Two years ago off the Redondo Beach Pier, dozens of paddleboarders, kayakers, jet skiers and boats closed in on a whale that had come close to shore to feed. They circled the animal, amazed, eager to get closer to the incredible beast.
One jet skier got too close. He launched his vessel off the back of the whale, ripping a two-foot tear into the startled animal.
“He kind of planed off the top of the [whale],” said Bobbie Hodges, tour guide and naturalist for the Voyager, a whale watching boat that operates from Redondo. “He was traveling at the same speed and knew where he was going to come up and put a gash…across his back and down the whale.”
Until recently, whale watchers mainly saw gray whales passing through local waters, usually far from shore. Now gray, humpback, and even blue whales are appearing closer to shore. Generally, only experienced kayakers and paddleboarders, who could safely travel four to six miles off shore, came into contact with whales. Now, due to an influx of whales and the growing popularity of standing upright paddleboarding (SUP), more and more amateur watermen are experiencing these massive creatures up close.
These amateurs are less equipped to manage encounters with whales, and the phenomenon is stirring up controversy over the safety of both the animals and the people approaching them.
“It’s a problem both of lack of awareness and a disregard for the rules,” said Eric Martin, Facility Director of the Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach. “SUP is great if it’s done right,” Martin said. “But people are not thinking. It’s just a matter of time before someone gets hurt.”
“They think that because the paddleboards or kayaks are quiet, it is the best way to approach whales,” he explained. “Dolphins have echolocation so they can sense us. It’s still a mystery how whales navigate. Baleen whales don’t have echolocation.”
In response to the proliferation of paddleboarders coming within an arm’s reach of the whales in Redondo Beach and elsewhere, the federal government issued whale watching guidelines last month specifically for stand-up paddleboarders. Federal officers and Coast Guard officials visited kayak and paddleboard rental companies in the South Bay, passing out fliers and making sure water sport enthusiasts understand the law, which prohibits coming within 100 yards of cetaceans, pursuing the animals, getting in the path of the animals, and getting between them.
Authorities said they were prompted to act because of harassment complaints, including in Redondo Beach last month in which a baby humpback whale and a pod of dolphins were surrounded by onlookers.
Sgt. John Picken of the Redondo Beach Harbor Patrol said his agency received two calls complaining of paddleboarders and others harassing whales, one on Friday, Jan. 15 and another Jan. 19.
“It was like a circus,” said boater Alex Smith. “There were 20 people on paddleboards, all these people clamoring to pursue the animal, and all these people driving boats, overly anxious to get close to the whale. Then it comes up somewhere else and people are racing over there. It’s not good for the animal….You can hurt the animal, you can hurt yourself, or you can hurt other people. It’s just not cool.”
Picken estimated there were 25 to 50 boats in the area in addition to paddleboarders and kayakers watching the baby whale and a pod of dolphins.
“When we went out there we went out there for a reason. People were complaining that other boats were getting close to it,” Picken said. “When we were out there, we saw nothing of the sort actually happening. Most people were respecting the whales. We just advised a few to stay that distance away, but there was nobody violating the [law].”
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has the ability to cite those who violate the 100-yard whale watching law. Martina Sagapolu, special agent in charge of law enforcement in the Southwest, said her agency issued citations last year but has not yet issued any this year.
Fines can go as high as $100,000 and up to a year in jail, Sagapolu said, but typical fines range from $100 to $500. Some pay the fines while others challenge them in court.
NOAA works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the California Fish & Wildlife game wardens on the water to address folks who come too close to marine life, she said.
“What we try to do is work with folks,” Sagapolu said. “We are not about going out there and slapping tickets to offenders. You always have that percentage of folks that, regardless of what it is, they know the law but for whatever reason they want to get up close. They are not understanding that their behavior causes the animal to change its natural behavior, and that’s what we don’t want.”
Sagapolu said Coast Guard and California Fish and Wildlife officials visited paddleboard rental businesses in Redondo Beach and the Beach Cities, handing out copies of the regulation and trying to get the message out “that it’s great to observe the animals, but if you are not clear what the regulations are here they are.”
In fact, many SUP shops or rental stores in the Beach Cities openly display the flyers distributed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, outlining the specific guidelines for such interactions.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the L.A. chapter of the American Cetacean Society Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, said that when Coast Guard auxiliary groups visited paddleboard rentals businesses recently with the whale-watching guidelines, one of the rental businesses had a photo on the side of its van of a paddleboarder reaching up and touching a whale fluke.
Schulman-Janiger said some paddleboarders insist that enforcing the 100-yard whale-watching guidelines isn’t necessary.
“The argument we have got is, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? We don’t have an engine. We’re just paddleboarders. We’re not bothering anyone. We love nature,’” Schulman-Janiger said.
Schulman-Janiger recommended getting in the area of the whales but not in front of the mammals.
“Very often what happens is, with boats and the Voyager, they cut the engines and a bunch of fin whales feeding often approach the boats. So just hang out there and wait. If they approach you, that’s not illegal.”
Schulman-Janiger cited two incidents that illustrate the dangers of getting too close to whales.
In September 2011 in Monterey Bay off Santa Cruz, about 50 paddleboarders, kayakers and sailboaters congregated near a feeding humpback whale named “Stinky” because of his bad breath. When the whale surfaced its tail, called a fluke, a couple kayakers were tipped over and had to be rescued, Schulman-Janiger said.
Schulman-Janiger also said she knows a ship’s captain who took whale watchers in a boat down to Baja California. One man on the boat wasn’t supposed to be there because he had a weak heart, and while they were sitting in the boat with the engine off a mother gray whale came up under the boat. She was “kinda bumping the boat. They do that, play with the boat like a rubber duckie,” Schulman-Janiger said.
One wave came up and startled the whale and her fluke came up quickly, she said. The man with the weak heart suffered a coronary and died right there. “The fluke broke a paddle, threw it in air and landed on another guy’s head,” Schulman-Janiger said.
Lei Lani Stelle, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Redlands, said that without a motor the whale does not know where the water-sport enthusiasts are.
“A lot of people are out there for the right reasons,” Stelle continued. “And whales will try to avoid contact with humans. But one wrong turn could kill somebody. It’s only a matter of time, I think, until someone gets killed and, unfortunately, the whales will get blamed for it.”
Amanda Page of Manhattan Beach, who holds a degree in marine biology for the University of Hawaii and is an avid surfer and animal rights advocate, said the onus is on the paddleboarders and boaters to know and obey the regulations if they are going to enjoy the ocean.
Page fights the urge to seek out whales on the water.
“I find myself jealous of the paddleboarders and boaters that end up having unbelievably close encounters with these magnificent creatures but I choose not to partake,” she said.
“When people are coming in hordes to see them up close in boats, kayaks, and paddleboards,” Page continued, “They are, in reality, harassing them. They are disrupting their natural behaviors and forcing them to move on before they are ready or to travel through and feed in waters that are more dangerous where they are more vulnerable. They are reducing the overall fitness of these whales.”
Not all water enthusiasts are as convinced as Page is that harm could come to the whales by encountering humans. Sarah Tiefenthaler, owner of YogAqua who brings clients out on the ocean on paddleboards to practice yoga, is much less concerned.
“I do not believe these encounters are negative in any way for the whales,” Tiefenthaler said. “There is more risk involved for the paddleboarders. When the whales breach and go back down not only can you get sucked back by the water but you can get smacked by the tail.”
“However, an experience like this is worth taking the risk,” she continued. “These are amazing, beautiful creatures who are really just as curious about us as we are about them. The interaction is harmless for the animals.”
“I have been out there many times when hundreds of dolphins would come through,” Tiefenthaler said. “They were leaping out of the water, flying past us, and underneath our boards. When this happens, I sit down on my board and simply watch in awe. I wouldn’t take back these experiences for anything.”
Gene Smith, owner of Tarsan Stand-Up Paddle Boarding in Hermosa Beach, takes a more balanced approach to the controversy. “Like anything else in life, people will do stupid stuff,” he said. “Blue whales are 200 tons. If you get hit by that, it’s like getting hit by an 18-wheeler truck. It’s not only going to hurt you. It will kill you.”
“At Tarsan, I try to inform people about the regulations,” Smith said. “I tell them that they have to stay 100 yards away and that the fine is $5,000 if they get caught. I don’t know how enforceable the regulations are. I think the rules should be targeting those people who are out actually chasing the whales.”
Informing customers can only do so much. In Tarsan last week, a man in his forties came in looking for some SUP equipment. He was bragging about being out on the water on SUPs with his two kids, chasing whales.
“Seeing whales up close is great for everybody,” Smith said. “But people do stupid things. There are guys out there with jet skis chasing whales. That kind of crap breaks my heart.”
Smith has encountered whales out on his board at least three dozen times and he has paddleboarded with upwards of 1,000 dolphins. He has had enough great experiences to not feel the urge to seek whales out.
“I have videos and photos that I have taken and Bo Bridges has taken of us with the whales,” he said. “But to be honest, my greatest encounters have been when I was out on the water, alone, without a camera. Those memories are just in my mind.”
One of those memories is from two years ago, when an abnormally cold summer kept the ocean cold enough to attract droves of blue whales to the South Bay. Smith was out on his paddleboard when he came upon a group of six or eight blue whales in the distance. The whales went back underwater. He knew they were around but had no idea how close he was to them.
“All of a sudden I could see the bright reflection of the whale’s underbelly right next to me,” Smith said.
The whale’s mighty fin brushed the side of the paddleboard as the animal turned its body to get a better look at its fellow swimmer. For a moment, Smith and the whale looked each other right in the eye.
Ed Pilolla contributed to this report.
Related: Whale breach off Redondo Harbor