As paddlers, we love it when we encounter wildlife during our trips. Let’s face it, the majority of us probably took up paddling to get out in nature to see wildlife. We may do it from a canoe, a sea or whitewater kayak, or a stand-up paddleboard.
Even if you paddle to go fishing or to do some whitewater canoeing or kayaking, the chances of encountering wildlife exists. And if you canoe or kayak camp in the wilderness, it’s a sure bet you’ll encounter wildlife, perhaps within your campsite. Your visitors may be a small as a Townsend’s chipmunk, as crafty as a raccoon, or as large and threatening as a grizzly, and these are just land encounters.
The real magic of paddling with wildlife happens when you leave terra firma and enter a watery realm. Freshwater paddlers may have the remarkable experience of encountering those clown princes of freshwater: the river otter. You may spot elk or deer swimming across a stream or a bear trying to snag a meal of salmon. I had the pleasure on a Gilbert River paddle many years ago on Sauvie Island of coming across a beaver lodge. I could hear the kits inside. Mom and dad beaver who were outside the lodge cautiously approached my canoe, keeping a wary eye on me. The beavers could have easily attacked my canoe, so I decided to back away from their den.
Recently, a few videos have surfaced on YouTube, one featuring people in Russia feeding a polar bear that came to one of the windows at the house. The other shows a gray seal in Scotland climbing aboard two kayaks rafted together. Neither of these encounters with wildlife should be condoned, celebrated, encouraged, or undertaken.
Human interactions can be deadly, both for the animal and people. Animals that become habituated to human contact lose their fear of man. This is a recipe for disaster, one where the animal frequently comes out the loser. In the case of a habituated bear, a deadly encounter usually results in the destruction of the offending bear. But this is a paddling blog, so I’ll talk about what can happen when marine mammals encounter humans.
Most encounters with marine life don’t lead to the animal to being destroyed. The danger is more to the person involved in the encounter.
Okay, seals with their dark, disk-shaped eyes are cute, as are sea otters, and who out there paddling doesn’t want to have a whale approach within petting distance? That’s one reason why paddlers travel to Baja California and the Sea of Cortez: to get up close and personal with a gray whale.
There are videos galore on YouTube of seals and sea lions climbing aboard kayaks. However, we must remember that these animals, while cute and intelligent, are still wild creatures capable of inflicting a nasty bite or capsizing a kayak. Male Stellar sea lions, the pinnipeds you’re very likely to encounter on the Oregon coast and who are extremely territorial can weigh over 2,000 pounds. A composite and even a plastic kayak are no match should one of the bulls decide to launch itself onto your boat. Sometimes seals and sea lions may be looking to escape a predator—think great white shark—by seeking refuge on a kayak. Would you like to be in a kayak in that situation and then have your boat flip? Remember what caused the seal or sea lion in the first place to seek shelter on your boat. And, yes, there are great whites off the Oregon coast.
A close friend and I had the pleasure last fall of paddling in the Elkhorn Slough and around Monterey Bay. We went there for two reasons: to paddle with sea otters and humpback whales. There is nothing more heartwarming than to observe a mother sea otter with a furry, fuzzy youngster resting on her belly swim by within feet of your kayak. It’s tempting to hope that a sea otter might hop aboard your kayak. However, a sea otter’s jaws are capable of crushing crab and oyster shells. Imagine what it could do to a finger. Approaching too close can upset the resting, feeding, and nursing behaviors of sea otters, seriously endangering the lives of both the mother and her pup.
Humpback whales can weigh close to 40 tons. Perhaps you saw the video making the rounds on the Internet about the couple out on a kayak tour with Monterey Bay Kayaks who had a breaching humpback whale come crashing down nearly on top of them, capsizing their tandem kayak? Fortunately, they escaped serious harm because only one of the whale’s flippers caught them. The outcome could have been tragic had the full weight of the whale come down directly on top of them. This couple and Monterey Bay Kayaks were following proper distance protocols.
So what do you do should a marine mammal approach your kayak? Well first you should be following proper guidelines for maintaining a safe distance from a marine mammal. Those distances vary depending on the mammal. You can find those guidelines on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) website.
The first thing you don’t want to do is approach the animal head on, especially whales and sea otters. Paddle parallel to the animals while maintaining the recommended distance from them. Should they approach you, and they may very well—remember that all marine mammals are extremely intelligent, inquisitive animals—back away slowly. Never ever, and this bears repeating, never ever come between a mother whale and her calf.
In the case of seals, sea lions, and sea otters, don’t let the animal climb aboard your boat. Gently push it away with your paddle.
While there are no laws in Scotland (where the video of the seal climbing on board the kayak was filmed) against approaching or interacting with marine life, there are laws on the books in the United States and Canada about approaching marine mammals too closely or harassing them. The Marine Mammal Protection Act in the United States makes it a federal offense punishable up to $11,000, one year in jail, and forfeiture of your boat. Is it really worth it?
Observe the animals from a safe distance using binoculars or a spotting scope. Don’t be tempted to approach the animal to get a close-up shot of it using your cellphone’s camera. It’s best to invest in a good camera, lens, and watertight case.
You can visit the NOAA website to learn more about the laws protecting marine mammals from harassment.