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Rubbernecking Dangerously Close to Humpback Highway

Posted Nov 09 2011 5:03pm

IStock_000011188529XSmall When the U.S. Coast Guard issues a warning, it’s best to heed. As humpback whales migrate down the California coast on their way to Mexico, a pod strayed a bit too close for comfort near Santa Cruz a few days ago.

So close, in fact, that the Coast Guard told people to steer clear, broadcasting a reminder of the steep penalties for whale harassment (starting at $2,500).

Naturally, people came in droves. They crowded the animals to the point that a surfer skirted Jonah's fate. That surfer and a few kayakers were just feet away when a whale breached the surface, mouth agape, barely avoiding swallowing them whole. The video reveals kayakers, surfers, and swimmers risking their lives (and their bank accounts) to get an up-close look at the gentle giants. Experts believe the animals came closer to land than they usually do because they were following a food source.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium 's superintendent told the San Francisco Chronicle that “the sheer number of folks crowding around the whales is not only an issue for the whales themselves, but also public safety.” He worried that the gawkers might disrupt the animals as they eat and leave them sapped of enough energy to make their migratory journey.

The Coast Guard and biologists continue to tell onlookers to stay at least 100 yards away. The whales’ visit is expected to last for the next couple weeks, so if you head out in search of a sighting, allow them some room to dine. And click below for more "ocean etiquette" guidelines from the NOAA for encounters with marine life:

  • Learn about the animals before you go. Knowing their habitats and daily cycles can make your experience far more enjoyable.
  • Touching, handling, or riding marine wildlife is dangerous for you and them, and may be illegal. Some have a slimy coating that's easily rubbed off. Plus, wild animals are unpredictable: They could bite, push, or pull you under.
  • Harm can result from feeding or trying to attract marine animals with food or decoys: The sound or light could disrupt normal feeding cycles. Eating unnatural or contaminated materials may cause sickness or death. And habituating marine wildlife to humans can make them more vulnerable to being hit by watercraft.
  • Don't follow an animal trying to escape you, don't surround it, don't block it between a boat and the shore, and don't come between a mother and its offspring. Boats should operate at slow speeds, parallel to an animal, never head on, from behind, or through a group. To avoid surprise, make noise if you're in a kayak or canoe.
  • Give them space. A marine animal that appears abandoned may just be following its natural life cycle, while youngsters may be under the watchful eye of a protective parent. Call a wildlife authority instead of trying to help an injured or sick animal which is more likely to bite out of fear.
  • Avoid areas known for wildlife if you have pets with you, and keep pets on a leash. Dogs can be seen as predators, pets spread disease, and they may disturb or hurt native animals.
  • Pick up litter to save an animal's life. The most threatening materials for marine animals include plastic bags, monofilament fishing lines, and other floating debris.
  • Be a resource. Respectfully educate others if they don't seem to understand the best ways to appreciate wildlife.

--Carolyn Cotney / iStockphoto

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