as a means of environmental education. I want people to fall in love with whales, to remember their connection to the natural world and think about the way we all are living - changing our behavior if we find it harmful to other species. I hope people will see the whales and want to save them from such threats as chemical and noise pollution of the ocean, declines in fish stocks, and the resumption of cultural and commercial whaling.

But whale watching is a major tourist industry, with wild whales often exploited for profit, and I worry about its effect on the whales. Advertisements frequently portray the most spectacular behaviors and guarantee whale sightings. Competition between operators for the closest encounter is intense and the whales' safety is often compromised.

That July day in the San Juan Islands, the excitement of the people around me was expressed in "oohs" and "aahs" as the whales dived near the boat. …

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