California

Once-in-a-lifetime video of boaters petting a whale might show a crime, experts say

A Fort Bragg, Calif., whale-watching company captured video of passengers petting a passing gray whale, but marine experts warn it’s against the law to approach whales.
A Fort Bragg, Calif., whale-watching company captured video of passengers petting a passing gray whale, but marine experts warn it’s against the law to approach whales. Facebook

A video posted to Facebook by a Fort Bragg, Calif., whale-watching company shows passengers leaning over the side of a boat to pet a passing gray whale in a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Another shows the whale blasting a man with water from its spout as other passengers laugh.

The videos, posted Friday by Anchor Charter Boats, also could be evidence of a crime, according to experts consulted by KPIX.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act requires people, and boats, to stay at least 300 feet from whales, said Steve Jones, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, telling KPIX he was “kind of appalled” by the videos. He said violations can result in fines of up to $25,000 for the company and $10,000 for tourists, along with a year in jail.

But Richard Thornton, owner of Anchor Charter Boats, told the station that he was within the law because the whale came up to his boat, not the other way around.

“We happen to be at the right place at the right time,” he told Lost Coast Outpost. “It came right up to the boat and was on it for like an hour and a half.” He said the whale was “like a dog wanting more pets.”

A spokesperson for the law enforcement arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told KPIX the agency is aware of the incident but could not comment other than to call the video “a prime example of what not to do when you see a whale.”

Gray whales, which can reach 50 feet in length and 80,000 pounds, migrate south from feeding areas off Alaska along the West Coast to breeding and calving areas off Baja California, Mexico, according to NOAA Fisheries.

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