Written By: Marisa Price, Lead Naturalist
When we think of the Charismatic Megafauna that patrols the Salish Sea off Vancouver Island in British Columbia, mental images of the gentle giants populate the mind. No matter the species, there is no doubt that our whales are highly social animals that exhibit friendly behaviour, but why? Although there is no one definitive answer, there are some contributing factors.
We now know that whales are “friendly,” but human cetacean interactions have not always been so cordial. A dark spot in the history of humans and whales is the whaling era. Boats used to exit the harbour in pursuit of the great hunt of these giants. The response from the whale occupants of the Salish Sea was not a loving one. The Grey Whales would fight back with such ferocity that they were dubbed the “Devil Fish.” Orcas swam with all their might to escape explosives, float planes, and speed boats; but this was not a fair fight and would often lose. Tales of Humpback Whales swallowing crew members whole litter old captains’ journals from long voyages. So what changed? Our understanding and behaviour.
Now that we no longer pose a direct threat to these lovely creatures, they have no reason to be aggressive. A single diver is not large enough to harm a whale and thus, the whale feels no need to take action. Instead a feeling of curiosity takes over. While on a boat, the whales may become inquisitive and even swim alongside or around the vessel. It was not the behaviour of the whales that has changed, rather the relationship that we hold with them. Through research we have come to find that Humpbacks cannot in fact swallow humans as we are too large for their fifteen inch diameter throat. Orcas were never taught to eat humans by their mothers and therefore won’t. Grey Whales are gentle as long as they’re left to move freely and are not being bombarded by harpoons. This being said, it is still possible for a whale to react if it feels threatened, these incidents are few and far between but not impossible.
In addition to reasons listed above, humans and boats obviously don’t fit into the specific diets of whales. So as long as we respect our marine mammal neighbours, there is no threat to us. This being said, just because you could swim with whales does not mean you should. In Canada and The United States, it is illegal to purposefully swim with whales or even get too close to them on a boat.
Rather than chance a hefty fine and risk habituation of the magical animals, come out on a whale watching tour with trained professionals who can keep both you and our animals safe!
Learn more about how Orca Spirit respects whales and marine wildlife by practicing responsible ecotourism.
*PLEASE CHECK LOCAL LAWS ON MANDATORY DISTANCES TO BE MAINTAINED FROM MARINE MAMMALS AND ALWAYS RESPECT WILDLIFE*