| Whale watching season is back - but how close is too close?|
|The whales, those dark airships, are back. We are entranced. It is enough to stop in the day, send our minds far – somewhere, out there, are whales. A shivering thought. The imaginary territory of the ocean can be populated with the idea of whales again, just as whale drolleries once menaced voyagers from the corners of their incomplete maps. Those pictograms seem bizarre to the modern viewer: whales with cat faces, whiskers and ears, collared and sprouting tusks. Once upon a time, there was a real possibility that whales might become mythical animals, long since driven out of the sea – and though we have a better notion of their appearance today, part of the enthrallment is their annual disappearance. |
Whales bring with them the message that there are places we have restrained ourselves from encroaching upon. In a shrinking world, we are captivated by those things that stay out of touch. Whales drag in their wake the mystery of unexplored, unseen zones; deep animal hotels in the ocean. We are eager to get closer to that, when we can.
The whales stay out on the horizon. Scanning the dazzle, you’ll need binoculars to pick out the tiny uprushes of air, as if someone had pierced the surface of the ocean with a pin. Better yet, take a chartered tour-boat. So when a whale turns and careens in our direction, when a whale comes barreling through the breakers, the thrill is that the wild faraway has chosen to draw up alongside us. We like to reflect on our smallness then, flanked by this small planet of mammal.
How close is too close? For boats and other vessels (and “vessels” includes surfboards) government regulations dictate 100 metres. 200 metres if the whale is joined by a calf. Jetskiers must stay 300 metres away, at low speed. Airspace above whales is restricted also –helicopters cannot dip closer than 400 metres. Free swimmers have the most leeway. They can drift within 30 metres of a whale, so long as multiple swimmers do not attempt to box it in. Of course, the whale may have other ideas. A whale with intent moves much faster underwater than we ever will; 30 metres is a dimension the whale can inhabit with one swift motion.
Yet when people get closer to whales, they might discover not untrammeled nature, but traces of our human world, inexorably contained within whale bodies. Today, cetacean scientists are diagnosing whales as ambassadors from our industrial world with alarming frequency.
In March this year, a sperm whale was found dead on Spain’s south coast with a stomach full of flowerpots, clothes hangers, hosepipes, bits of mattress and nearly 30 square metres of plastic greenhouse covers. Whales are turning up with heavy metal contaminants in their bloodstreams, or with diseases contracted from livestock transported over the ocean. Whale beachings – once an encounter with wild nature – now lead us to thinking about manmade byproducts mixed into the surf, and to the sonic environment our heavy shipping and naval operations have generated. We are not small. We are not quarantined from the places whales live.
How close is too close? Though whales might try to hurl us back to the land, we can’t get out of the sea.