Observe, don’t disturb the humpback whales off Pismo and Avila beaches

November 4, 2020

Public service announcement from Port San Luis

The Humpback whales are back at Port San Luis and everyone wants to be a part of the story, I mean, we all love whales, right? Their songs have made them the musical icons of the animal world and their acrobatics are an unrivaled crowd-pleaser.

They are part of a small group of species, including Orcas and Bottlenose dolphins that are the poster children for whale watching, and their celebrity status makes them seem so cool and approachable. Not so fast friends. While it is super exciting to see these huge, magnificent creatures up close there are a few things to consider before paddling out for a closer look:

1) When possible, do your best to maintain at least100 yards of distance between you and the whales – think the size of a football field. Do not attempt to feed, touch or interact with ANY marine mammals.

2) Do not chase, encircle, or leapfrog animals, and avoid approaching marine mammals when another watercraft is near. Multiple vessels are more likely to disturb marine mammals.

3) If there are already a lot of other people on the water observing whales, consider coming back later or limiting your time watching the whales to 30 minutes or less. While it may be tempting to watch these beautiful creatures for hours, it can be really distracting to the whales. The presence and sound of your vessel or paddles or even talking can actually deter them from looking for food, socializing and even breeding. In fact, noise pollution may even cause some whales to change their migration routes.

4) When you do encounter a whale, slow down and alter course so that you are parallel to the whale’s course. Never approach head-on.

5) Be wary of breaching, flipper slapping and feeding. While these are some of the largest creatures in the ocean, they eat some of the smallest creatures, which include small fish and krill. Don’t paddle through large schools of fish (usually indicated by lots of seabirds in the immediate area) because this is where whales will be lunging out of the water to catch fish in their giant mouths. If you swim, paddle-board or kayak near or in a large school of fish, you may be injured, fined, have your intellect questioned – or all three.

6) Stay clear of light green bubble patches in the water. These are sub-surface bubbles before whales rise up to feed at the surface.

7) If you see a mother whale and her calf (i.e. a big whale with a smaller whale), do not put yourself between them. In fact, I would venture to say that you should never put yourself between a mother of any species and her child. Just a word of warning. Be cautious when venturing into waters where whales are present and always look around before entering and exiting the area. If there is a pod hanging around, watch for changes in their behavior that could indicate signs of distress. If you notice a rapid change in their swimming pattern, lots of surface displays (tail slapping) or females shielding their calves with their bodies, leave the area immediately.

Remember, it is illegal to cause a marine mammal to alter their behaviors in any way. These big annual visitors are always a pleasure to see, but we must be respectful of them so we can continue to enjoy them for years to come, and also do what we can to limit the chances of an observer getting unintentionally injured by one of these gentle giants or a whale being unintentionally injured by an observer.


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