Ask a Scientist: Why do we see so many human-whale incidents lately?


After whale-swim participants got hurt in Western Australia in August, another viral video shocks the whale watching industry: A bright yellow kayak being lifted out of the water by a feeding humpback whale at a popular whale-watching spot in California. The kayak was manoeuvred by two women who got out of the whale’s jaw without being seriously hurt – but probably with a trauma that will stay with them for some time.

A question I got asked is, why we recently see an apparent increase in such incidents between water users and marine life, and specifically humpback whales, and this one is not an easy one to answer. However, one theory I have addresses a general increase in water users after many people had to stay at home due to the pandemic. Here in New Zealand, according to one news, we have seen skyrocketing boat purchases, and many of those are first-time boaties. Further, people took up new hobbies and are attracted by the great outdoors. For this, they buy more equipment, wanting to spend more time in and with nature. But, by having said that, naturally, this involves lots of inexperienced folks who may not be prepared for Mother Nature’s antics.

While mountains and dense forests have a special reputation for being challenging environments, so does the ocean. And many folks do underestimate the danger that lurks in marine environments while overestimating their own skills.

Sea kayaking is a fun activity that looks easy but actually requires some decent skills. Due to this, sea kayaking tours are often guided to provide a range of experience levels with a safe trip.

When you go on such a trip, and you encounter marine life, this can be an awe-inspiring experience – if you play by the rules. This means that you have to follow local guidelines for wildlife watching. In a news article, I came across the statement that the women were only 9 m away from the feeding whale, falsely assuming this would be sufficient to be safe. This is ten times less the distance they are required to take from any whale in US waters, as by law, you must stay away at least 100 yards, which is an entire football field!

Humpback whales are incredibly active animals. When they are feeding, they are usually not aware of their surroundings. Let alone a kayak that swims on top of their meticulously herded bait ball…If we see natural behaviour such as foraging, nursing or courtship, we need to give wildlife space. Firstly, to not disturb them but also for our own sake.

So the question I was asking myself is, whether water users are aware of those regulations or whether they don’t care and take the opportunity for a potential once-in-a-lifetime animal encounter they could upload to their social media feeds. In any way, both scenarios require management and an improved mechanism, how we communicate safe wildlife encounters to the wider public and how we can achieve people becoming more wildlife-savvy. To adopt self-responsible behaviour and to make their own decisions when they’re out and about.

But this is hard work, thanks to social media. Seemingly innocent content such as back floating in a shiver of reef sharks or showing a close-up of alert seals shared by destination marketing organisations, professional and amateur photographers and tour operators show we still have a long way to go when we talk wildlife-savvy tourists. And we cannot blame folks for wanting to recreate these images because we are telling them it is okay to get close for photos.

So one step towards minimising the risk of people getting hurt is providing them with tools. Not only telling them how to behave correctly but also why this is important. And this is where we really need to step up our game.

In general, we, as researchers and managers tend to trust in people’s common sense. That one’s instincts will kick in, preventing you from getting too close to an unpredictable animal. But to say it with a comment made by one of my interviewees when I studied whale swims in Niue: ‘Common sense isn’t that common anymore’. While accidents do happen, especially in natural environments, many could be prevented.

To summarise, I think the incidents we have seen lately (also including the orca attacks in Southern Europe), highlight issues that are combinations of several factors. Yet, they may have common ground that deals with environmental education concerning how we approach wildlife for our personal enjoyment.

My mission is to continue to make people wildlife-savvy so that they can create happy memories instead of traumatic ones.