Jenefer Smalley and the 12 guests aboard her whale-watching boat held their collective breath as a speeding boater came within a few metres of colliding with a humpback whale last month.
Smalley, who runs tours out of Campbell River with Wild Waterways Adventures, had raised a special flag signalling that a whale was in the area, put out an emergency call on the marine radio and got everyone aboard to wave their arms.
But the boater kept accelerating toward the humpback.
At the last moment, the humpback — later identified as three-year-old Tutu — took a sudden dive and what looked like a sure collision was narrowly avoided.
“It was disrespectful and unacceptable — and a very scary moment for all of us,” Smalley said of the June 29 incident near Quadra Island. “The boater could have easily been killed at that speed and the whale killed or maimed.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada was notified of the incident, and this weekend the boat number and driver were identified after Smalley’s social media posts about the very close call drew widespread attention. Calls to DFO about the incident were not immediately returned on Monday.
Boaters are required to stay 100 metres from humpback whales, and 200 metres if the whale is with a calf, said Smalley. Operators are also required to slow to seven knots or below when a whale flag has been raised by nearby boats.
The yellow and black whale flags show a whale tail and are hoisted by whale-watching, scientific vessels and private boaters when a whale is in the immediate area.
“I really thought this was going to be the first time I was going to see a full-on collision … it was that close,” said Smalley, who has been guiding in the area for eight years.
There was another close call this weekend with a humpback whale near Nanaimo when a high-speed racer in the annual Nanaimo Bathtub Race came within a few metres of a surfacing whale.
Port McNeill-based Marine Education and Research Society, which studies and identifies humpbacks and other species, said all boaters, including those in races, should be more aware of the presence of whales.
The society said in a social media post that others in Nanaimo were aware the whale was there. “Nanaimo is now one of the many areas on our coast where it should be anticipated that there will be humpbacks that could suddenly surface,” the society said in a statement.
“We are hopeful that this close call will lead to the awakening that vigilance and education is needed during the race, and by any boaters especially when travelling at high speed in areas of known whale density.”
Last year, 396 individual humpbacks were documented in the waters in the Salish Sea, an increase from the 293 humpbacks recorded in the same area five years ago and the highest number in a single year since record-keeping started more than two decades ago, according to the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea Project.
Smalley said humpbacks are present almost everywhere around the Salish Sea, with 20 of the whales around Quadra Island at any given time.
She said most boaters she encounters are aware and respect the rules. “We do get ignored with our flags, but I’ve never seen anyone not stop or slow down,” she said. “This was a very close call and you have to remind people how dangerous it can be.”
The Salish Sea is experiencing a humpback comeback from near extinction because of whaling, which ended on the B.C. coast 56 years ago.
The biggest threat now for humpbacks is ship strikes and entanglements in fishing and crabbing lines, as whales often drag floats and anchors for months before succumbing to exhaustion and drowning.
Ship strikes are believed to have caused at least two of the five humpback deaths discovered on the north Island and Haida Gwaii in November.
The Marine Education and Research Society is promoting the slogan “See a Blow? Go Slow!” (SeeABlowGoSlow.org)
It’s telling all vessel operators to reduce speeds to below seven knots when within 200 to 400 metres of a whale, stay clear of its path and not to approach within 200 metres.
Anyone who is involved in or witnesses a collision or other incident of concern such as entanglement or disturbance is asked to report it to the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336 (or if out of cell range, report to VHF 16).
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