- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

MOSS LANDING, Calif. The barnacled gray whale breaks the clear surface of the Pacific Ocean and blows a fine mist over awed tourists, each of whom has paid $35 to board the boat that slips alongside the migrating marine mammals. "The time for hunting these magnificent creatures is over," says Capt. Steph Dutton, peering across the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary at two more boats filled with tourists. "If sharing them with people like this helps, then it's worth it."
But not all whale advocates and certainly not those who hunt them approve of the increased exposure.
"The problem for whales is they're dying the death of a thousand cuts," said Charlotte de Fontaubert, Greenpeace Oceans coordinator in the District. "Global warming, depletion of fish stocks, direct taking by Japan and Norway, are all making it tough for this species. Now if whales are learning to come right up to boats, or if boats are getting too close to them, that's another very bad sign."
From Vietnam to South Africa, virtually every country that a whale swims past is cashing in with close-up boat tours, shoreline viewing, festivals and souvenirs.
Whalers say that gives their adversaries a powerful new platform.
"Anti-whaling activists often use whale-watching operations as an opportunity to impose their propaganda," said Rune Frovik, secretary of the High North Alliance that represents whalers, sealers and fishermen from Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and the Danish Faeroe Islands.
People have, of course, been admiring and hunting whales for thousands of years, from ships and shores. But whale-watching as a commercial activity didn't begin until the mid-1950s when fishermen in Southern California began charging for tours when fish weren't biting.
Now, whale advocates say surging interest in whale-watching brings both new security and new problems to the gentle giants. Just 50 years ago, whales were appreciated mostly for their high-protein flesh.
This year, approximately 10 million whale-watchers will pay more than $1 billion on tours, travel, food and hotels in 87 countries and overseas territories, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Port, Mass. That is up from about 4 million people spending about $317 million in 1991, the group said.
The world's gray whale population migrates through the nutrient-rich waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, traveling between their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and their winter breeding grounds in Baja, Mexico.
Surveys show that about 36,000 people paid to go whale-watching in the sanctuary in 2000, information that has helped Mr. Dutton convince bankers to lend him $1 million for a two-deck power catamaran holding up to 149 tourists.
The industry has helped turn around depressed Third World villages like Benito Juarez in Baja, a farming and ranching community of about 90 families who have spent the past decade taking tourists into a nearby lagoon where mother whales come to birth and raise their calves. Passengers pay about $30, and community members share earnings from ticket sales equally to revitalize their town.
The whales in this area have become so accustomed to people that they swim right up to boats and let tourists scratch their heads.
National and federal standards, as well as local codes of ethics, do provide some safety to the animals. But in many cases, curious whales approach boats and cluster around their visitors.
Some animal rights activists say teaching curious whales to trust people can be dangerous. At times they are hit by speeders; it's not clear whether such contact with humans has any long-term effect.
That said, whale appreciation prompted Mexican government officials in 2000 to halt a $150 million expansion of a salt plant.
Celebrities, many of whom have lobbied Mexico in that case, have taken up the cause for whales during the past few years. Musicians Bryan Adams, Olivia Newton-John, Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil and Yothu Yindi have recorded soundtracks for an anti-whaling film to be released this month. Actors Pierce Brosnan and Glenn Close were among those who went on high-profile whale-watching tours to draw attention to the issue. Hollywood stars Robin Williams and Kate Beckinsale, among others, have spoken out repeatedly as well.
Ron Mader, author of "Mexico: Adventures in Nature," said that while the rapidly expanding industry is rife with danger, "it's certainly safer than whaling."
Although the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in 1987 and eight species are designated as endangered, whales are still hunted in limited numbers around the globe, primarily by Japanese and Norwegian whalers.
Last month, Japanese officials mounted a campaign to resume commercial whaling, vowing to end the 15-year ban on whale hunts at an IWC meeting in Tokyo this spring.
Anti-hunting advocates hope whale-watching will galvanize the opposition, and point to studies that show the economic benefits of whale-watching outweigh those of whale-hunting.
But whalers dispute those studies and say increased tourism is no reason to keep the ban on commercial hunts.
"It is natural for many Japanese people to enjoy both watching and eating whales," said Joji Morishita, a deputy director at the Fisheries Agency of Japan. "It is like eating barbecue after a farm tour in New Zealand."
At the Japanese Embassy in Washington, First Secretary Nobuyuki Yagi said whale-watchers who see giant humpbacks or massive blues are often under the misconception that these are the same whales that are being hunted.
"They don't realize that whalers tend to seek the abundant whale species like the minke whales that swim fast and are relatively smaller," he said.
Japanese officials have distributed leaflets to promote eating whale meat, including a color brochure, "Let's cook," which provides recipes for whale tempura and whale soup. "Delicious whales; eat them properly," it says.
Japan catches about 400 whales annually under its research program. About 2,000 tons of whale meat is marketed.
Whale-watching, however, is keeping hunters away in the Philippines, said Alan White at the Coastal Resource Management Project in Cebu, where an active whale- and dolphin-watching industry has grown significantly over the past five years.
Although a large number of boats at times disrupt the normal swimming and mating patterns of the mammals, Mr. White said, whale-watching has been mostly positive because it promotes conservation.
In Mexico City, Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, director general of the Program of International Consultancy on Ecotourism, said the bottom line is this: "A live whale is worth more than a dead whale."

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