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Tour operator fined - too close to whales

Skipper maintains his innocence, may appeal

Posted: June 20, 2013 - 8:22pm  |  Updated: June 21, 2013 - 12:10am

JUNEAU — The owner and operator of an Alaska charter vessel was considering whether to appeal after being fined for getting too close to whales.

Administrative law judge Susan Biro last week fined Geoffrey Wilson and Alaska Yacht Charters $5,000 in connection with the July 2010 incident on the western side of Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska.

Wilson, in an interview Thursday, said he has been out to sea and unable to download the decision. He said he respects what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to do to protect whales but said the agency relied on the statements of two individuals on another boat whom he believed misinterpreted the situation. According to the decision, the two testified Wilson’s boat “essentially drove through the pod of six to eight humpback whales.”

Wilson objected to any suggestion that what happened was intentional.

“I’ve been charting in Alaska for 24 years. No one has ever complained before about my conduct around whales,” he said, adding: “We’re about as careful and considerate of the whales that anyone could possibly be. We have great concern for them.”

According to Biro’s decision, Wilson was preparing to take clients on his boat salmon fishing when a crew member spotted whales nearly 2 miles away. The clients wanted to see them. Wilson asked his crew member where she’d seen them before setting off. He eventually approached another vessel and tried to move out of its way when whales breached within 10 yards of his boat.

Biro found the incident was not intentional but deemed it reckless with regards to federal rules that prohibit coming within 100 yards of humpback whales in Alaska.

“In his haste to provide his clients with a close-up whale watching experience, he knowingly proceeded without adequate caution in the face of a known and substantial risk of approaching too close (i.e., illegally) to the humpback whales,” Biro wrote. While Wilson couldn’t see the precise location of the whales, he knew the general vicinity and, with his experience, is knowledgeable about whale behavior and regulations, she said.

The decision included text from an email from one of Wilson’s paid passengers saying Wilson had been clear that the boat was required to keep 100 yards from the whales and was “visibly shaken” by the encounter.

NOAA released a copy of the decision Thursday along with a news release, reminding whale watchers of the 100-yard rule.

“This decision is very timely because it’s the height of whale watching season,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Matthew Brown with NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement in Alaska. “Perhaps other vessel operators will be more aware of these necessary protective regulations as they strive to give their customers the best on-water experience possible.”

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