Nick Carroll: They're Not Your Pets

17 Aug 2020 28 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Screenshot: YouTube/What if we fly

Screenshot: YouTube/What if we fly

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

The plague hangs in there! Part two of a series

More People in the Water, More Encounters of the Unplanned Kind

The unexpected surfing boom of 2020 has sold a lotta boards and a lotta rubber. This we know. Yet there have also been some, let’s say, equally unexpected outcomes.

One of these has been Aquatic Animal Attacks — ones not involving sharks.

In the past two weeks, three people have suffered serious injuries after approaching migratory whales off Australian beaches.

It’s semi blind luck there haven’t been more. On August 3, a right whale swam into the bay at Manly with a calf under her fluke. She was almost immediately faced with dozens of people on surfboards of various kinds, who paddled up within a few metres of the pair. Literally in her face.

Now depending on whom you’re willing to believe, there is or isn’t some serious uncertainty about white shark numbers in Australian coastal waters right now. Maybe there’s more than there were 20 years ago, maybe there isn’t.


But there’s no uncertainty about surfer numbers. And there’s totally none about whale numbers. Just the east coast humpback migration has risen from 700 back in the early 1960s to around 30,000 today.
Whales have now turned into a totally different kind of industry than the one that originally pushed those numbers down so low.

Instead of being slaughtered for spare parts to prop up the primitive pre-WW2 NSW economy, they’re part of the great modern romance of the coast. They’re used to sell real estate, tourism day trips for offshore viewing, TV shows, super expensive resort accommodation, in some cases entire towns.

Don’t get me wrong here, this species recovery is an amazing good news story. It shits on what land clearing and bushfires are doing to koalas, for instance. It is definitely many hundreds of times better than killing them.

But in the process of this modern romantic coastal tale being constructed so avidly by all concerned, the whales themselves have become romanticised in ways Herman Melville would never have recognised.

Thus if you’re a recent COVID-inspired convert to surfing, it’s totally understandable for you to think that encounters with whales, and dolphins for that matter, are part of the magical spirit world of the ocean into which you have been drawn. That now being a Water Person, you are called on to commune with your distant mammalian relatives.

I almost used to think that too, till I started doing Molokai race training offshore about 20 years ago and got a better look at what goes on in the whale shipping lanes.

The fact is that the whales are not there for our viewing pleasure. Just like white sharks or mahi-mahi or whatever, they’re wild animals with agendas of their own, which have nothing to do with us.
A big whale from a distance is an impressive sight. A big whale up close is something else altogether. It outweighs you by many tonnes, swims faster than a lot of boats can move, and truly does not care about your welfare or your desire to commune with it. In other words, it’s got the edge on ya.

Whales are also protected from human interference by very specific laws. Those laws state you can’t be on any kind of watercraft — including a surfboard — within 100 metres of a whale. If there’s a calf present, multiply that distance by three. You’re also not allowed to place yourself in the path of a moving whale, nor are you permitted to approach one from behind.

If you’re flying a drone, as the person who shot the footage of the right whale at Manly did, you can’t come within a horizontal distance of 100 metres. Just like a watercraft.

Dolphins also look pretty from the beach. Again, up close, different matter. A large dolphin outweighs you by more than 100 kg and swims faster than almost anything else in the water. They can half pop you out of the water with the shockwave when they come past at pace. Again, they’re wild animals with their own agendas, about which you have no say or involvement.

Can I just offer up some advice here. The same advice anyone who’s spent a good long time in surf zones and outside headland lines will give you.

Magical thinking has no place around wild animals.
Be wary of every creature you ever encounter in the ocean. Every single one. Not just respectful, but wary. Be as careful around dolphins and whales as you would be around a shark. If one surfaces near you, don’t move toward it — stay cool and step back. Leave it the fuck alone. Mind your own business, and it’ll mind its.

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