A photo showed people swimming with snorkels next to a whale (Photo taken from Facebook)
A conservationist said he was “disheartened” by people trying to swim alongside humpback whales as they passed the island.
Andrew Stevenson warned that this could be distressing for the creatures and that their behavior was unpredictable.
He said: “It’s very discouraging…because it’s animal abuse.
“I see they are stressed.
News broke as the government announced the Royal Bermuda Regiment Coastguard would be tasked with protecting the whales after the Department of Environment and Natural Resources was alerted to people snorkeling near the whales as they passed over the island.
Mr Stevenson said: ‘Let me be very clear, it’s not when someone has turned off the engine and the boat is sitting there and the whales are coming to the boat and the swimmers are in the boat. water, drifting towards the whales – that’s not what I’m talking about.
“I’m talking about where you have multiple boats with multiple swimmers, especially in shallow waters where the whales can’t easily dive in to get away.
“It almost feels like a competition between these people to get into the water.”
Conservationist and filmmaker Andrew Stevenson won the Sergeant’s Cup for Marine Art with his aerial photograph of a breaching humpback whale (file photo by Blaire Simmons)
Mr Stevenson was speaking after a photo was posted on his WhalesBermuda Sightings Facebook page which appeared to show people snorkeling alongside a whale.
He said it was understood there were around six boats in the area at the time.
Mr Stevenson added: ‘It’s dangerous for whales, it’s dangerous for people.’
He said his experience of commercial whale-watching operators was that they knew the guidelines, were “very good” and did not allow passengers to swim with the animals.
Mr Stevenson, who has studied whales for 16 years, has written three books and made two documentaries about them.
His film The secret life of the hunchbacks suggested that the animals used Bermuda as a rendezvous point between feeding and breeding grounds.
He said: “Whales are different – they have personalities like us and some have bad tempers.
“The calves, in particular, don’t know their size and they’re curious and then they suddenly freak out and they turn around at the last moment and that fluke comes and slices you.
“There have been accidents and there will be an accident here one day.”
Mr Stevenson, who pointed out that he no longer goes into the water to record whales but uses a drone instead, said: ‘I feel personally responsible because I have popularized whales through my films .”
He explained that although his two daughters swam with whales, it was under controlled conditions in the Dominican Republic, where the activity was well regulated.
But he said, “It’s the Wild West here.
“If Bermuda wants people to swim with whales – a big ‘if’ – then they have to develop the protocol, there have to be professionals involved who know what to do.”
He added that the open waters around the island were different conditions than in the Dominican Republic, where the boats operated in a “protected horseshoe of reef” at Silver Bank.
Mr Stevenson said “some kind of enforcement” was needed.
An advisory issued earlier this month by the government said people wishing to watch whales should familiarize themselves with guidance from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
A spokesperson said at the time: “Specifically, boaters should not approach within 100 meters or 300 feet of a whale.
“Whales sometimes approach a boat on their own.
“If this happens, put your engine in neutral and let the animals come to you.
“If a whale tries to leave the area where you are in a boat, do not chase it.
“The public is also strongly discouraged from swimming with the whales.”
The spokesperson warned: “No matter how tame, a whale could unintentionally strike a swimmer with the occasional tail or fin slap, causing serious injury or worse. These tails and fins are big and heavy.
“Also, boaters and swimmers may not intend to be intrusive, but getting too close to whales can disrupt feeding, nursing and migration behaviors.
“Boats, in particular, can cause unintended injury to a whale.”
He added that it was an offense to injure, disturb or harass a humpback or sperm whale and that offenders could face a $25,000 fine or two years in prison if convicted.
Mr Stevenson pointed out that the WhalesBermuda Sightings Facebook page was designed to help people observe mammals from shore and share information, not to help boats track whales.
A Home Office spokesman said an incident of people swimming with whales had been reported to the DENR and an investigation had been launched.
He warned that the RBR coastguard would organize additional patrols in whale watching areas as a deterrent.
The spokesman added that it was the first reported incident of the year, but that complaints – mainly about the behavior of private boats – had increased in recent years.
He warned: ‘Any reports of whale harassment will be investigated to identify boat owners and appropriate action taken.’
The government advice said signs that a whale was restless or no longer wishing to be near a vessel included regular changes of direction or speed, tail slapping or trumpeting, repeated diving and fast dives.
Harassment of whales should be reported to the Fisheries Wardens at 535-4615 or the Coast Guard Operations Center at 294-0610.
Photographs and video recordings with boat names and offender registration numbers can be sent to [email protected]