Circus atmosphere prevails as humpback whale draws enormous crowd

The allure of humpback whales can be incredible, especially when the gregarious cetaceans are lingering close to shore and easy to locate. For the past week a single humpback whale has been feeding just off Redondo Beach in Southern California, and the atmosphere has been circus-like.

Paddlers, kayakers, and boaters surround humpback whale off Redondo Beach. Top three images were captured over the weekend by Eric and Cody Martin. Bottom image, from the same area last week, is courtesy of Bernardo Alps

People have been visiting the whale on paddleboards, jet skis, kayaks, and boats of all sizes, and this type of curiosity is not good for a whale that’s simply trying to feed. Nor is it safe for people who could be killed if the whale suddenly decides to breach, or if it decides to lunge-feed, which entails powerful body thrusts.

There appears to be evidence of whale harassment, if not in these images then in some of those being passed around on Facebook. But so far NOAA has not made any arrests, having chosen instead to pass out guidelines advising people to stay at least 100 yards from the whale.
Clearly, people are not heeding the guidelines. While some of the paddlers and have merely ventured out to watch, others have hurried to wherever the whale surfaces for a breath.

It’s not illegal to be close to whales, but it is illegal to harass them in any way, or to alter their behavior.
Humpback whales feed on krill and small, schooling fish, and when they find a large food source they often remain in that area until they’ve had their fill. One cannot help but wonder whether so much human activity is altering the whale’s feeding behavior.
Naturally, marine mammal enthusiasts are fuming, and venting on Facebook. “It’s a good thing this whale isn’t lunge feeding,” one of the comments reads. “Although the Darwin Award winners have not been named and these are all candidates.”

NOAA’s Monica DeAngelis has seen many of the photos and last week said she had contacted the federal agency’s Office of Law Enforcement. But in summer-like weather over the weekend, the crowd around the whale was bigger than during last week and the only noticeable attempt to deter people from getting too close came from commercial whale-watching captains talking on loud speakers. Coast Guard and Harbor Patrol vessels have been present, at times, but did not keep people at bay.

But this is one tolerant whale. If its feeding has not been interrupted by the constant presence and buzz of people that would be remarkable.

That nobody has been hurt is equally remarkable, given that humpback whales are powerful and unpredictable wild animals that can weigh up to 40 tons. As researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger stated last week when a paddleboarder was photographed close to a fin whale, “One flip of the tail and there they go, and the headline would be ‘Whale hits man.’ ”

Many are hoping that the whale leaves before somebody gets injured, or that the weather takes a turn for the worse, preventing small vessels from accessing the whale. Rain is in the forecast for Friday, but on Monday the sun was bright and the humpback whale search continued.