I don’t like whales. I mean … I love them, but I really don’t like them. I am trying to remember the last time I took a class, or non sailing friends to the area around the Golden Gate Bridge where someone didn’t express a hope that they would see whales on the trip, and every time I hear it, I hear myself saying, “please, no whales.” After one close encounter, and one “oh s***, what was that?” I much prefer whales at a distance rather than up close and personal.
The last few years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of whales seen east of the Golden Gate Bridge, which depending on how you look at it may be a blessing or a curse. I love the fact that the health of the bay has improved to such a point that wildlife viewing events that were rare fifteen years ago are common place today. Sadly, anytime you mix wildlife with human activities, problems are bound to happen. Whales are an excellent example. Here are a few rules designed to help keep you and these magnificent animals safe.
- Be alert and avoid disturbing whales.
- Never approach closer than 100 yards.
- If you don’t have a choice, and find a whale has surfaced closer than 100 yards, start looking for a way to exit the area. “Let’s get closer and take a look,” is not the right choice.
- Do not maintain a course that will take you across the path of a whale. However, try to avoid erratic course changes and speed adjustments.
- DO NOT get between two whales, especially if one of them is little and the other is big!
- Do make some noise. A boat under sail is very quiet. Both close calls I had with whales happened while under sail. I personally think a whale can hear a prop turning under power, and they tend to stay a bit further away. If you see whales surfacing nearby, start the motor and get the prop turning. You might also grab a winch handle and start tapping the deck.
Something else to consider doing is advising the Coast Guard (specifically Vessel Traffic Services) that there are whales actively feeding inside the bay. Please do not notify the Coast Guard using VHF channel 16. It works, however, it will also get every dingbat in a 2 mile radius headed that way. My favorite example of this is the time someone made a whale report using channel 16. This lead a “good Samaritan” in a power boat to come to where the whales were feeding, and then proceed to spend the next hour following them around, chasing away every boater that got “too close,” and chastising everyone listening on 16 about how everyone needed to leave the whales alone. The irony of course is that he was the only one acting in a inappropriate manner. The Coast Guard eventually had to send a patrol boat to “escort” the good Samaritan away. Instead, call the report in on Channel 14, the channel used by the Vessel Traffic Services group within the Coast Guard to control large vessel and passenger vessel service on the bay. Be professional. Wait for a break in radio traffic and make the hail by saying “Vessel Traffic Services this is the sailing vessel …” When they respond, make the report, and provide as accurate a location as possible. Simply saying that there are whales in the bay doesn’t work, tell them where.
In closing, no, the whales are not watching out for you. You need to watch out for them. You are not even a speck on their “radar”. They spend their entire life diving and surfacing, and never coming up under a boat, until 0300 hours a little north of Monterrey when the boat I was on was physically lifted into the air several feet, and rotated nearly 90 degrees, by what I suspect was a whale surfacing under me. No, I have no proof, I never saw or heard anything, however, nothing else makes sense. Give these magnificent and very large animals some space, and I promise, you will enjoy your encounters every bit as much as if you are right there.