Who You Gonna Call?

9 11 2011

Natural Bridges, photo by Meghan D. Rosen

By Meghan D. Rosen

On Halloween, an adventure-seeking Santa Cruz surfer braved wintery water temperatures and paddled a half-mile out past Seabright Beach wearing only a bikini.  But she wasn’t trying to catch a wave.  The scantily clad surfer was trawling for an intimate look at the humpback whales that had been feeding off the coast. And she was in for a treat — or maybe it was a trick: two titanic whales burst through the water’s surface mere feet from her surfboard, scattering silvery anchovies into the air.

A nearby kayaker caught the close encounter on tape, and the video surged through local media circuits.  But “surfer-swallowing whales” aren’t just big news in Santa Cruz.  On Nov. 3, Anderson Cooper aired the clip on CNN, and three days later the YouTube video had nearly 2.3 million views.

The past week has been a special thrill for whale watchers: a pod of humpbacks settled unusually close to Santa Cruz’s seashores to hunt for food.  But curious crowds weren’t flocking to the docks just to spot a fleeting fluke: they were jamming into boats and kayaks and hopping onto surfboards to move in for a closer look. Though humpbacks don’t eat people, invading the whales’ space can still be dangerous. The marine mammals are powerful and massive: they range from the size of a school bus to the size of a semi-truck.

Humpback Whale (Megatera novaeanglieae) wrapped in kelp, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. Photo by (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies NMFS Permit 1094-1836-02

Peggy Stap, director of Marine Life Studies, wants people to remember to maintain a safe distance.  “It’s exciting to see the whales so close to shore,” Stap said.  “But when they are feeding they are sometimes oblivious to their surroundings— a kayaker or boater could be hurt as the whales lunge feed at the surface.”

Humpback Whale's tangled fluke, Monterey Bay, Pacific Ocean. (c) Peggy Stap / Marine Life Studies MMHSRP Permit #932-1489

Stap’s not just worried about overeager onlookers, though. She’s worried about the whales. Her Monterey-based nonprofit organization works to protect marine mammals, and educate people about whales and dolphin conservation. In 2006, they organized California’s Whale Entanglement Team (W.E.T.), a group dedicated to helping free whales from the insidious underwater webs of fishing gear and lines.  According to Stap, 50% of whales have entanglement scars.

Before the team was established, Stap said, “If there was an entangled whale in California, there was no one to call to help.”  Now, if someone sees a trapped whale, they can contact W.E.T. at 877 SOS WHALE (877-767-9425).

Stap’s team advises snared-whale spotters to stay with the animal, but she tells people to avoid getting in the water with it. The W.E.T. team is trained to assess whether a whale actually needs help (some will ‘throw the gear’ and extricate themselves on their own) and has specialized whale-extracting tools if it does. Marine Life Studies recently received a grant to expand their W.E.T tool cache. Soon, they’ll be able to transport a trailer full of tools —Stap calls “W.E.T on Wheels” her dream— wherever there is a whale in need.

Marine Life Studies' Ocean User's Guide

Though Stap’s dream project has come true, her organization is constantly looking for ways to educate the public about marine life protection. Their most recent project, a waterproof ‘ocean users’ guide’ — Marine Mammals of Northern California — outlines little-known rules of thumb for interactions between humans and marine mammals, and is illustrated with 25 different types of whales and dolphins, along with sea lions, sea otters, and seals. The rules are based on NOAA’s regulations to protect marine mammals.

Stap hopes the guide will help people remember to keep a safe distance from marine wildlife. So far, they’ve distributed the guides to boaters, kayak guides, dive instructors, docents, and teachers.

“The law says you need to be 100 yards away from whales,” Stap said. “People need to realize that humpbacks are an endangered species.”