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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Whale, hello there: Carolina Beach lifeguards accused of trying to swim with visiting humpback whale

After spotting a humpback whale over the weekend, one fisherman said Carolina Beach lifeguards tried to swim out to the whale effectively scaring it away.

Humback whales have been spotted off the coast of Carolina Beach (Port City Daily/Courtesy NOAA)
Humpback whales have been spotted off the coast of Carolina Beach (Port City Daily/Courtesy NOAA)

CAROLINA BEACH — It’s not every day that a humpback whale makes an appearance off the shores of Carolina Beach, but visitors to the island town were greeted over the weekend by just that. And, according to one visitor, soon after the whale was spotted Carolina Beach Ocean Rescue lifeguards decided they wanted an up close and personal interaction with the massive mammal.

Videos of humpback whale sightings near Pleasure Island made their rounds on social media over the weekend, with multiple individuals posting videos and photos of at least one whale.

A fisherman, who was in town for a fishing tournament, said he observed lifeguards flocking to the site and then swimming out to the whale.

“The whale sighting today was very cool until every one of the lifeguards on the ATVs decided to drive down the beach in front of the whale and then swim about 100 yards out into the ocean with the hopes of swimming with it,” the visitor wrote in an email addressed to both Mayor Joe Benson and Captain Chad Soward, Ocean Rescue director.

“[It was] Extremely poor decision making. All your resources were out in the ocean doing something borderline illegal with this humpback whale in the event someone needed assistance. They succeeded in driving it away from shore so the other visitors to your city couldn’t enjoy this rare interaction. As a visitor to your city for almost a week now I could not believe they even had the lack of common sense to attempt this,” the email concluded.

Soward, who has been out of town for two weeks, said he was unaware of what actually happened but he would be speaking with the lifeguards that were on duty over the weekend and get their side of the story.

(Editor’s note: After the publication of this article, Port City Daily was sent drone footage that appeared to confirm that the lifeguards did in fact swim out to the whale.)

Mayor Benson, an avid surfer himself said that while it might be exciting to get an up-close look at wild animals, both personal safety and that of the animals are always a concern. Humpback whales might not have the reputation that “killer whales” do, but you never know how they will react to a human in their personal space, he said.

Is it illegal?

Swimming with whales might sound like a fun time, but what about the legality of it?

In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), in an effort to protect marine mammals affected by human activities. All marine mammals, including humpback whales, were included under the act.

The act makes it illegal to ‘take’ any marine mammal without a permit. In layman’s terms, to take means a nearly any interaction, including “…to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal,” according to the MMPA.

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, “Under the 1994 Amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, harassment is statutorily defined as, any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which meets one of two definitions:

  • The act has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (known as Level A harassment)

  • The act has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild (known as Level B harassment).

If the actions of anyone, lifeguard or otherwise could be defined as harassing a whale, technically they would be in violation of the MMPA. It is worth noting that the town has not yet confirmed the incident even occurred and the lifeguards could be innocent of any wrongdoing.

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