Sunday, November 2, 2014

On Miscommunication: Whale-Watching Edition

Okay, let me be totally honest with all of you. 

I had this awesome trip to Monterey planned for like, months.  I knew it would encompass a Middle Flipper day.  So I planned ahead.  I decided to write a blog in advance of when I usually do, that way I could just wake up on Sunday morning, post it, and go about my merry way.

Well, ha. ha. You know, that's not exactly how it panned out.  Thanks to an impressive collection of procrastination events, the weekly blog has been delayed as much as it possibly can be while still not technically being "Sunday" in ALL time zones of the continental U.S.

Furthermore, I planned on using Russ' laptop when he arrived for the latter part of my vacation in order to finish up a half-written blog.  He brought said computer but forgot its mouse.  This discovery in and of itself was rather hilarious, due to a classic Russ Never Hears What I'm Actually Saying experience that went something like this:

Me:  Hey, did you bring your mouse?

Russ: Yeah! Oh, I just have to get a mouse.

Me: What?

Russ:  I forgot the mouse, I have to buy a new one.

Me: (now laughing uncontrollably) What did you think I said?

But his answer was irrelevant because I was too busy guffawing outloud (I was tired, okay??) at the image of getting a mouse for a mouse, like two computer mouses (mices), oh forget it.

We have these comical exchanges all the time.  In fact, another such a dialogue occurred earlier today when we were looking at elephant seals.  There are signs everywhere that sternly say "DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS".   About halfway through our visit to this rookery, I notice these weird and FAT little squirrels who are very interested in what Russ and I are doing.  It was clear that not everyone followed the signs.

I should've known better than to have shared this thought with Russ, as he appeared to be telepathically communicating to one of the squirrels who appeared to be trying to steal his iPhone. 

Me: Ha! Something tells me that people aren't following the DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS signs. 

Russ: *laughs*  Yeah! So Cat, do you think people are feeding these guys?

Me: .... I just said that.

Russ: Oh you did? I was talking to the squirrel.

Anyways, we couldn't find a mouse for sale anywhere (long and boring story) and apparently the touch pad on Russ' laptop doesn't work.  So I am here on the floor of my hotel room with my iPad attempting to pen this entry while tethered to the wall by a painfully short charger because, you know, I didn't think to charge my iPad keyboard.

Also, you may or may not have noticed the lack of images.

GAHH IT KILLS ME.  I have tried for the past two hours to figure out how to put images on Blogger from my ipad. Alas, it doesn't work.  I really need a mouse on a normal computer.  But don't fear, good readers.  Because I know in your minds you possess the ability to conjure up images far superior to any google image search I could accomplish!! So please enjoy this text-heavy gift from me to you.

But I do this to bring you a story.  I hadn't intended on making this week's entry on this particular topic, but I think it's important.

I've been doing a lot of whale-watching.  I mean c'mon, it's Monterey.  If I had the ability to upload some of the photos I've gotten of long-beaked common dolphins, Risso's dolphins, humpback whales, California sea lions, Northern elephant seals, harbor seals and sea otters, I would, just to show you the diversity of life in this region of the country.  It's thanks to a massively deep submarine canyon that's pretty close to shore.  It's packed with nutrient-rich waters and lots of scrumptious things to eat, and thanks to its depth brings in a lot of deep-water species of marine mammals that you'd normally have to go way offshore to see with any regularity.

I chose a whale-watching company that boasts naturalists and marine biologists run their tours, which they claim is unlike the other companies in the immediate area.  This company has been featured on National Geographic.  In fact, remember that really sad Blue Planet segment when the gray whale calf is drowned by orcas?  That footage was taken with some help from this whale-watching company and the marine mammal researcher who owns it.

I'm not a total moron, I knew that going on a whale-watching boat with marine mammal scientists in Northern California meant two things:

1) They probably would not approve of my profession
2) They would probably make some reference to Blackfish

But I was surprised the first time I went out.  There was no mention of anything other than facts about the wildlife and oceanographic elements we were seeing.  It was very, very good.  And they followed the MMPA guidelines; no harassment of marine mammals.

The second time I went out was a different story.  The captain was the same guy, and so the MMPA was still followed (I'd expect that from a company with a researcher as its owner).  But the naturalist was different.  This guy was very personable and knowledgable.  For the vast majority of the trip, he too focused on sharing natural history facts about the animals we saw.  It was great.

But as we headed back in to the marina, which was about an hour's ride, the mood changed.  A big pod of long-beaked common dolphins came racing over to the boat's bow wave and wake to play, and essentially "escorted" us for a good 10 minutes or so.  As people squealed in delight as the little dolphins played around the boat, the naturalist began one of the most ridiculous diatribes I've heard even from an extreme activist

Here are some highlights:

1) When you swim with dolphins, take a good look at the face of the dolphin in front of you.  Most of his or her family and friends have been slaughtered.

2) It is well-known that the Taiji drive slaughters supply "our" (I suppose that meant the U.S.) aquariums with dolphins

3) The Japanese people are ignorant because they feed their kids mercury-laden dolphin meat and don't seem to care

4) Tillikum is now kept in a concrete tank where he is physically and acoustically isolated from the other orcas, so he can't even communicate with them

Once again, let me reiterate that it's not about my opinion on dolphins in human care, nor about this naturalist's.  We both have a right to feel the way we do about this topic.  But good lord, how about getting some basic facts straight before sharing them with audience after audience?

What upset me the most is the references to the Taiji drive-slaughter and that the dolphins people see in U.S. marine parks are from there.  It's not about me defending "my"'s about the bigger issue here: How are people going to actually make an impact in Taiji if they are focusing their attention on the wrong thing?

For example, if Joe Blow decides to vote with his almighty dollar, because he saw The Cove and by golly, he's not supporting SeaLandPlacearium because he wants those Taiji hunters to suffer in their pockets!  Guess what, that doesn't affect the slaughters one bit.  Why? Let's set aside the fact that this drive slaughter has been going on for decades primarily as a pest-control situation (you know, because the dolphins eat too much fish), but they are getting paid for the meat AND there is a market for a small group of animals mostly in Asian facilities.   None of them go to the U.S.

And furthermore, because selling the survivors of this killing to other aquariums in Asia is NOT the main reason behind the decision to do this terrible thing, it's more about getting to the root of the issue from a legislative perspective; how are the Japanese people who are outaged about this practice trying to invoke positive change? Give them the support they need, that will make a huge difference.  

Regardless of if you agree that dolphins should continue to be in U.S. marine parks and aquariums, you are not doing a single thing to help ANY drive slaughter ANYWHERE (Taiji, Faroe Islands, Soloman Islands, and countless other places that actively slaughter cetaceans whether directly or as bycatch) by boycotting facilities who have zero part in it.  That's a fact.

Back to my whale-watching frield, we are an impasse with a passionate person who cares deeply for animals and Back to my whale-watching naturalist friend, knows a ton about them, who has an incredible platform (a very popular whale-watching company with Nat Geo support) who completely blows it on the conservation message.  Yes, tell people to boycott marine parks so they feel like they're saving dolphins from having wooden rods shoved into their heads....even though they are not.  

This guy went on further to say that marine parks capitalize on the tortured lives of dolphins.  And I couldn't help but think how hypocritical that statement was...coming from someone who makes a living taking people out on a gas-guzzling boat with engines that constantly belch out sounds at 94 decibles (I checked....there's an app for that!), a level that causes hearing damage after 4 hours in HUMANS (imagine what that does to the sensitive hearing of marine mammals).  I thought about the $50 I paid to get on the boat to see humpback whales feed and dolphins swim next to those loud engines.  Do I think whale-watching is wrong?  No.  Otherwise I wouldn't support it with my dollar.  But that's the point.  It's supported by dollars.  Just like marine parks.

Of course, the animals you see on whale watching tours aren't being asked to do anything for shows, presentations, or interactions.  They are doing what they do on their own time.  But without human influence?  No way.  The 12 humpback whales I saw both times I went out were surrounded by four or five big ships, packed with people who paid their $50 to see them.  Is someone "making them jump?", of course not.  But that isn't to say that the presence of four or five loud boats zooming over and around them doesn't change the whales' behavior.  And let me be honest, there are more whale-watching boats I've been on that do NOT strictly adhere to the MMPA than do.   Case in point, I live in the mecca for marine mammal harassment in the Florida panhandle.  It's easy for a jetski rental company to tell their clients, "Yeah, see the dolphins in the WILD, because they are sad when they're in an aquarium!" and then the jetskiers spend all day chasing down pods of wild dolphins in an area that has virtually no police enforcement of the MMPA laws.

Lastly, what is the "message" we send to people when we encourage them to go whale watching instead of seeing marine mammals in marine parks?  See, I would tell people to do both.  There are pros and cons to each one.  But I can make an argument that is logical: letting people get close to wild whales and dolphins teaches them that it's okay to approach them that closely, because they're wild so it's not like we're "forcing" them to do anything.  We all know how obnoxious that statement is; I know the value of education and yes, while it'd be much better for the whales to have humans stay away and let them live in peace, I know that that's not the world we live in right now.  The point is, both sides of this argument have a lot to answer to, but they also have a lot of great things to contribute in their own ways.

Let me end with a naive question:  Why can't both sides of this issue get along?  Why do we have to sling soundbytes we hear in a "documentary" or read in some seriously slanted article at each other and at the general public in order to persuade them to join "our side"?  A little independent research and thoughtful conversation with people of differing views but lots of knowledge go a long way in accomplishing big picture goals...not completely changing opinions.  

I didn't end up talking to the naturalist about the things he'd said that were just so factually incorrect (he could just like, youtube footage on Tillikum at SeaWorld to know that his impression of where he lives is completely false).  I guess at the time I figured, this guy really has an agenda.  There is no way I'm going to get through to him without this becoming a defensive thing.  Maybe some of you out there think that wasn't the right decision; I'm still not sure.  But we can all of us, no matter what "side" we are on, continue to do our part to stick to the facts, play nice, and give all of our passion where it belongs: to the animals.


  1. Great read. It's so true that there seems to be only black and white in this type of issue. I personally am somewhere in the middle very grey area. I think both sides can have their cake and eat it too, if all things are done with the animals in mind.

  2. Good read. I agree, I probably wouldn't have said anything either, though it's so hard not to correct people's assumptions with what you know to be true. But this guy wouldn't have changed his mind if you had pulled up the video yourself and showed it to him right there. I do wish people would concern themselves with the actual welfare of the animals though, instead of just making sure their opinion is the loudest.

  3. I work for SeaWorld and had an IDENTICAL experience 2 weeks ago in Monterey. Same conversation transitions and everything. Likely the same gentleman/company/boat. So frustrating that two entities with the same end goal can't seem to function harmoniously. It was so hard to hear him say those things. He was also a volunteer at the aquarium which is a known partner of ours. I felt so betrayed by someone that I think feels the same about the earth and animals that I do.