SYDNEY // Wildlife officers in Australia are searching for a teenager who was reported to have climbed on to the back of a whale south-east of Perth. Photographs taken by a local resident show the boy swimming out to an adult southern right whale and grabbing it with his hand. Witnesses said the daredevil surfer clambered for a few seconds onto the giant mammal and rode it for a short distance off Middleton Beach in the town of Albany before casually swimming back to shore. He faces a fine of up to A$10,000 (Dh35,525) for interfering with an endangered animal and authorities warn that the stunt could have ended in tragedy.
"My initial worry was trauma to the whale and secondly this young man has put himself into a dangerous situation. It wasn't a very wise thing to do because the outcome could have been catastrophic," said Mike Shepherd, a district manager for the Western Australia's department of environment and conservation. The southern right can grow up to 18 metres long and weigh 80 tonnes. Mr Shepherd said anyone struck by a breaching whale, where it launches itself out of the water, or a thrashing tail, which is believed to be used as a show of strength or to teach the young how to play, was unlikely to survive.
Investigators believe they are close to identifying the teenager, who is thought to be either 15 or 16 years old and whose behaviour might have been influenced by watching wildlife movies. "It could be romanticised through films and the media over the years, like Whale Rider, Free Willy or even Flipper where people get close to wildlife. The type of message we are trying to get across is that they are wild animals and they need to be respected for what they are," Mr Shepherd said.
It is estimated that 25,000 southern right and humpback whales migrate along Australia's western seaboard each year to give birth in the benign waters before returning to the icy depths off Antarctica. Australia was once a prolific whaling nation, but its last hunting station at Albany, 400km from Perth, closed in 1978 after a national inquiry into the increasingly controversial trade. Today tourists flock to see the creatures on their long voyages traversing the coast and whale-watching pours millions of dollars into the Western Australian state economy.
"The majority of people really do appreciate their awe-inspiring beauty. Whales are a tourism feature of Albany, so people do understand that if the whales are harassed and they leave, the town would lose out," Mr Shepherd said. Tour operators have also been aghast at reports that a teenager had risked his life trying to ride a whale as it slumbered a short distance from a popular beach. "It is very, very careless. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone to go anywhere near a whale let alone climb on top of one. Yeah, not the smartest move," said Paul Cross, the director of Naturaliste Charters. "We see whales doing their tail slapping. They are extremely powerful. You can hear the slap from literally kilometres away."
Southern right whales are an endangered species and were once killed in the thousands for oil that was used as a fuel and industrial lubricant. It is widely thought that they were named by hunters using hand-held harpoons in small, open-boats who considered the giant beasts to be the "right" ones to catch. More than 100,000 were slaughtered in the 19th century alone, although scientists believe their numbers have been slowly recovering at a rate of about seven per cent annually.
"They come in close to the shore to have their calves. They don't migrate up into the warmer waters. They only come as far as the south-west [of Western Australia]. They have their babies, feed them up and migrate back" to Antarctica, Mr Cross said. "I haven't seen too many aggressive ones. They are very docile and love interacting with the boats, but I have seen footage where they can race around and charge [vessels] to protect their calves."
The government in Canberra has regular diplomatic tussles with Japan over its scientific whaling programme in the Southern Ocean, and Curt Jenner, a Canadian-born scientist who runs the Centre for Whale Research in Western Australia, said he believes this reflects society's deep affection for the marine creatures. "In Australia we do have a very loving concept of whales. Someone who has crawled up on the back of a whale, as dangerous and misguided as that might be, may really just have wanted to connect with that animal," Mr Jenner said from his research vessel in Fremantle, Western Australia.
Mr Jenner said looking into the eye of whale at very close quarters might be a "magical" experience, but the mammals should invariably be kept a safe distance away. "We have been in the water with whales, but wanting to get on to the back of one or to touch one is not something we have ever felt the need to do. I can't see the point in it, frankly, but I can imagine it was quite a thrill for the young fellow."